There is a persistent hum of activity among small-press publications in Japan, much of it concerned with poetry and a good deal of it translation.
The bilingual or English versions that quite regularly appear, beautifully bound and printed if sometimes badly proofread, represent a huge and often overlooked desire to communicate the poetic culture of Japan to the outside world. Sometimes, too, in all this eagerly produced work, there appears a little gem. “Iwana” is one such volume.
According to the translators’ afterword, Kurahara Shinjiro (1899-1965) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture, and went to study in Tokyo, where he discovered and was jolted by the poetry of Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942).
Despite this, Kurahara began by writing fiction, and only turned to poetry seriously some years later. When the war ended, he moved to Saitama, where he spent the last two decades of his life in comparative seclusion.
The body of his work is not great, though it is highly regarded, and one collection, “Char” (a kind of fish), from which this volume takes its title, received an important literary prize.
The book opens with a suite of lyrical but mysterious poems under the general title “Fox.” That suggests hidden danger and secret power in ways that echo other literary works, like D.H. Lawrence’s novella “The Fox”, which places the animal at the symbolic center of a powerful tale, or the poem “The Thought-Fox” by the English poet Ted Hughes, where it becomes an embodiment of inspiration. Here, the creature dreams until: “The dream gradually swells and expands infinitely and becomes the universe itself. That is, the fox is nowhere to be found.”
It exists, somehow intangibly, in a world of twilight and shadows. This haunting presence is replaced in the next section by the eponymous char, two of which are painted on a Sung dynasty bowl: “The char sleep down in the abyss of melancholy, wake up at times and splash, and then before I know it swim in the azure sky.”
One or two other poems also take up images from bowls or dishes, in ways that might remind us of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” or certain lines from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and yet have a gentle Japanese flavor of their own.
It is the bareness of the imagery (a girl in a field of watermelons, an old man fishing) and the graceful simplicity of presentation that enables us to join the poet in his silent contemplation of these subjects. He can conjure up the scene at the beginning of a poem with very few words: “Snow is falling in a dust of light.” (“Snow”); “A fishing pole in reflection” (“Autumn”).
Autumn, traditionally a reflective season, features in several pieces, as do the poet’s grandchildren, considered from the autumn of his years.
It is not a large collection, but finely presented, with Japanese and English on facing pages, delicate mauve sketches by way of illustration, and a useful essay at the end. The last poem, “A Footprint”, returns to the emblematic fox, and was apparently dictated by the poet on his deathbed. On a riverbank, where the fox once passed, “a footprint turned fossil remains”: “Looking at it, you’ll see what the fox was thinking while running.”
It is a fitting end, from which the reader, only slightly foxed, turns back with pleasure to the other poems. A most attractive little book.