Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women
Review by Goro Takano

The title of this book (which features four present-day Japanese poets: Kiriu Minashita, Kyong-Mi Park, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and Takako Arai) seems to accentuate the last word: “women.” This specific focus will surely intrigue a reader who expects a female poet to write under the banner of her own “feminine identity” and to function as a bulwark against interwoven codes of misogyny and patriarchy in her society.

If this reader’s feminist concern is mainly targeted at a man’s monolithic gaze at the opposite sex, she (or he) will be all the more intrigued by, for instance, Arai’s poem titled “For Amenouzume-san” — its Japanese original version (which is contrasted in this book with its English translation– shows a variety of kanji-hiragana-katakana combinations for writing the name of a mythical Japanese Goddess Amenouzume and, by so doing, seems to represent the likelihood of myriad diversity in a woman (or among women).

Besides, in the eyes of another feminist audience who may be curious about a possibility of trans-generational ties of different women, some impressive phrases in Park’s poems would feel savory: “I walked too. With the women. With mother and grandmother. And her mother and grandmother” (from “The Hat Says”), or “Still / are you unable to forget / Still / are you unable to cry a flood of tears / Still / our mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s, does this continue” (from “April”).

Then, what if you can hardly identify yourself with the above-mentioned group of feminism? — Well, you will not necessarily end up totally clueless and feeling excluded from, say, Minashita’s playful word game in her “A Perfect Day for Coelacanth” or Sekiguchi’s surreal sketches in the poems quoted from her own collection titled Heliotropes, if only . . . if you happen to be hooked by a question like this: “Why do these four poets strive so hard for anti-causality, anti-plausibility, non-linear, and pro-contradiction ways of writing? What on earth are the underlying intentions of their creations?”

Meanwhile, some feminist readers may get somewhat disillusioned, if they cannot delight in raising the same type of philosophical question. As long as they remain to be trapped into their own negative views of the highly elusive quality of the four poets’ modernistic predispositions (“If only they had intended to express their femininity more straightforwardly . . .”), they will not dare to ruminate productively on the impulses of the surrealistic “deconstructions and recompositions of Japanese ideals of femininity” (this phrase is a restated quotation from the translator Sawako Nakayasu’s introduction for this book) in the anthologized poems. And, frankly, that would be a big loss.

Why do these four poets attempt to “deconstruct” their femininity through their poetry? The answer could be stated in the following way: They may believe, respectively, that one’s identity is not a static outcome, but an eternally dialogic process of deconstruction and reconstruction — “We deconstruct to reconstruct, and reconstruct to re-deconstruct,” they may argue. Now, are you fascinated with this riddling statement? Mind you, this book chooses its own reader, and whether this statement tickles you or not may be a litmus test for your decision to become the book’s reader.

Those who can “pass” this test will be next tempted to shift their interrogative attentions from “Why do they pursue such deconstruction?” to “How do they each do it?” Here, each poet’s self-analysis-like essay in this book may be a great help for such readers.

For instance — Minashita’s style of deconstruction is closely related to the concept of “naming.” In her essay “Titles, or the Conversion Plug of the Anima,” she declares: “I believe a poem teeters at the very edge of nothingness, at the boundary between non-existence and a state of pre-existence, the instant before an object gets named and brought into being.” This proclamation does not, by the way, necessarily reject outright the act of naming (and, by so doing, defining) an object; whereas she shows her deep-rooted longing for a space where a limitless number of names are available for every entity, she is preoccupied, ambivalently, with the very moment of choosing one particular name out of them. Accordingly, she cannot help accepting the realistic importance of a name-bestowing mediator standing between a nameless subject and its surroundings which demand its name. In Minashita’s sense, a poet is the unique kind of such a go-between who, while giving something a specific title, never fails to retrospect other rounded-down possibilities recurrently.

This artistic attitude seems to be strongly implied in her own poems. Most of them display, individually, a grammar-loosening field where the common protagonist (“I”) is given an inscrutable chance to dissolve her closed (female?) identity and make it filter arbitrarily into the private worlds (including names, of course) of others: An anonymous internet-like sphere in “Border Z / Delete, and Rewrite,” the quiet coming of a mysterious “border(-crossing)” rain in “Sonic Peace,” and an all-inclusive melody of intermezzo in “Intermezzo.” At the same time, however, in those hyperspaces, the inevitable dynamics of self-naming disconnects the protagonist’s name-me-not communication halfway and orders “I” to “rewrite” herself from the beginning (in “Border Z”), prepares as usual her “daily life that has been named” after the transient(?) rain ends (in “Sonic Peace”), and brakes a burst of the protagonist’s identity-free euphoria — so, she sighs irresistibly in the end: “I remain bemazed” (in “Intermezzo”). After all, the identity of “I” seems to be always led into a speculative suspension. This “I” may be a truthful personification of Minashita herself as a poet.

If you are particularly interested in the ways the other three poets introduce into their own worlds of poetry, respectively, an everlasting cycle of deconstruction/reconstruction of their (feminine) identities, my best suggestion would be that you might as well first read their essays, rather than their poems.

The essay by Park, who is a second-generation Korean living in Tokyo, noted also for her translations of Gertrude Stein, emphasizes her interest in “being possessed by the words of someone else”; the essay of Sekiguchi, who now lives in Paris and translates her own Japanese writings into French for publication, is replete with such thought-provoking phrases as “self-translation,” “creation of another version,” “textual bilingualism,” and “stretching the surface of the text”; the essay of Arai, who seems to be quite keen on the Japanese folklore and customs, visualizes her own everyday inquiry about the magical moments which bridge, right before her eyes, the gap between the past and the present. It might be fun for you, I reckon, to probe into how successfully their personal theories are reflected over their poems. Moreover, this type of reading may lead you to pose the following self-reflective question: “Isn’t my present sense of identity narrowing my own world view? Given that this is the case, why cannot I slip out of it yet?”

Another mesmerizing amusement (for, especially, English-Japanese bilingual readers) is, no doubt, the innovative structure of the whole book, that is, the methodical juxtaposition of the Japanese (or, in Sekiguchi’s case, French) originals and the English translations. Meanwhile, it must be the same type of readers who will even discover some mistranslations: (1) Whereas the first line in the seventh stanza of the English translation of Minashita’s “Border Z” is “What would you do if you were to have been a single egg in the universe?”, the same line in its Japanese original says, “What would you do if the universe were to have been a single egg?” (2) While the subjects (or the objects) in some key sentences of Park’s Japanese-original “Evening” and “Very” are left (intentionally, probably) ambiguous, each of the same sentences in the English translations seems to exhibit the who-does-what information too clearly, maybe due to the translator’s (subconscious?) desire to give the original’s vagueness one particular “name” through her own interpretation. The first mistranslation may be nothing but a minor careless error, but the second one can be seen as a very interesting discovery from a comparative-linguistics standpoint. It may function in the intellects of the readers as a good occasion to contemplate, once again, the translatability of poetic writings.


Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women, edited by Sawako Nakayasu, is available at Small Press Distribution ($14.00).


Goro Takano is an associate professor at Saga University (Faculty of Medicine), Japan, teaching English composition and American literature to Japanese medical/nursing undergraduates. He holds an MA (American Literature) from the University of Tokyo, and a Ph.D (Creative Writing) from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.