Category: Max Cohen

REVIEW: The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, translated by Sawako Nakayasu

by Max Cohen

  1. It’s a very strange thing that this book exists at all.
  2. Before the release of this collection (translated by Sawako Nakayasu, from Canarium Books), Chika Sagawa’s work was only available to English-readers in bits and pieces, most notably via a profile in Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology (edited and translated by Hiroaki Sato) and in Nakayasu’s own experimental book of “anti-translations”, Mouth Eats Color. Both of these books were released in the past 8 years.
  3. Can you imagine? 70 years between the death of the author and the first English translations of her work.
  4. In spite of Japan’s rich history of surrealist and avant-garde poetics, there’s still very little that ever gets translated into English, and, it sometimes seems, very little interest in rectifying that.
  5. Scholar John Solt has made the suggestion that this is due to the globalized, westward facing nature of the Japanese avant-garde; that, essentially, such poetry doesn’t feel as purely, authentically “Japanese” as more traditional forms like haikai or tanka.
  6. I suspect there’s also an odd cultural imperialism involved: since most surrealist movements (dadaism, futurism, cubism, etc) originated in the west and were then imported to Japan (such an odd thing, importing culture), the Japanese work is considered somewhat inessential, a curious side-story to the main event in Europe.
  7. In this history, Chika Sagawa herself holds a strange and often overlooked place.
  8. She’s been called (in this book specifically) “Japan’s first female modernist poet.” She was writing in a time when European artistic movements were really gaining traction in Japan, with many works being translated for the first time (some by Sagawa herself).
  9. But Sagawa’s modernism looks almost nothing like what we would consider it to be in the west. It’s not a simple emulation of Pound or Eliot; it’s the result of a process of adapting its central concepts to a separate and distinct poetic culture.
  10. Japanese modernism is as uniquely Japanese as haikai, and this collection is evidence of that: the more I read it, the more I am struck with the realization that I have never read anything like it.
  11. Sagawa’s poems feel more drawn than written. There’s a stillness to them; they progress, but not in a narrative sense. It’s more like staring at a painting and slowly absorbing each individual detail as it catches your attention.
  12. “Flower” in its entirety: “Dreams are severed fruit/Auburn pears have fallen in the field/Parsley blooms in the field/Sometimes the leghorn appears to have six toes/I crack an egg and the moon comes out.”
  13. The picture is still, but your eyes get wider.
  14. From “Had they been the eyes of fish”: “I believe that the work of a painter is very similar to that of a poet. I know this because looking at paintings wears me out.”
  15. Which isn’t to say her work is placid.
  16. In fact, her imagery can be almost violently energetic.
  17. From “Black Air”: “In the distance, dusk cuts the tongue of the sun./Underwater, the cities of the sky quit their laughing./All shadows drop from the trees and gang up on me.”
  18. The images don’t lie back and wait to be seen. They act out, loudly, each one drowning out what came before, until they combine into one wild chorus.
  19. It’s almost anarchic; they refuse to behave the way we expect them to.
  20. The images are always either reacting to each other, or instigating response.
  21. This lends to the wild surrealism that makes Sagawa’s work so vivid. Because each acting image usually gets its own line (and nothing more), there’s a jagged momentum in the jumps between them.
  22. Before you can come to grips with one, you’re looking at something else completely
  23. These compositional jags are reminiscent of saccades, the rapid eye movements that occur when one reads.
  24. Rather than absorbing text linearly, eyes jump about from different points of interest while reading, constructing the whole in bits.
  25. This subconscious movement becomes an interpretive act when looking at a Sagawa Chika poem.
  26. Her language is so striking that your mind can’t help but disperse. The lack of connection allows the pieces to create their own pulls, as your mind is stretched between them.
  27. “A chef clutches the blue sky. Four fingerprints are left,/— Gradually a chicken bleeds.”
  28. I often find myself staring at her work for long periods of time, taking in new thoughts piece by piece.
  29. Sagawa’s poems tend to be dense reads, but not difficult ones, per se. The act of staring at one for awhile is curiously satisfying. There’s always something to receive.
  30. It’s a testament to Sawako Nakayasu’s skillful translation that such dense lines aren’t just understandable, but lucid and elegantly rendered.
  31. As a comparison, here’s a line from “Insects”, as rendered by Hiroaki Sato in the anthology: “Turning its pulchritudinous costume inside out, the night of the metropolis slept like a woman.”
  32. The information density in that line is typical Sagawa, who, in a Proustian sort of way, always makes sure to completely finish an image before moving on, regardless of how complex it may be.
  33. It’s also, in this translation, really awkward. Awkward to the point of obscuring what’s actually being said.
  34. Given the basic units, how does one make all that information any more streamlined without losing its surreal tenor?
  35. Here’s the same line, rendered by Nakayasu: “Turning over its exquisite costume, the urban night slept like a woman.”
  36. No information is lost here; it just feels more natural, more at home in its new language.
  37. Nakayasu, a talented poet in her own right, manages this sort of incredible trick through the whole book. No matter how complex Sagawa’s language gets, the dream logic is never shattered.
  38. Back to “Black Air”: There’s another thorough-line in the book, one of personal annihilation.
  39. Many poems, especially early on, have a last line that acts as a sort of personal reaction to previous observation, and many of those last lines show the dissolution of the speaker.
  40. For example:
  41. “At any rate, the colors slowly fade each time I cry.”
  42. “My vision is about to come to a halt.”
  43. “I lose countless images to that other side.”
  44. “The things I’ve lost are never to return.”
  45. “A crowd of death lays stagnant.”
  46. “Death strips my shell.”
  47. “Please cover me with dirt every year”
  48. (that last one’s actually a title, but still)
  49. There’s a temptation to feel like these notions are prescient, what with Sagawa’s early death, at only 25, from stomach cancer.
  50. (The funereal book jacket, all black and white fields, does little to dispel this instinct)
  51. So it’s surprising, then, that the book never feels bleak. The death here is not the desperate, dark fire of Plath or the sad, sweeping desolation of Shelley.
  52. Death here isn’t really emotional or dramatic at all; it’s very matter of fact. It is observed, rather than felt.
  53. “All day/I hear the fallen, trampled leaves groaning./Such is the afternoon of life/It reports time that has already passed.”
  54. When emotional states are made dramatic, they detach themselves from the author to interact with the world directly. Sagawa remains an observer, even to her own feelings.
  55. “Deception and ruin, resembling fallen leaves, will soon block the road”
  56. “At that point my emotions dance about the city/Until they have driven out the grief.”
  57. Or maybe separation is less distinct than that?
  58. The image is an emotional actor. The emotional acts are observed like images.
  59. Who is Sagawa in this environment?
  60. Well, it’s entirely possible that she is the environment.
  61. There’s a sense of the whole bizarre world conforming itself to Sagawa’s emotional state.
  62. Which is true of many poets and of, y’know, perspective in general, but Sagawa’s great trick is that she still manages to seem peripheral, faded into the background. She convinces you that this is simply how things are.
  63. As in, the logical result of a horse going mad is to eat blue food.
  64. Or maybe it’s the other way around: in dissolving the self, its contents are allowed to disperse and color the environment.
  65. It’s a place that’s difficult to describe without simply quoting her wholesale. So I will.
  66. “A cloud has collapsed on the pavement/Like the horse’s white struggle for air”
  67. “Day falls into the leaves like sparkling fish”
  68. “As always, stars are abloom at the ranch/The swarming of which cows eat in the shape of an arch”
  69. “As always.” Like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
  70. And, in Sagawa’s world, it is.

Canarium Books: $8.

Max Cohen is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Proposal, Ninth Letter, and the Columbia Poetry Review. He like haiku just fine but wishes there were more people translating modern Japanese poetry.