An Introduction to the Haiku of Tanaka Ami
Translations, Annotations by
Profs. Richard Gilbert, Itō Yūki, David Ostman, Masahiro Hori
Tanaka Ami (田中亜美, 1970 —) is a haiku poet and scholar of German literature, and a graduate of Meiji University. After working as a newspaper editor, she entered the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo. In 1998, joined Kaneko Tohta’s haiku journal group Kaitei. In 2001, she won the Kaitei New Haiku Poet Prize. In 2006, she was awarded the Modern Haiku Association [gendaihaiku kyōkai] New Haiku Poet Prize. In 2012, she won the Kaitei Prize. Ami has worked as a commentator for the renowned poetry magazine Modern Poetry Notebook [Gendaishi techō], as well as the Asahi Newspaper, and Haidan [Haiku World]. Currently, she is an adjunct lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University, Jissen Women’s University, and the Tokyo University of Agriculture; she is a member of the Modern Haiku Association [gendaihaiku kyōkai], the Haiku International Association [kokusai haiku kôryû kyôkai], and the Japan Writers’ Association.
In Sunao Hashimoto’s commentary on Ami Tanaka, Minoru Ozawa states that Ami Tanaka is “a haiku poet better by far than those who devote themselves to composition based on the beauty of nature” — and that she skillfully inserts herself or her ego into the haiku form (Hashimoto, S., 2009, “Vintage 1970” in B. Tsukushi, Y. Tsushima, & R. Takayama (eds.), Shinsen 21: Selection Haijin Plus, Japan: Yûshorin, 222). Ami is in the lineage of Tohta Kaneko regarding her style of composition, as she weaves into her poems such materials as “liquid crystal,” “atomic heart mother,” and “unit-bath” (a prefab bath unit), which are generally unfamiliar in the world of haiku.
原子心母ユニットバスで血を流す genhsishinbo yunittobasu de chi wo nagasu Atomic Heart Mother — bleeding in a unit-bath
Note: Atomic Heart Mother is the title of the fifth studio album by Pink Floyd, 1970.
いつ逢へば河いつ逢へば天の川 itsu aeba kawa itsu aeba amanogawa when i see you, is it a river when i see you, is it the milky way . . .
The use of the 河 character, instead of 川 for “kawa” is significant. The 河 character meant “the Huang (the Yellow River)” in ancient China. The 川 is a general term for “river,” but according to a dictionary, the 河 is larger than 川 and is used for an artificial river (e.g., a canal or waterway 運河) (Hori). The milky way is usually written 天の川 (ama no gawa) but in some cases as 天の河 (it is also pronouned ama no gawawa). Note the unusual use of the 河 character here — due to kanji play, the river becomes multiple and many-faceted in this poem (Gilbert). The river/water has sexual connotations. This is a romantic poem, possibly indicating the poet’s anticipation concerning a future encounter. In other words, will the encounter be a river walk (a mild romantic/physical encounter), or stargazing (a magical, possibly more deeply physical encounter)? Again, there is very vivid imagery: a couple walking along a river; a couple lying next to each other gazing up at the stars.
雪・躰・雪・躰・雪 跪く yuki karada yuki karada yuki hizamazuku Snow. Flesh. Snow. Flesh. Snow Kneeling
Use of the archaic “flesh/karada” 躰 (more commonly: 身、体、身体、躯、軀、カラダ) indicates not merely “body” but something deeper. The kanji is an old form of 体. In past eras this kanji was also used for “style of poetry.” In fact, the meaning is still seen in Zeami’s fūtei 風躰 (written in present day kanji as 風体 fūtei) We feel that this is an image of two young people (possibly sweethearts) kneeling down to throw snow up at each other. In this way, it is a playful and innocent image. (Hori/Ostman)
はつなつの櫂と思ひし腕かな hatsunatsu no kai to omoishi kaina kana youthful summer’s oar i thought yes, my arm
In the haiku, the hiragana はつなつ (hatsuntsu) is typically written in kanji as 初夏 hatsu-natsu or shoka: early summer; a Summer kigo. But as is critically known, the hiragana usage is idiosyncratic and it is therefore difficult to convey the nuance in other languages (it may be that “early summer” here also indicates “youth,” a youthful adult). The image seems that of a young woman, perhaps wearing a short-sleeved or sleeveless blouse, dipping her arm into the water, as an oar. As such, this is very much a young woman’s haiku. The sense ‘youthful (youth of) summer’ well matches the woman’s youth. The repetition of “kai” with “kaina kana” and the repeated sound “ka” in “kai,” “kaina,” and “kana” is quite important; unfortunately, something we cannot replicate in English.
液晶のごとき疲労よ日向ぼこ ekishō no gotoki hirō yo hitataboko as if liquid crystal fatigue — basking in the sun
The use of the words ekishō 疲労 and hitataboko 日向ぼこ (both winter kigo) indicate winter. The sense of hinataboko ni is the act of sitting back and allowing the sun to spread across one’s face, rather than sunbathing, which is something more purposeful; perhaps there is a certain spontaneity in “basking in the sun.” hinataboko ni is likewise evocative of a person with time on their hands, possibly someone older (indicated also by the winter connections). On the other hand, it may be that sunbathing and “basking in the sun” are similar enough that either can be used in this haiku.
受胎とは瞼へ羽毛月明かり jutai towa mabuta e umō tsukiakari conception is: toward eyelids, plumage — moonlight
The word umō 羽毛 is not exactly “feather,” but rather soft plumage (or down). The image created by 瞼 (mabuta) is very important, but we’re not exactly sure how to convey it; “moon” may here indicate a woman’s monthly cycle. In one imagination, the image created by mabuta is a woman’s closed eyelids with long eyelashes. “If 瞼へ羽毛 (mabuta e umō) is not referring to a post-coital vagina, then this haiku makes no sense to me. Feathery eyelids basking in the moonlight? Hori is not so convinced. Can we elicit a woman’s opinion on this one?” (Ostman)
人体は星無き航路青梅捥ぐ jintai wa hoshi naki kōro oumo mogu this human body is a starless voyage — tearing off green plums
The use of 人体 (jintai) here should be understood as meaning “life,” although it need not be translated this way. The poet may be alluding to the fact that in our early lives we struggle to find our course, lacking defined milestones; hence the starless road/voyage. During this period, the innocence of our youth (here compared to unripened plums) is (often) lost. Such lost, unripe plums may suggest the mistakes or miscalculations of youth. The verb mogu 捥ぐ is used for ‘picking/plucking an apple’ (ringo wo mogu 林檎を捥ぐ), and as well for ‘tearing off limbs’ (teoshi wo mogu 手足を捥ぐ).
As longterm members of the Kon Nichi Translation Group, Kumamoto University, founded in 2006, these four denizens of Japan with joy, patience and determination, have continued to devote spare months, hours and days co-translating gendaihaiku. Presently, Dr. Itō Yūki, a Yeats scholar, is an assistant professor at Josai University, Saitama; Dr. David Ostman, who researches the role of empathy in intercultural competence, holds a similar position at Kumamoto Gakuen University; Dr. Masahiro Hori, a world-class linguist is a senior professor also at Kumamoto Gakuen University; Dr. Richard Gilbert is professor emeritus, Kumamoto University.
Creative Blooms will appear every other Tuesday. Three poems will be provided with commentary, and an additional three offered for creative interaction by our readership. With every third installment, Gilbert will introduce a largely unknown Japanese poet, translated into English with annotations, for the first time. We look forward to a lively discussion of these fascinating and challenging poems.
Richard Gilbert, professor of English Literature at Kumamoto University in Japan, is the author of Poetry as Consciousness: Haiku Forests, Space of Mind, and an Ethics of Freedom (illustrated by Sabine Miller, Kebunsha Co. Ltd., 2018, ISBN 978-4-86330-189-4), The Disjunctive Dragonfly (Red Moon Press, 2008, rev. 2013), and Poems of Consciousness (Red Moon Press, 2008), among others. He is also director of the Kon Nichi Translation Group, whose most recent book is the tour de force Haiku as Life: A Tohta Kaneko Omnnibus (Red Moon Press, 2019). In January 2020, he announced the creation of Heliosparrow Poetry Journal, an evolution of the Haiku Sanctuary forum.