River of Stars: Selected Poems by Akiko Yosano, Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson (Translators)
Yosano Akiko is one of Japan’s most well known and controversial poets. Dying at age 63 in 1942, she was one of Japan’s first feminists, even daring to question the Emperor. Her Tanka poetry was erotically charged and showed women to be just as sexual, complex and assertive as men. Yasano said things and felt things that until that time were impolite to discuss.
Her life and achievements goes far beyond what can be covered in this review. River of Stars selects some ninety of her Tanka (she wrote some 20-50,000 poems in her lifetime) and twelve modern free-verse poems. The book is illustrated by Steven Addiss, who manages to evoke a style that to my eye was similar to a fusion of the line drawings by Lautrec and sumi-e.
The eroticism present in the poetry may seem a little subdued but I think it must be kept in mind how conservative Japan was at the time of publication. Take for example:
Fresh from my hot bath,
I dressed slowly before
the tall mirror,
a smile for my own body.
Innocence so long ago!
How much this poem breaks with traditional Tanka I am not sure but it is placing the poet’s body at the centre of the poem and using it to trigger memories of erotic journeys. Some of the poetry is more direct, some of it also speaks of the agony of absence.
This poem directed at a Buddhist monk:
You’ve never explored
this tender flesh or known
such stormy blood.
Do you not grow lonely, friend,
forever preaching the Way?
This possibly directed at her lover(and later spouse)Tekkan:
He does not return.
Spring evening slowly descends.
Only this empty heart
and, falling over my koto,
strands of my dishevelled hair.
There is something lost, I suspect, in the translations. I have a vague memory that tangled hair, dishevelled hair can also connote wild sexual passion, as well as frustration. So this poem while presenting elements of loss and absence could also underline this with a message of sexual passion for the lover.
It’s not all lust, loss and eroticism. There’s also longing for children (Yosano gave birth to 13 children):
After twenty years
of living the barren life,
I want to believe
that now all my patient dreams
will at last be realized.
I greatly enjoyed the Tanka selected for this collection. Despite Yosano’s work being tradition breaking and erotically charged I style find it has a quality of understatement that seems to characterise Japanese poetic forms.
The 12 modern poems included after the Tanka, held only limited attraction for me. Interesting from a historical standpoint but robbed of the constraints of the Tanka form, they felt as if they don’t quite port over to English as well as the short forms. Here is one of the shorter examples:
The Only Question
This one thing
I will ask you:
are you with the people
or apart from them?
Depending on your answer,
you and I
will be forever divided
between earth and heaven.
This collection is a must I think for lovers and writers of Tanka. I also think that unlike Haiku there’s more emotion that could hook in a wider readership. It’s a wonderful collection and showcase of a giant of Japanese Literature.