FOREST OF EYES: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Jeffrey Angles. University of California Press, 2010, 164 pp., $19.95 (paper)

These are the lines from which the title of this poetry collection comes:

The town is nothing but mirrors

The mirrors are nothing but eyes

This town is a dense forest of eyes

In which leafy veins spread out wide

At first they seem to express an urban self-consciousness not unusual in modern, and especially Modernist, writers. But the last line switches to a natural image that seems more sympathetic than hostile.

From its title alone, “Forest of Eyes” suggests that it might be a surreal volume, an idea reinforced by the image on the cover. But when the second section of the title composition, “The Town of Mirrors or Forest of Eyes,” begins “The trees join arms,” it is clear that we are dealing with something more companionable and less cold than first thought.

The notes explain the allusions to the haiku poet Basho in one part, or the homoerotic overtones in another, so that the suite of poems comes to seem less surreal than visionary, insofar as these differ.

Another feature of this piece, which gave its title to the poet’s fourth collection, one of 14 selected here, is a suggestion of the limitations placed by society, and above all the church, on women. As a poet, Tada Chimako (1930-2003) did not adopt a strongly feminist stance, the Introduction tells us, but there is an element in her writing that can be interpreted that way. Intellectual by disposition, and broadly classical in her references, she is not an easy poet to categorize.

Born in Kita-Kyushu, Tada grew up in Tokyo, but was evacuated to the countryside during the war, and little affected by it as she became more and more absorbed in her own reading, much of it dealing with ancient myths. Greek and Latin mythology thus formed as much a part of her imaginative world as the culture of Japan. Like many others of older generations, she studied French literature, and came under its influence too.

Tada’s first collection, Fireworks (1956), on the evidence here, shows traces of Romanticism in its preoccupation with dawn and dusk, the hidden or the half-revealed. After that, she moved to Kobe with her new husband, and lived for the rest of her life on the slopes of Mount Rokko, a change that brought both a new restriction and a new freedom to her: The distance separated her from other writers in the capital, while also allowing her to develop on her own.

As a poet, Tada is more interested in dreaming and reflection than pure narrative, so that her take on Homer draws upon “The Odyssey” rather than “The Iliad” (“The carnage over, now for the music”). In mid-career, however, her poetry takes a new turn, when she starts composing prose poems, which are more a feature of French than English poetry, but have been adopted in Japanese as well. Having eschewed storytelling, she tentatively begins to explore and use it (“A little while ago, a strange incident took place”).

The prose poems of this middle period (and there are some fine late examples too), seem at first like a new venture. But one of the remarkable things about this poet is that she does not allow herself to be constricted, to compose only in a single form.

The majority of poets in Japan confine themselves to free-verse poetry, which may include prose poems, or else the traditional genres of haiku or tanka. As the translator explains, the former of these last two, although better known abroad, is actually an offshoot of the latter.

The two collections of 31-syllable tanka, and one of 17-syllable haiku, that are represented here show the poet to have mastered both these forms, and all this demonstrates her unusual range. Western poets freely choose the forms that they will write in, but their Japanese counterparts seldom encroach upon each other’s territory in this way.

Chimako Tada, then, like her friend and contemporary Takahashi Mutsuo, shows herself to be a new kind of poet in the variety of her achievement.

In his excellent introduction, Jeffrey Angles reveals how even Tada’s free-verse comes to adopt the rhythms of classical Japanese. Though we are still with Homer in “Lotophagi” (1986), where dawn has “rosy fingers,” there is surely an increase in Eastern content and allusion after this. Certainly the poet’s odyssey involves some shape-shifting myths and quizzical meditations in her later work. Rivers and tunnels feature often, as the translator notes.

“The grammar of pleasure already belongs to dead languages,” the poet says. And again elsewhere: “Like a stake, the river penetrates / Past, present, future.”

As the end of the poet’s life approaches, there is a kind of knocking at the doors of knowledge, and her last volume of poems is called “Breaking the Seal” (2004). It is one of three collections edited and published posthumously by Takahashi Mutsuo.

The other two volumes to appear after Tada’s death are of haiku and tanka respectively. These are more personally expressive. The three together form the finale to a singular body of poetry that has been finely chosen, sensitively introduced and admirably translated by Jeffrey Angles in this selection.

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