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Poetry: a language without borders

by David Burleigh

KIYOKO’S SKY: The Haiku of Kiyoko Tokutomi, translations by Patricia J. Machmiller & Fay Aoyagi. Illinois: Brookes Books, Decatur, 2002, 128 pp., $16 (paper).
SELECTED HAIKU, by Takaha Shugyo, translations by Hoshino Tsunehiko & Adrian Pinnington. Tokyo: Furansudo, 2003, 108 pp., $16 (paper).

These two books provide a view of the interconnected and expanding haiku world. Born in a silkworm-growing community in Kyushu, 1928, Kiyoko Tokutomi was separated from her native tongue after she met her future husband, Kiyoshi.

Raised in the United States, where he had been born, Kiyoshi Tokutomi had been sent to Japan to study, and was forced to remain there for the duration of the Pacific War. When it ended, and he returned to the U.S., he invited Kiyoko, then a teacher in Nagasaki, to go with him, and they settled in California. This was the beginning of the poet’s life between two worlds. Her serious pursuit of haiku came a little later.

When Kiyoko’s husband became deaf as a side effect of medication he received, she tried to interest him in haiku, to foster communication with those around him. The result of their joint efforts was the formation of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, which has been influential in the development of haiku practice in California.

The name “Yuki Teikei” itself indicates the use of standard forms, with a regular 17 syllables and a reference to the seasons. Thus the traditional usage of Haiku in Japan was spread and taught among the English-speaking members. When Kiyoshi died, Kiyoko continued the work alone, and the group gained increasing recognition. I met her once at a gathering in Tokyo: a diffident elderly woman, she presented me with a tiny anthology of poems.

The anthology, one folded sheet inside an envelope the size of two large postage stamps, contained seven poems, in Japanese and English, by group members. The present volume of her own poems likewise contains poems in both languages, though most are in her mother tongue, and accompanied by a translation into English.

As we might expect, the mother and grandmother in “Kiyoko” casts an affectionate regard on the world before her, and sets it against the changing of the seasons: A child does not know of life’s melancholy — the loquat blossom Sometimes in her poems, as no doubt in her life, there is a pull of nostalgia, which is not one of the more highly esteemed qualities in haiku. But at their best her poems display a direct and genuine appreciation of the living world:

In summer clothing
children have such beautiful
arms and legs

Poems written in illness reveal the same modesty of attitude and dedication to the matter at hand that seem to have informed her life. This is one of her English verses:

She brought a Zen book
for the long chemo session
calm winter afternoon

Kiyoko Tokutomi died last year, not long after the publication of this tribute to her life and work.

One of several prose contributions to “Kiyoko’s Sky” is made by Takaha Shugyo, whose “Selected Poems” has recently appeared. This is not the first translation of his work, as a small private publication of his work rendered by an American poet was issued several years ago. Called “A Year of Haiku,” it gave the poet’s name as Shugyo Takaha, in Western order, but contained only 46 verses, where the new volume has 104. But this is still only a small proportion of the poet’s output.

Shugyo was born in 1930, and worked for a company before resigning to become a full-time poet. He now heads a group called “Kari” (Hunting), and earns his living as a selector and commentator. It is an arduous task, as a verse quoted in the introduction to the book makes clear: the chirping of tree crickets — after having judged a thousand verses in one day Yet this is how the connection between Kiyoko and Shugyo was originally formed: she became an overseas member of his group.

In due course, after polishing her skills under the master’s judgment and instruction, Kiyoko was chosen to become a dojin, an associate or senior member. It is one of the unique features of traditional poetic practice in Japan that most aspiring poets will sign up for instruction in this way, and wait for recognition. In other countries poets are guided too, but not so obviously. The advantages of the Japanese system are that it provides a ready audience and opportunities for meaningful exchange. Membership fees supply the funds for publication.

The cover of Shugyo’s “Selected Poems” is decorated with a holograph reproduction of one of his best-known poems, about looking down from the Empire State Building in New York, onto trees “just like parsley.” Travel poems are a feature of his later work, and some are gathered at the end of this roughly chronological collection, but the bulk of the poems were written in Japan. That they reflect a strong continuation of traditional methods is surely one of the reasons Kiyoko sought him as her master.

The best verses are not only observant, but deliver something slightly unexpected:

fresh green trees at night –
like walking between
the lines of a poem

in the midst
of the perfection of its web,
the spider’s hunger
as I sink the blade
I feel its resistance —
a green apple

There is no doubt, even in translation, that we are reading a skillful and reflective poet.

Though the haiku can encompass and suggest enormous scenes, generally it tends toward the small, evoking larger things by implication. The immediate is most often registered through what is seen, but also sometimes through what is touched and handled. Shugyo has this:

cracking open a walnut –
inside the shell,
one unused room

while Kiyoko, who was both teacher and disciple, has:

Lingering, the scent
of perfume afterwards
between my fingers

Shugyo quotes this verse with approval in his note about Kiyoko. She for her part must have admired Shugyo’s verses on his baby daughter. The net of resonances is expanded by these new translations, which remove the barrier of language for the Western reader.