BREASTS OF SNOW: Fumiko Nakajo — Her Tanka and Her Life, by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold, preface by Makoto Ueda. Tokyo: The Japan Times, 2004. 152 pp., 2,000 yen (paper).

Fumiko Nakajo’s short life (1922-54) was both illustrated and illuminated by the tanka that she began writing after she developed the cancer that eventually killed her.

She distilled all of her thoughts and feelings into this traditional Japanese poetic form (verse patterns of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables), which, as Makoto Ueda tells us in his preface, gave her a freedom of expression within restricted verse form that was analogous to the kind of freedom she maintained within the narrow bounds of an incurable disease.

From this came two tanka collections: “Chibusa Soshitsu (The Loss of Breasts),” published just before her death, and “Hana no Genkei (A Prototype of Flowers),” published posthumously. Though these do not comprise all the poems that she wrote, they do indicate the strength of her work and the reasons for her popularity.

For example,

in a high fever
at midnight I think
of the day I saw
the tongue of a giraffe
I don’t know why it was black

One of the pleasures of the tanka (as with the haiku) is the surprise that unexpected conjunction offers. And one of the qualities of this verse form is, as the translators inform us, the marking within the poem of a definite change. It may be in time, place, or voice, but it must be there. In this poem of Nakajo’s it occurs on all three levels — time, space, and the voice changing from the one telling her own story to the one expressing her own thoughts.

Nakajo sometimes altered the tanka form to make it more expressive of her thoughts. In one (p. 29) she makes one line contain too many syllables in order to express her overflowing emotions. In another (p. 119) she makes a line too short (six rather than seven syllables) to express the tension of which she writes. (This is apparent only in the original Japanese — here given with its romaji transliteration as well as the English translation, which does not attempt a precise syllabled rendering.)

Nakajo also availed herself of tanka’s ability to express obliquely in

as if in joy
the oyster bound
by winter kelp
will rise up
a thorn of flesh

Apparently a threatened oyster does just this, and the fleshy limb is, we are informed, an acicula. Such natural history is used by the poet for personal ends. It is seen as sexual and suggests her idea of “defending herself by fleeing into more affairs.”

Like all lyric poetry the tanka asks as well as answers questions, as in:

for insomnia
the night prepares to give
me something
a toad, a black dog
one who has drowned

The poem moves from light to dark, from the pleasant idea of being given something to the distress of finding out what the gift is.

At the same time, and again typically, the tanka implies an acceptance, as in this beautiful poem, the last she wrote before her death:

with the light off
stealthily something
moves to me
I have tamed it now
as if it were a pleasure

Such mastery of the tanka form demands respect and wider readership. Yet this is only, I find, the second translation. (The first was the inclusion of 20 of her poems in Makoto Ueda’s collection of modern Japanese tanka.) Perhaps a reason for this is found in the enormous posthumous popularity of Nakajo. Her early “martyrdom” won her an almost poster-girl renown and this kind of notoriety usually works against scholarly acceptance. There was even a film about her (directed by Kinuyo Tanaka), and novelist Yasunari Kawabata was so impressed by her plight that when asked by her to write an introduction to her first collection, he did so.

In Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichold, Nakajo has found very sympathetic translators. Kawamura is editor of “The Tanka Journal” and Reichhold is the author of a number of tanka-related works.

They share a definite solidarity with their subject: that “in Japan, as in most parts of the world, it is the males who control what gets published,” but that the solitary voice, modulating its pain, becomes a whisper louder than a shout

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