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A blue mood for poetry

by David Burleigh

POEMS OF DAYS PAST / ARISHI HI NO UTA, by Nakahara Chuya, translations by Ry Beville. The American Book Company, 2005, 81 pp., $19.99 (paper).
RIGHT EYE IN TWILIGHT / MIGI-ME NO BYAKUYA, by Ban’ya Natsuishi, translations by Ban’ya Natsuishi & Jack Galmitz. Wasteland Press, 2006, 58 pp., $12 (paper).

Both poets in these books are known by their given name and both have been translated into English (and other languages) before, although the contents given here are new. Both books are bilingual and have blue covers that seem to contemplate the reader: One carries a picture of the poet and the other, a colored drawing of a single eye. The mood in each case is somewhat blue as well.

The portrait of Nakahara Chuya (1907-37) that gazes mournfully from this new volume of his poetry is a familiar one: It shows him at the age of 18, wearing a hat.

“Poems of Days Past” is a translation of his second collection of poems, which was published posthumously just before World War II. Much admired in literary circles during his lifetime, Chuya did not become popular until the war had ended. Nowadays he is very widely read, especially by younger people.

Born the son of an army doctor in Yamaguchi, he started writing early, first in the traditional tanka form, then under the influence of Dadaism, until he finally discovered the French Symbolists. His own work follows Paul Verlaine (“de la musique avant toute chose”) in its musicality, but the puzzling imagery is equally inspired by the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the youthful genius of modern poetry, whose rumbustious lifestyle Chuya also followed. The sound of the poetry is very beautiful, filled with sad images and echoing refrains, though the exact sense is frequently elusive.

The emotional and lyrical appeal of Chuya’s poems is immediate, though hard to convey in English. An earlier, monolingual volume of his work, translated by Paul Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama (Gracewing, 1993), gracefully conveyed the meaning without straining to imitate the form. Ry Beville, by contrast, tries to follow the original shapes of the poems, and make them musical in English:

Again this morning spells of rain
A striking woman eyes awash
With iris hues of deep marine
Appears and then begins to vanish
(“June Rain”)

His use of “discreet sound devices” is sometimes quite successful. He translates the complete book except for its affecting dedication to the spirit of the poet’s infant son.

Chuya’s life was beset with troubles, as we learn from the useful introduction, but there are no notes to help the reader further with interpretation, and the Japanese text is so minuscule as to be nearly impossible to read. Mackintosh and Sugiyama give helpful notes, but the most fully annotated volume, though a much briefer selection of the poems, is a French edition that came out at the same time as this new English one. “The Poemes,” translated by Yves-Marie Allioux (Philippe Picquier, 2005), is the distilled result of 30 years’ acquaintance with the poems, has full scholarly apparatus and is very handsomely produced.

Chuya himself translated Rimbaud, and is often called the “Japanese Rimbaud,” an issue that the French translator carefully considers. But, disappointingly, none of the translators remarks on whether the poet’s use of the 5-7 rhythm of traditional Japanese poetic forms (tanka, haiku) has any particular relation to his readings of French poetry, where the 12-syllable alexandrine is the standard line.

Ry Beville earlier did an English version of Chuya’s first full collection under the title “Poems of the Goat,” which was reviewed here by Leza Lowitz (May 12, 2002). Chuya is certainly a poet worth getting to know, one who inspires devotion and who is becoming more widely read outside Japan: Just before the French edition, there was another in Italian.

Like Chuya, the haiku poet Ban’ya Natsuishi (b. 1955), who writes his name in Western order, was something of a youthful prodigy. He too engaged with French literature as a student, and displays a uniquely fluent gift when he writes in Japanese, while at the same time absorbing influences from a variety of sources. An earlier collection of his work in English called “A Future Waterfall” (Red Moon Press, 1999) set the forward-looking tone. “Right Eye in Twilight” evokes a period of eye trouble for the poet, ending with an operation.

It may have been a blue period for Ban’ya, but the title in Japanese actually refers to “white nights,” during which the white accumulation in the poet’s eye affects his vision:

Illness in one eye:
I’m walking
like a goldfish

Just then he gets news from (former) Yugoslavia, an important focus of international haiku. At a gathering later in Frankfurt, images of roses predominate, anchoring even an abstract experimental verse like this one:

Persecution, bombing,
defeat, diligence,
rose and haiku

How is the haiku, we wonder, to cope with a world of breaking news?

In the fourth section of the book, the poet’s right eye surrenders under a “windstorm of e-mails” following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. As the new millennium begins, the “white-eyed king” observes a winter landscape and decides to have an operation. His vision then apparently recovers:

The first view:
a singing blue
in the corner of my eye

The “singing blue” alludes to a haiku by his wife, Sayumi Kamakura, who is also a poet.

The poems are clearly set out, two to a page, with the Japanese above the English (but no version in roman letters). There are a good number of fresh and amusing images and juxtapositions that will delight the reader. The narrative thread, charting the course of an illness, gives coherence to the collection.