(review on Australia’s ABC Radio national program “The Book Show” Presented by
You’ve heard of the slow food movement, but perhaps there should be a slow-reading movement too. Some books are meant to be read slowly, and this is what Matt Crosby found when he was reading the collection of poetry by Miyazawa Kenji.
Matt Crosby is an actor who’s performed in Japan in the famous Kibuki Theatre tradition. He was recently in a performance over there that drew on the work of Miyazawa Kenji — a popular Japanese poet whose work is taught in schools.
So Matt settled himself under a metaphorical tree to consider and reflect on a new English edition of Miyazawa Kenji’s poetry.
Matt Crosby: Ever read an anthology of poetry cover to cover? Ever wanted to know something about Japanese culture but were afraid to ask? Do you want to immerse yourself in nature, discover a periodic table of words to describe colour, delve into the mystical world of Buddhism? Do you like a challenge? Then have I got a book for you!
Miyazawa Kenji, Selections translated and edited by Hiroaki Sato and published by University of California Press is a book that’s nice to hold — it needs to be, this is no page turner.
Miyazawa Kenji is one of the greats of contemporary Japanese literature. He was born in 1896 and died age 37. In his lifetime he published just one anthology of poetry, but since then, many editions of complete works have been published in Japan; the latest, from 1995 to 2004, is a 16-volume, 18-book set collated by Chikuma Shobo. Miyazawa has been named a saint, championed by the Green movement, sanctified by Buddhists, used as a symbol for correct living by the pre-World War II Japanese militarist regime and inspired a generation of alternative poets and writers.
After reading the informative sixty pages of foreword by Geoffrey O’Brien and introduction by Sato, I was ready for my first poem sans commentary: here is a poet that sets out the terms of perception before the perceptions. In the first poem entitled ‘Proem’ Miyazawa compares the phenomenon of self to an alternating-current lamp:
In the twenty-two months, which I perceive
lie in the direction of the past
I have linked these pieces on paper with mineral ink
(they flicker with me,
everyone feels them simultaneously)
each a chain of shadow and light,
mental sketches as they are,
which have been kept until now.
About these, the man, the Galaxy, Asura, or the sea urchin,
eating cosmic dust, breathing air or saltwater,,
may each think up a fresh ontology,
but any one of them too will be no more than a scene in the mind.
He goes on to ponder whether in eras to come, some ascendant species – he calls them, ‘fresh bachelors of arts’ will look back on this time and because their perception of phenomena will be different to ours, find only ‘the enormous footprints of an invisible mankind’.
Take this book with you, as I did to the park; look up at the sky, hear the birds, listen to the wind… then read a Miyazawa poem such as this from ‘From under a poplar’:
Grasses around me
utterly feel like birds in their sleepiness and softness.
In daytime soft buds of ferns
and primula must have been abloom.
To the left of my path, surrounded by chestnut trees,
in a bismuth-hued shadow,
a huge lock-shaped house stands black.
The bell must hang on the chest of a horse asleep
and tremble with its breathing.
Probably the horse, his legs folded,
is sleeping fragrantly on a bed of grass.
Miyazawa grew up in a merchant’s family, studied agriculture, taught agriculture then eschewed the worldly to become his socialist-influenced definition of the utopian farmer: to the peasant farmers he managed only the appearance of a dilettante. However, without payment, he delivered over two thousand soil and fertilizer reports to these local farmers and worked tirelessly to improve soil quality and farming technique in his native Iwate prefecture of Northern Japan.
Miyazawa channels nature. Translator Hiroaki Sato tells us his graduation paper was on the subject of geology, pedology and fertilizers and ‘the value of inorganic elements in the humus for plants’. This scientific background made the description of sky as blue, clouds as grey or grass as green — insufficient; it’s his understanding of nature developing from a complex web of chemistry that lends such a strange specificity to Miyazawa’s description.
Stumbling as I went, with trips to the dictionary to find chemical descriptions of colour ‘chalcedonous clouds’ — (means like quartz), or to the Web for pictures of miscanthus and timothy grasses, fossils and Buddhist treatise; at base, Miyazawa is a spiritual scientist, a Buddhist-naturalist wandering real and mythic mountain-scapes, transforming natural features into words; as I stumble through poem after poem, I gain insight.
Editor and translator Hiroaki Sato occasionally gives us an alternative translation to his own — mostly from Pulitzer prize winning poet Gary Snyder. It’s good to read how different the interpretation can be and reminds of Miyzawa’s own struggle with notions of perception and subjectivity.
The death of Miyazawa’s sister Toshiko looms large in the collection and I sense a maturing of his relationship to nature, as if the spirit of his sister invades the natural elements; it seems from this time, Miyazawa’s description of nature causes him personal pain. This from ‘Okhotsk’ Elegy
Desolate grass ears, the haze of light
The verdigris extends serenely to the horizon
And from the seam of clouds, a variegated structure
A slice of heaven’s blue.
My chest retains the strong stab.
Those two kinds of blue
Are both the properties that Toshiko had.
The detail of translator Sato’s introduction, and the poetry being arranged in chronological order, provides a really interesting personal insight. Through the book, we can track experiences that deepen Miyazawa’s connection to his beloved nature. In 1929 he suffered a serious lung infection and in 1933, he died from tuberculosis. The poetry of this (maybe delirious) time brings urgent inspirations, as if Miyazawa becomes nature, and these are my favourite poems.
Ideally, as keen readers of world literature, we would devote the years necessary to read a poet of Miyazawa’s stature in his native tongue. At times, these translations stick in your mouth, such as… ‘the birds are crying glitteringly’… But it would be an unfair criticism of one who, with skill and inspiration has worked so assiduously to bring these poems to an English speaking audience. In places, Sato has provided some indication of metre and rhythm, but generally translates for meaning; and so we miss some of the reported beauty of the sound and rhythm of the poetry in Japanese, but be grateful that Hiroaki Sato has provided such a focused and immersive collection for us to enjoy. Miyazawa Kenji, Selections is a book to be savoured… to be packed in the solitary picnic basket. Do yourself a favour; use these translations of nature to take time out, to contemplate, to re-attenuate your appreciation and your place within the natural world.
Title: Miyazawa Kenji, Selections
Author: Miyazawa Kenji – translated by Hiroaki Sato
Publisher: University of California Press, 2007