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Sensual poetry on love, marriage

by David Burleigh

ONNA NI, by Shuntaro Tanikawa, with etchings by Yoko Sano, translated by William I. Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura. Shueisha, 2012, 80 pp., ¥1,470 (paperback)

Shuntaro Tanikawa, born in 1931, is one of the most acclaimed poets in Japan — well known not only from the many volumes of poetry he has published but also for his public readings and television appearances.

I once stood on the other side of a pile of books from him in a museum bookstore, unsure at the moment whether to show that I recognized the famous and familiar face.

Tanikawa’s poetry came to attention some 60 years ago, with the launch of a group called Kai (Oar) in 1953. From the beginning it was open, joyful and celebratory, in some ways what was needed after the grim preceding years of wartime and defeat. A good deal of his work has already been translated and is available in pocket-size bilingual paperback editions. But this collection, published in Japanese in 1991, appears now for the first time with English versions added.

These versions, by two translators who have worked with the poet for many years, appear unobtrusively at the bottom of the pages underneath the Japanese, although the title of the book is untranslated. This may have been deliberate as it is a very ambiguous title and difficult to render. It might be given as “On Woman,” or as “To a Woman” or “For a Woman,” any of several nuanced meanings, all of which are probably intended. Is it, then, a meditation, or a song of praise?

As the erotic sketch beside the title shows, and the contents soon reveal, this very attractive combination of poetry and pictures is actually about love and marriage. The longing of each partner for the “other half” begins before birth, combining by implication the ancient Greek idea of quest (two halves), with a line of fate or destiny more likely to derive from Buddhism. Still unborn, the poet senses the encounter that lies far in the future. The drawings are by a woman he eventually married.

As the book proceeds, the reader gets a sense of both the unfolding of a romance and of the feelings this involves. Often when we are first in love, we feel possessive about the loved one’s past. This feeling can be intuited, I think, although it is nowhere directly stated. Rather, the poems open out in gentle stages a story that develops from early childhood:

When you lisped “We’re two,” counting for the first time,

I was already standing in your dream.

Imagining the loved one’s emergence toward him, the poet confirms his gradual movement toward her. Neither comes as an innocent to the union, and yet there is still some predestination. It is wakened by the voice or handwriting of the other:

“I touched your soul / before I touched your hand.” Consummation follows, with the fearful joy and sense of gratitude that that involves: “So far away from Justice, we make love.”

The late Yoko Sano (1938-2010), a gifted artist and essayist, was the poet’s wife, and this collaborative volume is an enchanting celebration of their marriage.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.

  • kyushuphil

    Thank you for bringing attention to this poet.
    But I have even more questions than i do enthusiasm. Does Tanikawa locate the loves people may have in the broader culture of consumerism that has engulfed Japan? Do his lines ring with association with any other Japanese not in his “kai” generational cohort? I’m thinking here prose writer Fumiko Hayashi, poet Yosano Akiko, and poet and artist Tanomura Chikuden. So great they were in seeing individuals in the contexts of their times.
    But good thanks, anyway, for spotting someone who may so well resonate for so many otherwise so buried in so many modern distractions and lies.