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Creative Blooms 8: Tanaka Ami (Part 1)

 
 

 
 

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.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Thank you all for your comments! Our process is to spend some months in translation and discussion, with Profs. Ito and Hori leading the early interpretive concepts of Japanese. Between them, there is a great depth of the haiku tradition modern and traditional and with access to Saijiki, publications, etc. Following early rough translations, we discuss and question and finally I polish the English. Please understand that any commentary is meant (as mentioned) as “notes to the poem” — not definitions, or definitive answers. Sometimes these discussions I have offered here are incomplete, and always we are taking the opportunity of this medium to invite others to offer their added insights and perspectives. There is no one correct “answer” or “meaning” to a haiku. Our Notes are meant to reflect our translation-group thoughts and meanderings, which are limited. I do feel that having the Notes is better than not having them — please treat them as informal thoughts, thanks.

  2. .
    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)
    .
    .
    If I were to come across the English translation of this poem, without the explanation, I would not have not come to the conclusion that it was an image of two young people kneeling down to throw snow up at each other in a playful and innocent image. I can see that it might be about throwing snowballs, or possibly building a snowman, but these ideas seem simplistic and not in keeping with the concept of futei that is indicated in the kanji. Or perhaps that is because I don’t really understand what futei is. I don’t know if Dr. Gilbert, et al, read the comments on these posts, but it would be great to have a more detailed narrative. How did you come to the interpretation that this poem represents two young people?
    .
    I did google read a commentary on this poem that resonated with me: The repeated words:
    .
    snow flesh snow flesh snow
    .
    seem to indicate falling snow rather than snow that has already fallen and accumulated on the ground. If I think of snow as something that falls from heaven, and then I feel it on my skin as it falls, it reinforces my earthly humanity.
    And then the second line:
    .
    kneeling
    .
    …possibly submission, or praying for the rapture? Or? This interpretation conveys an emptiness, or loneliness, or a readiness for passage, and to a western mind, the winter scene seems to indicate agedness, rather than youth.
    .
    Although I don’t always understand her writing, I find Tanaka’s poetry intriguing, and enjoy trying to puzzle out an interpretation, and it’s quite interesting how the same poem can be read so many different ways by different people. Thanks for introducing her writing to a new audience.

  3. .
    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)
    .
    .
    I tend to think that this poem is more along the second idea – the image of a woman’s closed eyelids with long lashes.
    .
    If we think of conception as being “with child” then we can easily see (with wordplay) that the “pupil” (or child) is a ward of the eyelid. The OED on the word pupil: from Latin pupilla, originally “little girl-doll,” diminutive of pupa “girl; doll”, so called from the tiny image one sees of oneself reflected in the eye of another. Greek used the same word, korē (literally “girl;” see Kore), to mean both “doll” and “pupil of the eye;” and compare obsolete baby “small image of oneself in another’s pupil” (1590s), source of 17c. colloquial expression to look babies “stare lovingly into another’s eyes.”
    .
    The third line: moonlight – the moon can only be seen as a result of the sun’s light reflecting off it. It does not produce any light of its own.
    .
    There is probably a deeper meaning to this poem, but as always, I see what I want to see. When I think about this poem I like to think of the eyelashes as a fan, similar to those handheld fans with feathers, and I imagine the author batting her eyelids flirtatiously, similar to the way one might hold the fan to cover all of the face but the eyes, and “looking babies” at her paramour.

  4. ‘Atomic Heart Mother’: I’m not at all sure I get it, Richard, or the mind behind it . Or it may be simply a matter of my getting old, and the postures of the Beats and the later ‘spoken word’ mob of the ’80s to early 2000s all having come to seem to be breeds of ‘confessional’ poetry to me.
    .

    ( Pink Floyd’s album was ‘Atom Heart Mother’, not ‘atomic’. Atomic , for me, has negative associations with the atom bomb and leaky atomic power stations and childhood nightmares after seeing ‘On the Beach’, while ‘atom’ is simply the term for the basic unit in the structure of everything. ‘Atom’ is neutral. ‘Atomic Heart Mother’ might be intended to be different to ‘Atom Heart Mother’? . . .of which it is said: “Critical reaction to the suite has always been mixed, and all band members have expressed negativity toward it in recent times.[17] Gilmour has said the album was “a load of rubbish. We were at a real down point … I think we were scraping the barrel a bit at that period”[4] and “a good idea but it was dreadful… Atom Heart Mother sounds like we didn’t have any idea between us, but we became much more prolific after it.”[59] Similarly, in a 1984 interview on BBC Radio 1, Waters said “If somebody said to me now – right – here’s a million pounds, go out and play Atom Heart Mother, I’d say you must be fucking joking.”[5]”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atom_Heart_Mother
    .

    I find The ‘river’ ku interesting , though:
    .
    when i see you, is it a river
    when i see you, is it the milky way . . .
    .
    In many Pacific Island cultures as well as Australian indigenous cultures, the Milky Way is a special river in the sky. So here I find two rivers, one of the earth and one of the heavens. The difference, then, would be a matter of what the poet associated with each ‘river’. Or what her culture associates with each.
    .
    Perhaps the heavenly one seems more eternal to the poet than earthly rivers?

    1. There is an extended discussion of “atomic heart mother” on the haiku foundation forums (from 2011 – the Seashell Game) : https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/index.php?topic=175.0
      .
      Here are David Lanoue’s notes on the poem (copied and pasted from the forum), but I encourage reading the entire thread as it is very interesting:
      .
      Ami Tanaka was born in Tokyo on October 8, 1970, the same day that Pink Floyd’s fourth studio album, Atom Heart Mother, was released. Its title derived from the headline of a news story that appeared in The Evening Standard on July 16, 1970. The headline read, “ATOM HEART MOTHER NAMED,” referring to a woman who had received a nuclear-powered pacemaker. Band member Ron Geesen saw the article and suggested that they name the album’s title track, 23 minutes and 44 seconds of instrumental rock, Atom Heart Mother. The track took up all of side one of an album that was originally sold in a cover that showed a picture of a cow in a field, with no text. Storm Thorgeson, the designer of the cow cover, said this about the title song and his cover: “When I asked them what it was about, they said they didn’t know themselves. It’s a conglomeration of pieces that weren’t related, or didn’t seem to be at the time. The picture isn’t related either; in fact, it was an attempt to do a picture that was unrelated, consciously unrelated” (Guitar World, Feb. 1998; quoted in “Atom Heart Mother,” Wikipedia). One of the song’s writers, band member Roger Waters, said in a 1985 radio interview, “Atom Heart Mother is a good case, I think, for being thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again! . . . It was pretty kind of pompous, it wasn’t really about anything” (“Atom Heart Mother,” Wikipedia).
      .
      A unitto basu or “unit bath” is a prefabricated bathroom module that includes ceiling, floor and tub made of the same continuous material. Found in hotels and apartments throughout Japan, unit baths have the advantage of being completely water-tight. They can be easily cleaned by showering the whole room. This is the type of bathroom that our Atom Heart Mother finds herself in, in Tanaka’s poem.
      .
      The poet and the album were “born” together. The image of Mother in the haiku can thus suggest, on one level, Tanaka’s own mother. The blood flowing into the prefabricated bathroom can suggest the act of birth. The “unit bath” can suggest modern Japan. And the “Atom” of “Heart Mother” can imply the atomic age from the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki up to the present moment. Blood pouring into the antiseptic, leak-proof bath unit can suggest the poet’s life force. The fact that she came into this world on the same day that a disconnected musical suite was released with an unconnected cow cover says volumes about the absurdity into which she and all of us who are her contemporaries in this atomic world, have been thrown.
      .

        1. You’re welcome Clysta. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the poem that you would like to share?

      1. Thanks for that link, Princess. That was 9 years ago! And quite a discussion. I’d forgotten all about it.
        .

        1. It is certainly a compelling poem and one that I keep coming back to read and re-read. The only thing that I have to add to the discussion relates to the first line of the translation – atomic heart mother. If I think of the heart as a “ticker”, or a clock, then I am reminded of the Doomsday Clock – a metaphor for threats to humanity. This seems to fit in with the interpretations along the lines of a suicide, miscarriage, or abortion, or even the use of birth control (what if women decided that they didn’t ever want to be mothers?). Or perhaps the author feels her own biological clock ticking, and contnues to bleed in the sterile environment of the pre-fab bathroom, contemplating her barren womb while sitting on the head. So many ways to interpret the lines – it is a very intriguing poem.

  5. Thank you for the poems and the translations provided. I was intrigued by this poem:
    .
    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 . . .
    .

    and particularly “…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). “
    .
    I have absolutely no knowledge of Japanese/Chinese language, culture, or history, so I was curious about the meaning and symbolism of the word “Huang”. Of course I googled it and was presented with a number of possible meanings/symbolisms. After reading several of the passages, I was somewhat taken with the wikipedia page on fenghuang.
    .
    Fenghuang (simplified Chinese: 凤凰; traditional Chinese: 鳳凰; pinyin: fènghuáng; Wade–Giles: fêng⁴-huang²), known in Japanese as Hō-ō or Hou-ou, are mythological birds found in East Asian mythology that reign over all other birds. The males were originally called feng and the females huang but such a distinction of gender is often no longer made and they are blurred into a single feminine entity so that the bird can be paired with the Chinese dragon, which is traditionally deemed male.
    .
    The fenghuang is also called the “August Rooster” (鹍鸡; 鶤雞 or 鵾雞; yùnjī or kūnjī; yün4-chi1 or k’un1-chi1) since it sometimes takes the place of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac. In the Western world, it is commonly called the Chinese phoenix.
    .
    The phoenix represented power sent from the heavens to the Empress. The fenghuang has very positive connotations. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace. The fenghuang also symbolizes the union of yin and yang.
    .
    When I think of the phoenix I think of the bird in Egyptian mythology that lived in the desert for 500 years and then consumed itself by fire. This colors my interpretation of the poem as I imagine the author, upon sight of her companion, the physiological equivalent of self-consumption by fire, burning with a passion and perhaps a type of spiritual worship.
    .
    Again, much appreciation for the translations and explanations, and the flight of fancy.

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