Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako. (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Jeffrey Angles.) University of California Press. 176 pp., $19.95.
This book is a welcome and necessary addition to an understanding of contemporary Japanese poetry, as Tada Chimako (1930–2003) was one of the most important modern poets from that nation. Though a selected volume of her work was published in 1990, and Jeffrey Angles translated an individual collection, From a Woman of a Distant Land, just last year, this additional volume seems long overdue.
Chimako was born in Tokyo in 1930 and raised there but was removed by her parents to Shiga Prefecture during the Japanese military buildup. Although, according to Angle’s introduction, this had the benefit of allowing her to escape the devastation of the war and the resulting “loss, trauma, and nihilism [that] became the base” for much of her contemporaries’ subsequent writing, it also had the effect of removing her from the literary and intellectual center of Japan. However, this may actually have been a benefit rather than a detriment, as it enabled her to develop a unique perspective on her art. She had, in her youth, developed an interest in mythology by reading the classics of Japan, Greece, and China, and her worldly identity continued to be shaped through her visits to the Mediterranean and other Western locations, as well as by her French studies and subsequent translations of such French poets as Marguerite Yourcenar, Antonin Artaud, and Saint-John Perse.
In Japan, there are three recognized genres of poetry. Writes Angle, “Even today, poets are identified . . . as either shijin (poets who work in shi , or what some Western scholars have called “the international style”), kajin (poets of tanka), or haijin (poets of haiku). There is no single word for a poet who works in all three genres.” Chimako, due to her background, wrote primarily in the long verse form of shi. But her interest in mythology permitted her to be one of those relatively few Japanese poets who could cross genre lines. She published a collection of tanka, A Spray of Water, in 1975 and used the tanka structure to form her longer shi lines. She also wrote prose poetry. Examples of all of these forms are found within the pages of Forest of Eyes.
Her first collection, Fireworks, was published in 1956. It contains poems reflective of both her Japanese and her Occidental themes. “Ancient Love” captures the latter:
The youth played his oboe
Melos unrolled her flaxen curls
And melted her long gaze
Becoming a delicate ripple
whereas “Wind” captures the feel of Japanese aesthetics without the form:
In the midst of the crowd
The wind blows through me
I am a pipe
And soon will be a sound
Is it accidental that the first line captures the imagist echo of Pound’s “In a Station in the Metro”?
The Gladiator’s Arena was published in 1960. The first appearance of both the prose poem and of surrealism appears here—in the same poem, “From a Woman of a Distant Land.” Written in eleven parts, the first opens with “In this country, we do not bury our dead. We enclose them like dolls in glass cases and decorate our houses with them.” This is an astonishing poem, given that one of the dominant Japanese religions is Shinto, in which ancestor worship plays a vital role.
Chimako next publication, Universe of the Rose, was in 1964. By this time, she had become more comfortable with surrealism. This is evidenced in the opening lines of “Dead Sun,” where
Spilling twinkling droplets of light
The child crawls upward
Into a world still free of furrows
The title poem is an absolutely incredible creation:
Words that had wrapped the flower like a calyx
Cannot withstand the strain and suddenly burst
Throwing their heads back and weeping
(The bloodshot compound eyes of the petals!)
This conceit denies the ability of words to capture beauty (or, by extension, much else of a sensual nature.)
It is her 1968 publication, The Town of Mirrors, or Forest of Eyes, that provides the title for the collection under consideration. It is no wonder when one considers the incredible images captured or invented by Chimako in that book. The first is in the “Third Manifestation” from “The Town of Sleep”:
Someday they will ask whether they gathered fruit
Of ancient plants from this colony of the burnt-out sun
Whether they found the musical scale
Running from the market to the temple
The next from the title poem:
In this small town, many murders happen each day
All the windows go deaf
Only killers walk the streets
All wanting to urinate
Chimako is the Japanese Baudelaire, capturing both the beauty and the decay of her prefecture.
In A False Record of Ages (1971), she returns to the Western classics for inspiration. In “The Odyssey, or On Absence,” she writes:
Oh Odysseus, you who trained the wooden horse of pleasure?
The scent of your impassioned breath made your wife swoon
And when the horse’s belly broke each night
And shadowy warriors jumped down
Troy burned in Penelope’s name
Before concluding this review (even though there is so much more one could find to extol within the confines of the black-and-blue covers), it is imperative to include one of Chimako’s tankas from A Spray of Water, where they are presented along with their Japanese ideograms. The tanka are untitled; the first presented will do:
a single trembling
of black hair
spreading in water
hidden behind rocks
the roar of a waterfall emerges
The erotic undertow of the subtext swirls likes the waters below the waterfall.
If one’s only exposure to Japanese poetry has been the haiku, then this is a must-read. Even if one is familiar with the more Westernized lyricism of some Japanese poetry, this would be a prized addition to your bookshelf.
The author of poetry, reviews, and essays published in a number of literary journals in the United States and Canada, John Herbert Cunningham has recently become the host of the half-hour radio program “Speaking of Poets,” which is available streaming or as a download from the University of Winnipeg’s CKUW.. He is currently working on a manuscript of poetry.
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