EMBRACING THE FIREBIRD: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Poetry, by Janine Beichman. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002, 352 pp., $23.95 (paper).

Vivid, rich, suggestive, imaginative — with these words, writer Janine Beichman aptly describes the extraordinary early poetry of Akiko Yosano (1878-1942). The first work in English to undertake such a comprehensive assessment of Akiko’s early life and poetry, “Embracing the Firebird” is an outstanding account of the formative years of Japan’s preeminent modern female poet.

Combining biography, commentary, translation, interpretation and critique, Beichman traces Akiko’s developing career with a fine eye for detail and for the significant factors that led to the poet’s astonishing success. Beichman’s narrative follows Akiko from her birth to a merchant family in the western Japanese port city of Sakai, through her youthful liaison with Meiji poet and critic Tekkan Yosano, to the debut of Akiko’s first tanka poetry collection “Midaregami” or “Tangled Hair” in 1901.

Chapters on the aesthetics and construction of “Tangled Hair” and its significance in modern Japanese literature are incorporated with many fine, close readings of Akiko’s tanka and a number of excellent photographic reproductions of Meiji literary notables, Akiko’s poetic texts and Akiko herself.

Although the broad outlines of Akiko’s story may be familiar to some, Beichman both widens and deepens our knowledge of this important poet through her introduction of new and little known information from Akiko’s later essays and memoirs. Beichman thus provides a fully fleshed portrait of Akiko in the years before she became the celebrated modern poet she is known as today.

More importantly, Beichman’s research offers much insight into some of the myths that still surround the Akiko persona, such as the notion — initiated by Akiko herself and accepted by many — that “Tangled Hair” was born from sudden inspiration. In a careful analysis of poems published before “Tangled Hair,” as well as of selected correspondence by Akiko with other poets of the times, Beichman shows how Akiko’s poetic talent developed through a variety of encounters and events, and how her first poetry collection resulted from a slow process rather than epiphanic transformation.

Even more intriguing is Beichman’s revelation regarding a common misperception of Akiko as a woman utterly dependent on the support and guidance of her husband. What Beichman calls the “Tekkan’s rib” image of Akiko turns out to be largely a construction set forth by Akiko herself.

Beichman speculates on Akiko’s motivations for promoting such a self-image: Was Akiko’s self-constructed dependency part of a move to prevent her less-famous husband from being written out of modern poetry history by rival male colleagues? Perhaps a possible answer lies in the negative opinion with which the middle-aged Akiko regarded her early work.

By allying herself more closely with her husband, Akiko was thus able to deny the romantic individualism she had espoused as a young poet. Whatever the reason for her later self-portrayal, Akiko is shown as a complex personality and literary innovator whose debut work continues to stand the test of time.

Although Japan can boast an ancient tradition of female writers and poets, Beichman points out that in Akiko’s day most women occupied subservient positions and were not expected to take part in the literary life of the newly modern nation. With the publication of Akiko’s early tanka culminating in the collection “Tangled Hair,” such discrimination was set on its head. The sense of passionate self-discovery and tempestuous eroticism inscribed throughout by a strong female presence brought “Tangled Hair” to the forefront of literary discussion. Akiko’s unparalleled success and the acclaim that continues to follow in her wake, even today, leads Beichman to posit Akiko’s early poetry as marking the “birth of the female voice in modern Japanese poetry.”

While Beichman’s argument interrogates neither the concept of “female voice” nor the means by which such a construct might be identified or accomplished, the author does establish young Akiko as deeply conflicted by the dictates of gender in a society that harbored, as Beichman puts it, “a traditional contempt for women.” Akiko quickly determined to forgo typical feminine poetry and “write like a man” in order to realize her talent.

The irony of Akiko’s position is underlined throughout as Beichman analyzes the various strategies undertaken by Akiko in her search for an authentic poetic self and the eventual establishment of her powerful female persona. Although Akiko initially sought to eschew the themes and conventions traditionally employed by female poets, she eventually adopted the theme of love as the mainstay of her early poetry and, in this regard, shares much in common with her premodern sisters.

Beichman is quick to point out the many different inflections in Akiko’s new tanka, attributing to Akiko an appropriately modern vigor and contemporary register that moves well beyond classical tradition to poetry that, for Beichman, partakes of the majestic, oracular and shamanic, as well as the tender and sublime. Whether this constitutes the “female voice” of Japanese poetic modernity, or simply the voice of the female poet Akiko Yosano, is a topic that awaits future exploration.

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