Saturday, November 01, 2008


Pollen of endless pines

I first read, and read about, poet Takamura Kōtarō (1883-1956) in Sam Hamill's book Bashō's Ghost, Hamill's account of living and traveling in Japan in 1988, shortly after the book came out in 1989. Hamill quotes just one of Kōtarō's poems, and a few lines from a couple of others, but even that brief sample was like nothing I'd read anywhere before. In the bibilography at the end of Bashō's Ghost Hamill lists a couple of books of translations of Kōtarō's poems, which I've never tracked down; the only other work I've seen by Kōtarō since then has been a few poems in a couple of anthologies. Until now.

The Chieko Poems by Takamura Kōtarō, translated by John G. Peters (Green Integer Press, 2007), brings together in a single collection the poems that form the heart of Kōtarō's work: the many poems he wrote over the course of his life to Nagamuna Chieko, the artist and feminist who was his wife. Kōtarō and Chieko had strong ideas about marriage based on love (rather than traditional arranged marriages), and the equality of men and women (sharing housework, and Chieko kept her own art studio), in the fairly conservative time and place they lived when they were married in 1914. They appear to have made a happy life together, if often in relative poverty.

Look, a July night moon
sick with fever in a poplar forest.
The faint floating fragrance of cyclamen
sobs on your silent lips.
Woods, roads, grasses, distant streets
writhe in senseless sorrow,
heaving faint white sighs.
A young couple holding hands and walking side by side
tread on black earth.
An invisible demon drains sweet sake.
The echo of the last train rumbling on earth
resembles the mocking of human fate.
(From the poem "Heart of a Night," in The Chieko Poems, from which all the quoted passages here are taken. Most of the poems in the collection have dates noted for them; this one is from 1912.)

Kōtarō started out writing traditional Japanese haiku and tanka, though he became dissatisfied, feeling that he wanted to write poems that were closer to direct speech in their diction and flow. Kotaro was a sculptor as well as a poet, and in 1906 he traveled to study sculpture in New York, London and Paris, and the experience strongly influenced the direction of his life. He often made a living (or a little bit of a living) selling translations of European literary works. He began writing free verse poetry, one of the first Japanese poets of major reputation to do so.

Chieko provided consummate help to Kōtarō in his work; he apparently showed his poems to her constantly, and found her attention to them invaluable. "In Chieko," Sam Hamill writes of Kōtarō in Bashō's Ghost, "he found Nature, he found, he believed, his oracle."

You will open your black eyes, my love,
stretch out your arms like a child,
rejoice in the morning light,
and smile at the small birds' voices.
Thinking like this,
an unbearable force moves me.
I beat my white blanket
and sing a hymn to love.
When it's winter morning
my heart stirs joyfully,
shouts aloud
and thinks of a clean strong life.
Invisible gold dust drifts
in a blue-amber sky.
(From the poem "A Winter Morning Awakens," from 1912.)

I love how in his poems Kōtarō pulls every kind of element in, whatever image or observation holds his attention, one line to the next, so that many of his poems build into constellations of astonishing moments of elevated life. His poems work the way thought and the senses do. From the poem "Same Life Same Kind" (from 1928):

--A praying mantis sharpens its sickles on the clothes line.
--A fly-catching spider does a triple jump.
--A hanging towel plays on its own.
--A parcel falls with a crash.
--A clock naps.
--An iron kettle also naps.
--A rose mallow lolls like a tongue.
--A small earthquake shakes.
Accompanied by cicadas,
above this group of same life same kind,
a great orb of fire shines down
brilliant and headlong over the meridian.
In the early 1930's, Chieko began to develop signs of schizophrenia. She attempted suicide in 1932, and her condition continued to worsen over the next several years; she often became violent toward Kōtarō and their neighbors. Kōtarō tried to care for Chieko as best he could, but ultimately was unable to adequately, and he had her committed to a hospital, where she remained until she died, of tuberculosis, in 1938. The poems of the later half of Kōtarō's life are filled with the sorrow and heartbreak, and occasional transcendence, he experienced following Chieko's long illness and death.

Chieko, mad, no longer speaks,
only exchanges signs with plovers and blue-winged magpies.
Along the range of hilly windbreaks
the pollen of endless pines flows yellow,
and Kujūkuri Beach grows hazy in the clear windy sky.
Chieko's yukata appears and disappears among the pines.
Truffles grow in the white sand.
Gathering them
I follow in Chieko's wake.
(From the poem "Chieko Riding the Wind," from 1935. And from the poem "Chieko Playing Among the Plovers," from 1937):
On abandoned Kujūkuri Beach
Chieko plays in the sand.
Countless friends call her name
chii, chii, chii, chii, chii--
Leaving little footprints in the sand
the plovers draw near her.
Chieko, who always talks to herself,
raises both hands and talks back
chii chii chii--
The plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Gathering in flight, the plovers call to her
chii, chii, chii, chii, chii--
She has given up the business of being human
and already gone beyond the natural world.
Chieko herself seems to have had lucid moments, during her illness, when she understood something of what was happening to her. Kōtarō's poems to her, about her, are acts of an unrelenting search for sense and humanity in a world, small and large, slipping toward the brink of losing itself. From the poem "Two of the Foothills" (1938):

My half-mad wife smooths then sits on the grass,
leaning heavily on my arm,
and weeping like a little girl who can't stop:
--"Soon I'll fall apart."
Demonic fate assaults sanity and steals her away,
an inescapable parting of her soul.
That irresistible premonition:
--"Soon I'll fall apart."
The mountain wind cools my hands bathed in tears.
I say nothing and gaze at the figure of my wife
as she clings to me
looking back for the last time from the brink of sanity.
In the years following Chieko's death, Kōtarō's views on culture and politics became narrower and more reactionary. During the Second World War he wrote terrible nationalistic poetry in support of the war effort; after the war ended he was strongly condemed in Japan for having so fervently supported it. He lived the last years of his life in a small house in the countryside; the house has been preserved as a historical site in Japan, and there is a small museum nearby devoted to Takamura Kōtarō and his work.

You longed so for a lemon
on your sad, white, bright deathbed.
Your pretty teeth crunched
the lemon you took from my hands.
An aroma the color of topaz arose.
Those few drops from heaven
suddenly brought back your mind.
Your blue-bright eyes smiled dimly. [...]
[...]All of life's love
leaned into an instant,
and then once

as you did long ago on a mountaintop,
you drew a deep breath,
and your engine stopped.
Today in the shadow of cherry blossoms
before your photograph
I place a cool, bright lemon.
(From the poem "Lemon Dirge," from 1939, not long after Chieko's death. In a footnote, translator Peters notes that Chieko's eyes were brown, not blue, but that Kōtarō says blue here as a metaphor for their clarity at that moment.)

Translator John G. Peters includes an informative introduction, sketching Kōtarō's life and overall work, and gives footnotes to a few of the poems. The book includes the original Japanese side by side with the English translations.

Sam Hamill's book Bashō's Ghost was published in 1989 by Broken Moon Press, and appears to be out of print, though if I'm mistaken about this please feel free to correct me.

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