Skip to content

What We’re Reading: The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa

2015 May 21

What We're Reading

SagawaCoverSPDThe Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa translated by Sawako Nakayasu (Canarium Books, 2015)

Sawako Nakayasu’s wonderful translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, released earlier this year, was my first look at Sagawa’s work. Due to Sagawa’s untimely death, it is a slim volume, at 136 pages, but it’s definitive and is an excellent introduction to Sagawa’s work. Nakayasu includes an introduction to Sagawa’s life and work, and translates every poem and prose piece included in the 2010 Japanese edition of Sagawa’s Collected Works. Nakayasu’s introduction gives Sagawa’s basic biography and context for her work among her peers and cultural history. Not a complete biography, certainly, but is satisfying as an introduction to the work presented.

Chika Sagawa was born in 1911 in Yoichi, Hokkaido, which is “in the very far north of Japan, nestled between the mountains and the sea, buried in deep snow for much of the winter.” She moved to Tokyo in 1928 and was introduced to the literary community by her brother. She became an influential member of the avant garde and Modernist scene and began publishing poetry in 1930.

In 1935, Chika was diagnosed as being in the late stages of stomach cancer, and she succumbed to the disease in January 1936. Her very last publications were excerpts of diary entries from her stay in the hospital[.]

She was just 24, but her work has remained influential.

As Nakayasu tells us, Sagawa was writing in the period before World War II and shortly after “the radical art group MAVO was formed” in 1923. Forms like haiku and tanka dominate the Western view of Japanese poetry, but Sagawa’s work is not heavily formal and uses many of the avant garde impulses introduced to Japanese art by MAVO and others. Sagawa’s work is heavily image driven and often concise, a nod to the well-known forms, but happily blends urban and nature images, as in “One Other Thing:”

A thicket of asparagus

Dives into the dirty afternoon sun

Their stems cut off by glass

Blue blood streams down the window

And on the other side

Is the sound of a fern unfurling.

One of the most striking poems in the collection is “” a brief piece that sets up a surreal image before turning it on its head:

Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand.

Surprised by her plant-like skin, she looks, and eventually removes her

silk gloves.

In just two lines, Sagawa slows time and focuses the reader’s attention on a few important details: the trees, the girl, and her hand. By waiting to reveal the gloves, the reader is as surprised as the girl by the color of her hand.

Interestingly, because of Sagawa’s early death, she was unable to choose final versions for some of her poems. The Japanese editors included variations of some poems, and Nakayasu follows their lead. The “Newly Collected” section includes a poem called “Flowers Between the Fingers” that features a section that ends:

Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand, calling someone. Looking in surprise at her plant-like skin, she eventually removes her gloves.

Elsewhere in the book, the poems “Beard of Death” and “Illusory Home” both open: “A chef clutches the blue sky. Four fingerprints are left.” Are these new poems or simply different drafts of the same work? Which was written first? Does it matter? By including these variations, Nakayasu gives us a glimpse at Sagawa’s process.

Anyone interested in Japanese poetry would do well to add The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa to his or her library. Nakayasu’s translations are sensitive and confident and her introduction serves its purpose well. I’m curious to see if more translations and more criticism of Sagawa’s life and work come out now that this fantastic collection brings her to a wider audience.

What are your favorite collections of translated poems?