Shizue Ogawa is so nervous it takes her an hour to stop trembling and another 30 minutes to take off her glasses. Then she can’t stop talking, smiling and laughing. As she explains: “I’m from the countryside. I’m not used to the big city and places like this,” and she indicates the lobby of the Imperial Hotel in central Tokyo, where we are drinking tea.
Yet Shizue is no country bumpkin. She is a poet, and when she speaks, the words often flow in unusual sequence, conveying a depth of observation and emotion that is rare and awesome. Even more unusually, she writes in Japanese and English.
Nor is she a natural housewife. “I have no interest in shopping, any more housework than is really necessary, or cooking.” She has so many allergies that food is something to be approached with reservation. “That’s why I have to live in the countryside. A city like Tokyo would be death to me.”
She grew up in Memuro, a village near Obihiro in southeast Hokkaido. “I was like a potato, living underground in a warm, dark, secure place. I was perfectly happy.”
Her parents ran a mom-and-pop store selling just about everything except food. But her father also graded agricultural produce. He would sit in the middle of fields and farmers would bring their crops for him to check quality and so establish market prices.
As the second daughter of three, like many middle children, she was happy to hide from the expectation heaped on an older sibling and the babying of the youngest. Her elder sister is a semipro badminton player in Sapporo; the other, married with two sons.
Poems “hummed” in her consciousness. “It’s amazing I learned to speak Japanese; living as I did in a world without words or friends. Wandering huge fields and deep forests, I should have learned the sounds of animals, the rustlings of leaves. Often I would think, ‘Am I a leaf? Am I corn? What am I?’ I felt a strong confidence that I could communicate better with nature than humans.”
As she grew older, her only ambition was to study. “I wanted to know the meaning of life.” But college had to go on hold for a year after a quarter of Memuro burned down and the family lost their home. “Then I had to battle my mother, who being a simple person felt that if I studied philosophy, I would inevitably commit suicide. We had to find a compromise to keep us both happy. “
Shizue made the long journey to Kyoto’s Doshisha Women’s College, where she stayed four years majoring in English literature. Her idol, she says, remains the English poet John Keats. “I love all his odes. I’ve spent 30 years trying to understand his mind, his technique.”
After a year back home, helping her younger sister recover from illness, she returned to Kyoto in 1970 to take her master’s degree. She then began teaching at Doshisha and other universities roundabout. But throughout these years, her own poems had been flowing from her imagination to paper as naturally as a spring bubbles water and a river flows to the ocean. “Writing is as natural to me as breathing.”
Shizue cannot recall her first poem but began writing consciously after meeting Josaburo Ogino, a professor of philosophy at Doshisha. “He has been my mentor, continually encouraging me.”
Her first published work appeared in ‘Over the Oceans: 14 Bilingual Poems by 14 Poets.” Her contribution, “The Angry Tree,” concludes: “Ah! The undulating dream of the tree, like waves of heat! / The tree does not always want to stand there angrily / and quietly contemplates the day to come.”
Her first book of free verse, “Water: A Soul at Play” was published in 1999 and is bilingual, with translations by Donna Tamaki. There is also a CD, with the author reading her poems, Donna reading in English, and cello accompaniment by Hikaru Tamaki.
Shizue met her husband, Tsutomu, as a student at an English circle. But while she liked him, she could not approve of his work as a mechanical engineer, so asked, if there were a war, would he make weapons? Being the 1970s, strong feelings were being manifested about Japan’s Security Treaty and the Vietnam War. When he replied, yes, he supposed so, Shizue pulled back. The result? He changed course, to become a doctor.
First he paid for her to finish her studies, and then he re-trained, allowing his wife to support him. “He worked hard and then I worked hard, but we really enjoyed this phase of our life together.” After finishing medical school, he took up posts in internal medicine. For the last six years, the couple have been living in Ishibe, a small town that lies in Shiga Prefecture. “I guess I’m just a small-town girl,” Shizue muses.
Having many English-speaking friends, she finds herself writing more and more in this second language. “Donna and I are working on the second volume of ‘Water: A Soul at Play’ for publication next year.”
She writes very fast. An idea just pops up, and then down it goes on paper. “It’s never a struggle, and far more a joy than, say, eating.” Yes, she does rework lines sometimes, but that first instinct is usually correct. ” My most recent poem is ‘Frog’s Music School,’ to which my husband responded, ‘Oh no, not more frogs!’ I don’t understand the mechanics of how I write. It’s a kind of miracle, really. I suppose my poems are my children — they just grow inside me and then emerge complete.”
She challenged her husband’s devotion a second time when he was working in a hospital in northern Shiga and she traveling to work by shinkansen. ” ‘Please move,’ I pleaded. He knew how much my job meant to me, but also loved his patients. He cried, tears not just dripping but flowing off the end of his nose.” Still, he agreed, and now life is easier.
She wrote the poem “Night” in gratitude. The last lines run: “Walk more slowly, won’t you? / Please look into my eyes. / I am walking on a dark path at night / holding your favorite roses to my breast. / Now I can return your smile.”
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