Books / Reviews

Bold move into Tamura's cold verse

by David Burleigh

TAMURA RYUICHI: On the Life and Work of a 20th Century Master, edited by Takako Lento & Wayne Miller. Pleiades Press, 2011, 175 pages, $12.99 (paper)

The expression of the poet Ryuichi Tamura, as he looks out at the reader from the cover of this book, reminded me just a little of photographs of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, though without the pince-nez and the cravat. There is a similar haughtiness and distance to Tamura, as he casts a cold eye upon the world. It is reflected in his poetry and undoubtedly derives from his experience.

Tamura was born in 1923 and, “like many of his contemporaries, was something of a political and cultural dissenter in the years leading up to World War II,” the introduction tells us. Though he was obliged to serve in the Japanese forces once the war had begun, he had also been greatly impressed by a translation of T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem “The Waste Land” when it appeared in 1940. After the war, Tamura joined with other poets to form a group called Arechi (The Wasteland).

The wasteland embodied in this name referred of course to the devastation of Japan with which the poets were confronted. Tamura was one of the most clearheaded among those now groping for an appropriate response. The tone that he came to adopt was exceedingly detached: “My poems are simple things / like reading letters from a far country / there’s no need for tears” he writes in “Far Country.” Rather than dramatizing the experience of war, he represents it coolly, obliquely.

There is an unearthly clarity in these poems, but no self-pity. A little over 40 pages are given over to a selection of them from the hands of different translators. These follow the introduction, and the remainder of the book consists of essays on the poet and his work, critical accounts or personal recollections, sometimes with additional translated poems. The prose, too, has been translated from the Japanese. In the middle there are some images of the poet — photographs from childhood to old age. It is an attractive compendium.

One of Tamura’s best-known pieces is called “Four Thousand Days and Nights,” roughly the time since the war had ended, composed in 1956:

In order to give birth to a poem

we must kill those we love

that is the only way to resurrect the dead

it is the path we must take

This may seem strange and chilly, but as Christopher Drake remarks in an admirable essay on Tamura, the most powerful words the poet ever heard were those that announced the beginning of the Pacific war, and, later, the conclusion of it when Japan surrendered.

The prospect is bleak in the aftermath of war, but the poet sees it clearly:

In your sightless imagination

this world is a wilderness for hunting

where you are a hunter in winter

always trying to close in on a single heart

“You do not trust words,” he continues in “Thin Line”; nonetheless, language is the only tool at his disposal. Confronting the void, the wholly different experience, demands a new language, and this is what Tamura evidently tries to forge.

It is difficult, in translation, for us to appreciate the ways that it is new, but here the accompanying essays provide assistance. Miho Nonaka, for instance, discusses in detail some haunting prose poems, complementing the comments on them by leading critic Ooka Makoto just before her. In this way the volume builds up and expands as we peruse the assembled contributions. The nature of the poet’s difficulty and the probing questions that he puts become almost metaphysical.

Two other contemporary poets, Tanikawa Shuntaro and Yoshimasu Gozo, give personal recollections of the poet’s drinking and his visits to the United States.

Laurence Lieberman, an American poet, amplifies this picture with an account of his own meetings with Tamura in Japan. There are a couple of surprisingly amusing and warm poems near the end of the selection, one a valedictory composition for Lieberman on his departure, the other describing a visit to the English poet W.H. Auden in New York.

Even here, though, there is a refusal of sentimentality that continues till the end. It is not until the final essay that we learn Tamura died in 1998. Takako Lento tells us that he did not wish to live into the new century, and so got his wish.

This engaging volume is the second in a series on “Unsung Masters”; it is a bold move by the publishers to dedicate it to a non-American writer like Tamura.