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Creative Blooms 9: Tanaka Ami (Part 2)

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.

tainai wa kawara no shirosa higasa sasu
in the womb’s interior
whiteness of that river-field —
a parasol opens

The word kawara (river-field) connotes or implies “sai no kawara,” a kind of hell where recently-dead children go. If we believe the poet is referencing “sai no kawara” then this may indicate an abortion. If not, then the work is deeply sexual. Here, kawara may indicate 河川敷 (kasenjiki), a river floodplain. The water seems a sexual symbol, as also the parasol opening (as female arousal). The parasol (sasu 差す), taken at face value, seems sufficiently provocative. In movies, an umbrella opening is an image used to indicate scenes where intercourse takes place (and as well, the image of a flower, blossoming). This image is also present in Japanese as well. We have changed the last line from the more literal ‘puts out a parasol’ for this reason.

fuyusumire hito wa chiisaki hi wo hakobu
a winter violet —
a small fire
takibiban shiyōka ikiteiru aida 
should i be 
watchman of a fire, throughout 
my life . . . 

The takibi (now prohibited) is a rich image arising from a previous era, as takibi indicates the fall/winter custom of burning accumulated leaves, branches, etc., and also contains an aspect of social activity; people gather round to socialize and relax from the labors of daily life. Gathering round the takibi allows everyone to spend time purposelessly, in total relaxation. A common activity for children was to bake potatoes in the fire. As the fire-tender, the takibiban is at the center of this socializing.

As with time spent in meaningless relaxation, the takibi itself must eventually be put out. Perhaps this symbolizes the period of life in very young children when nothing is expected but that they “be.” At some point, adults extinguish this environment of purposeless enjoyment. “The takibiban reminds me of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye” (Hori).

無月とは石の柩であるか  鳥よ
mugetsu to wa ishi no hitsugi de aru ka tori yo 
is this moonless night a stone coffin?
i ask you

The image of mugetsu: a moon hidden by clouds or rain — this must be imagined by the speaker. The speaker is addressing a specific bird; calling it by name, if you will, hence the capitalization. The last word, “yo” is similar to “hey you” in English. In essence, she’s asking, “Which is it Bird, a moonless night or a stone coffin?”

akizakura kure ba hai ni naru shomotsu
flowering Cosmos —
turns its pages
turns into ashes: a book

Autumn imagery. Autumn is often a time for increased efforts, especially in sports and reading. The image here is of the beauty of the autumn cosmos in bloom detracting one from such activities — as if to say that while the poet is admiring these flowers, she is not devoting time to other interests (i.e. dokusho no aki). The cosmos flower, while not native to Japan, is very familiar to all Japanese people these days.

ishiki ima utaretaru semi junketsu yo
my consciousness 
shot by XXX — a cicada

This is a difficult poem to translate: this is perhaps a young woman experiencing a surge of sexual desire that shoots through her body, as if she were shot. “We do not understand the meaning of the ‘XXX’ in the second line. This line could also be written as ‘a shot cicada’” (Hori/Ostman).

The use of the cicada is an interesting choice, as our image of cicadas is one of the adult, who crawls out of the ground after many years, for the sole purpose of procreation. In doing so, they fly around like insane bumblebees, making a din, procreate, and promptly drop dead. They are fragile, ephemeral creatures that like cherry blossoms are here today, gone tomorrow. In this way, the poet may be writing about the/her loss of her virginity — or the feelings that arise from this experience. The image of a “shot cicada” is somewhat difficult, in that cicadas are not things that people normally shoot (though catch, yes).

chichi to iu nomi hosenu mizu manjushage 
as a father
water i cannot drink up —
spider lily

The spider lily (manjyushage, also known as higanbana), is commonly seen alongside houses and fields. It is also called “heaven’s flower.” Kaneko Tohta uses this in a famous haiku (manjyushage doremo haradashi chichibunoko), which is evocative of life, of growing up in the mountain village of Chichibu. Ami uses the flower in a darker, negative way, as if to say that there is something about her father (his personality, or a specific experience) that she cannot “drink” (accept; receive).

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 4 Comments

  1. .
    無月とは石の柩であるか 鳥よ
    mugetsu to wa ishi no hitsugi de aru ka tori yo
    is this moonless night a stone coffin?
    i ask you
    This is one of my favorites of Ami’s poems that you have translated. I like to think of the first line:
    is this moonless night a stone coffin?
    as a riddle. If I think of a stone coffin as being a sarcophagus, knowing that the word sarcophagus originates from a Greek word meaning to consume flesh, then I am reminded of the folklore/legends about eclipses and phases of the moon, where it was believed that an eclipse/new moon/phases of the moon was the result of a monster that had eaten/taken a bite of the moon.
    I looked up the character for bird, 鳥, in the online wiktionary, and found (if my understanding is correct) that in Chinese it is a homophone for the character for the vulgar word 屌 (diǎo, “penis”).
    This makes me think that (with wordplay) the poem might have sexual connotations, with the female genitalia being a flesh consuming coffin.
    Thanks again for introducing Ami’s poetry to a new audience, with the translations and notes offered.

  2. What I mean is ‘Goodbye, haiku; hello, hycoo…’

    ‘Consciousness’ consists of at least two things – the products of the Left Brain and those of the Right Brain. If you have to go into your Left Brain to produce huge analytical explanations, you’re only functioning with half your Brain. To concoct hycoo like the ones we have here you’re only in your left brain and might as well be writing apologies for ordinary poetry. True haiku are the result of the extraordinary combination of Right and Left Brain otherwise it’s just hycoo.

    There’s nothing whatsoever to ‘inspire’ one there.

    I’m going out on a limb here.

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