Sugita Hisajo and Alice Wanderer are recipients of a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for 2021 for their volume Lips Licked Clean (Translated by Alice Wanderer. Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2021).
Commentary from the Panel:
Sugita Hisajo (1890-1946) was a preeminent haiku poet of the early 20th century, but her work is hardly known beyond Japan. In Lips Licked Clean, scholar and poet Alice Wanderer corrects that with her translations of more than 100 haiku. Introductory notes provide historical context, biographical information, and a brief, but informative, overview of kigo. Haiku are presented seasonally, one to a page, in Japanese, romaji and English. Following each translation are notes identifying the kigo used.
The development of English language haiku has been informed by our knowledge of Japanese haiku. Key to that understanding is the availability of high quality translations. Although Japanese haiku developed over four centuries, translations of modern works are in short supply, and most have focused on male poets. So a collection of haiku by a leading female poet is noteworthy. It enriches our understanding of the development of modern haiku and the aesthetics that inspire English language haiku.
Hisajo was recognized early for the excellence of her haiku. Three years after she began writing, she received first place in a prestigious competition. Hototogisu, the most influential Japanese haiku journal of the time, devoted 17 pages for commentary on her winning poem. Over the next 16 years, she gained prominence for her award-winning haiku. She published essays on haiku, founded a haiku journal for women, and played a leadership role in the Hototogisu group.
She achieved this level of recognition with haiku that reflected her life as a woman, wife and mother. She wrote about experiences she found personally meaningful — a father-in-law’s displeasure, forgoing haiku to do the laundry, the sensuality in loosening the cords of her kimono, exhaustion from reading and re-reading favorite stories to her children.
Although Hisajo explored subjects that were novel in haiku at the time, her poems were grounded in haiku tradition, and a keen awareness of nature is characteristic of her work.
tsuma wakaku maekake ni fuyuna idakikeri
winter leaf greens
swept up in her apron
wakakusa ya gokan mezameshi byōgo tsuma
young grass shoots —
every sense awakens
in this no-longer-sickly wife
kisōbi shinabite kō takaku chirishi kijyō kana
smell stronger as they wither —
petals scattered on my desk
Hisajo married for love, choosing a like-minded aspiring artist. But after the children were born, her husband abandoned his dreams. It was a loss keenly felt by both of them and caused strife in the marriage.
fuyufuku ya jirei o matsuru ryō kyōshi
winter suit —
reappointment notice on the family shrine
the dutiful teacher
tabi tsugu ya Nora to mo narazu kyōshizuma
mending tabi —
not like Ibsen’s Nora
this teacher’s wife
In The Doll’s House, Nora leaves, choosing her freedom over family and children. Hisajo stayed. But she did not give up on her dreams. She continued to write and nurture her own creativity.
The use of kigo is a significant aspect of Hisajo’s haiku. More than an indication of seasonality, kigo convey levels of meaning that deepen understanding of the work. Wanderer’s notes help us understand the significance of some choices. In this haiku, for example, “hazy spring weather” echoes the baby’s itchy discomfort, but in Japanese the kigo, hanagumori, also conveys the transience of cherry blossom season.
haguki kayuku chikubi kamu ko ya hanagumori
the baby bites the nipple —
hazy spring weather
Kigo: 花曇 hanagumori, literally ‘flower cloudiness,’ or the spring weather characteristic of the cherry blossom season.
Too few Japanese women poets are known and read outside of Japan. In Lips Licked Clean: Selected Haiku of Sugita Hisajo, Alice Wanderer helps address that imbalance with a resonant selection of work by one of the pioneers of modern Japanese haiku.
See the complete list of winners of both Individual Poem Awards and Distinguished Books Awards in the Touchstone Archives.