Her hair at twenty
Flowing long and black
Through the teeth of her comb
Oh beautiful spring
Extravagant spring!
My skin is so soft
Fresh from my bath
It pains me to see it covered
By the fabric
Of an everyday world

No Japanese poet in modern times has described female sensibilities and feminine passion as exquisitely as Akiko Yosano. Last month marked the 130th anniversary of her birth, yet her poetry speaks about love, lust and devotion in ways that are still startling, fresh and revealing to us today.

Yosano’s most renowned metaphor involves her hair, and it was her 399-tanka collection, “Midaregami” (Disheveled Hair), published on Aug. 15, 1901, that brought her to the immediate attention of the public and the critics alike. (The tanka is a traditional form of poetry consisting of 31 syllables in five lines.)

The image of long, extravagant hair harks back to the Heian Period (794-1185) and its great classic work of literature that Yosano loved and translated into modern Japanese, “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu.

Another poem about hair:

Two stars deep into heaven
Whispering love, exhausted
Behind the nighttime curtain
While down below, now, people lie
Their hair disentangling . . .

In this poem, which is actually the first one in “Midaregami,” people, as well as strands of hair, have become tangled up with each other, both literally and figuratively. The entire collection may be about such entanglements. The scene described in “Two stars deep into heaven” takes place just after a couple has made love.

For the people of the Meiji Era in Japan (1868-1912), such revelations — frank, personal and erotic — were naturally shocking. They came at the start of a genuine and bravely fought feminist movement in the country, a movement that was later derided and destroyed as the liberal tenets of Japan’s young democracy were crushed in the 1930s and early ’40s by militaristic fascism.

Yosano sings of female power and imagination in two ways: In the next poem, the power to give birth to dreams and the future; in the one after it, the power to have ultimate sway over men.

Droplets fall from a young girl’s hair
Congealing on grass
Giving birth to butterflies
In the country
Of spring
The girl in the springtime window
Calls to awaken a young priest
Barely a man
His sutras toppled
By her dangling sleeve

Yosano wrote many poems about the restrained passions that overwhelm young girls. In the latter poem, a girl is looking through a window in spring. She sees a young acolyte immersed in his sutras. But her sleeve, dangling down (into the room?), distracts and diverts him, pious as he is, toward something he is not able to resist.

Yosano was born in Sakai, an old trading town in Osaka Prefecture, on Dec. 7, 1878. Her father owned and managed a confectionary store. She wrote poetry from an early age and submitted her work to Myojo, a monthly literary magazine founded in 1900 by the poet Tekkan Yosano. During its eight-odd years of publication, Myojo was to become the most important and influential literary magazine of the early modern period in Japan, and Tekkan was to become the love of Akiko’s life and her husband.

Akiko and Tekkan spent a lot of time in Kyoto, where, at Arashiyama, the Oi River flows.

We leaned against the railing
That runs along the bank
Of the wide Oi River
Dressed in water-color blue
For our very own summer!

But such intimacy is also interrupted by separation . . . Tomorrow, this time tomorrow You will not be with me . . . I lean against the inn door, faint As the plum blossoms darken Before my eyes

Akiko met Tekkan in 1900, and fell hopelessly in love with him. The two began living together the next year; and when Tekkan divorced his wife, they married in 1901. In the ensuing years, she gave birth to 13 children, 11 of whom survived childhood. And yet she managed to publish more than 20 books of poetry, as well as numerous essays, articles and translations.

The forthright passion of her poetry has inspired several generations of female poets in Japan — all the way up to our brilliant contemporaries such as Kazuko Shiraishi and Hiromi Ito.

Let me wind my slender arm
Around your neck
Let me suck the fever
From your parched lips
Let me . . .

Yosano was an antiwar activist as early as the era of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). She also dedicated herself to coeducational education at a time when the very word jogakusei (female student) was used as a sneering pejorative in Japan and, in 1921, was a cofounder of the liberal educational institution Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo’s central Ochanomizu district. In addition, she actively encouraged many writers of her, and the younger, generation. She managed to do all this with 11 children (though, admittedly, she enjoyed the assistance of relatives and helpers), to write poetry, to travel abroad and to cater to her very proud husband, whose fame she easily eclipsed.

While Tekkan sermonized, Akiko burned . . .

You spout your words of wisdom
While the current of my blood runs
Hot beneath my soft skin . . .
Don’t you miss
Touching it?

One of the powers of a beautiful poem comes from its distillation of time, transporting us to a place where our past and present coexist. There are not many poems that instantly compress our most intense, buried memories, allowing us to relive them, as this one does . . .

Yesterday is another world
A thousand years away . . .
Yet it rushes to me
This minute!
With your hand on my shoulder . . .

All the poems appearing here are translated by Roger Pulvers © 2009.

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