TEXT review

Turning back to flesh

review by Caroline Williamson


Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan
Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford (eds)
Recent Work Press, Canberra ACT 2017
ISBN 9780648087847
Pb 220pp AUD19.95


There is always going to be something missing in a translation of a poem, but the reader who doesn’t know the original language is unlikely to know precisely what’s not there. Translation can also, without denying the losses, be understood as a positive process. As Zoe Skoulding writes:

To think of translation as fundamental to poetry is to emphasise interconnectedness, since every poem is in dialogue with every other poem, but at the same time allows for transformation, strangeness, and an encounter with the unknown. (Skoulding 2018: 5)

Poet to Poet is a bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Japanese women, selected by Rina Kikuchi of Shiga University and the New Zealand / Australian poet Jen Crawford, and translated by an international team of English-language poets (Australian, New Zealand, American, Israeli, Indian) in tandem with Kikuchi. She writes in her introduction of the diversity of the poets and of the poems, describing the immense amount of work that went into each set of translations:

discussing and explaining the layers of the meaning behind individual words or phrases, in what situations a word can be used, the effects of sounds and strange word-orders, images evoked by the lines, the usage of space, superscripts and other types of Japanese script. (i)

Kikuchi concludes that the aim is to translate ‘not what was written on the page, but rather, what was not written’ and argues that while there are losses in the process, there are also gains: linguistic play in English that extends the original Japanese, for example (ii). Poets are rendering the work of other poets, and finding new layers of imagery, new verbal games in the process.

Some of these poems are illuminated by the endnotes. For example, it emerges that Misaki Takako’s lyrical ‘Into White Darkness’, which inhabits a formal enactment of grief, is a response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami; it has been included in high school textbooks (179). Nakamura Sachiko’s ‘And the Bright Morning Comes’, on the other hand, needs no such clarification. The speaker describes the death of her father from illness, which takes place as the tsunami hits. As her brothers struggle to get to the hospital across a devastated town, a private grief becomes appallingly public (211). Similarly, ‘Girl 2’, written by Ishikawa Itsuko, who (born in 1933) is the oldest poet in the anthology, is terribly clear even in translation; a 17-year-old is forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army, then left starving and infected with venereal disease in 1945. ‘What happened to you? / Only the wind bears witness’ (71). In reading Yamasaki Kayoko’s surreal and violent ‘Tree’, it helps to know that she has lived in Belgrade since 1981. The speaker experiences a Kafka-esque transformation into a tree ‘without a nest for birds, without fruits or leaves’ (225), which is cut down to make a soldier’s coffin, while the stump is used as an execution block for a child.

Such a transmutation and/or dismemberment of the body is a theme that recurs throughout this collection. In the graphic and surreal ‘Father’s Uterus, or the Map’, Ito Hiromi begins with a roomful of specimen jars full of body parts – ‘testicles with elephantiasis’ (77), ‘a uterus that had grown teeth’ (79), viewed by an anonymous bunch of men each claiming one as their father’s. Hirata Toshiko’s ‘The Seventh of the First Month’ takes place on a train journey ‘just to write poetry’; failing to respond to ads aimed at women, she contemplates becoming a man, then overhears a woman remark inexplicably, ‘I was so lonely I bought a dog’s torso’ (113). Gradually the passengers are transformed into dog torsos. In ‘The Gift’, Misumi Mizuki, born in 1981 and the youngest of these poets, creates a protagonist who amputates her own foot, to be replaced by her beloved’s gift of ‘a swirling marbled thing / of blue and turquoise, / the colours of pristine coastal waters / my beautiful new foot’ (193). The beloved, incidentally, is transformed into a pig. In ‘Head Ache’, Kono Satoko has a head for every day of the week but can’t decide which one to wear on Monday (171). Compared to such wild imaginings, the transformation of the speaker’s arm in Kawaguchi Harumi’s ‘Map of the Peninsula’ is more subtle, but equally disturbing (133).

The five poems by Arai Takako translated here draw on an acute physical awareness of the messy processes involved in the manufacture of silk. ‘Flared Skirt’ seems to draw on childhood memories of a family silk-weaving business, and also of the public nature of a girl’s first menstruation: ‘The next day, mother cooked up twenty cups of celebratory red bean rice: / “Miss, you’re finally one of us women” / says Kat-chan, one of the weaving girls, pulling up the skirt on the clothesline to expose the inside’ (23). In ‘A Lightbulb’, an old courtesan entices a young man into her home and asks him to watch her undress. His response is crude: ‘Ogres, snakes – I’ll take what I canget’; he moves to take her remaining clothes off, finding ‘silk, fine and white as a shroud’, and then the absence of a breast: ‘a handspan cut / smooth as mountain snow’ (3). ‘Dollogy’ explores a regional tradition of adding clothing to a doll every year: ‘Girl-doll. What a stink when your hem’s picked up – as if those layers were stewed in soy for days ... these layers, rotten with damp, turn back to flesh’ (13). This is silk as metaphor: not as a valuable textile, but as an intimate image that encompasses the changing appearance of a woman’s body, its fluids and smells, from menstruation to old age.

It would be invidious to pick out one of the team of translators for comment; the standard of translation appears to this non-reader of Japanese to be consistently high. Whatever has got lost in the process has been counterbalanced at least in part by the playfulness and energy of the poet-translators. For most readers of this book, these translations will stand on their own merit as diverse and challenging works of literature.


Works cited



Caroline Williamson’s creative PhD looked at poets’ strategies for responding to the threat of climate change, focusing on Jill Jones and Jorie Graham. Her own work investigated the lives of her great-grandparents in the South Wales coalfield in the 1870s.


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Vol 22 No 1 April 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews Editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker