Translations from Japanese by Hiroaki Sato

IN PRAISE OF MAY

May is a fancy month, a flower month,
The month of buds, the month of scents, the month of colors,
The month of poplars, marrons, plantanes,
Azaleas, tree peonies, wisteria, redbud,
Lilacs, tulips, poppies,
The month women’s cloths turn
Light and thin, the month of love,
The festival month Kyoto residents
In twirled crowns, arrows on their backs,
Compete in horse races,
The month girls in the City of Paris
Choose for the Flower Festival
A beautiful, noble queen;
If I may speak of myself,
It’s the month I crossed Siberia, crossed Germany,
Longing for my love,
And arrived in that distant Paris,
The month to celebrate our fourth son,
Auguste, born last year,
With irises, swords, and streamers,
The breezy month, the month of
The blue moon, of platinum-colored clouds,
When the bright sky and the hemp palm
Outside the window of my small study
Remind me of a Malay island,
The month of honeybees, the month of butterflies,
The month of birth when ants turn into moths
And canaries hatch their eggs,
The sensual month, the month of flesh
That somehow incites you,
The month of Vous voulez wine, of perfumes,
Of dances, of music, and of songs,
The month of the sun when
Myriad things inside me
Hold one another tight, become entangled,
Moan, kiss, and sweat, the month
Of the blue sea, of the forest, of the park, of the fountains,
Of the garden, of the terrace, of the gazebo,
So here comes May
To toss at us a giddiness
Sweet as the lemonade you suck with a straw
From a thin, skinny glass.

AUGUSTE'S SINGLE STRIKE

My lovely two-year-old Auguste,
I write this down for you:
Today, for the first time,
you struck your mother on the cheek.
It was the power of your life
that wanted to win —
the genuine power for conquest
took on the form of anger
and a spastic fit
and flashed like lightning.
You must have been conscious of nothing,
must have forgotten it at once.
But your mother was shocked,
was also deeply happy.
You can, some day, as a man,
be on your own defiantly,
you can be on your own purely, resolutely,
also can love man and nature decisively
(The core of conquest is love),
also you can conquer suspicion, pain, death,
jealousy, cowardice, derision,
oppression, crooked learning, conventions,
filthy wealth, and social ranks.
Yes, that genuine strike,
that’s the totality of your life.
Such were the premonitions I felt that made me happy
under the pain of the sharp blow
you struck with your palm
as a lion cub might.
At the same time I felt the same power
lurking in myself
and even the cheek you didn’t strike
became hot like the cheek you did.
You must have been conscious of nothing.
must have forgotten it at once.
But when you’ve become an adult,
take this out and read it,
when you think, when you work,
when you love someone, when you fight.
My lovely two-year-old Auguste,
I write this down for you:
Today, for the first time,
you struck your mother on the cheek.
My still more lovely Auguste,
You, in my womb,
walked through Europe, sightseeing.
As you grow up,
your wisdom will remember
the memories of those travels with your mother.
What Michelangelo and Rodin did,
what Napoleon and Pasteur did,
yes, it was that genuine strike,
that ferocious, blissful strike.

COMMENTARY

with Jeffrey C. Robinson


The day when mountains move has come. / Though I say this, nobody believes me. / Mountains sleep only for a little while / that once have been active in flames. / But even if you forgot it, / just believe, people, / that all the women who slept / now awake and move. (Y.O., a “new-style” poem, translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

The appearance of her first book, Tangled Hair (Midaregami), in 1901, created a scandal, not only for its explicit female sexuality but for its complexity & presumed unintelligibility within the framework of the traditional tanka form. As a by now acknowledged masterwork of “Japanese romanticism,” already influenced by symbolist & other fin-de-si├Ęcle European writing but drawing as well from older Japanese & Chinese sources, it provided a vehicle for women’s liberation – a “battleground poetry,” in Janine Beichman’s phrase, not as a form of rant, but as Yosano described it, writing of her own “first poems,” “I realized that if women didn’t really exert themselves they would never mix with men on an equal footing. That was the first time I made a poem.” The resulting innovations – both in tanka (five-line closed verse) & in “new-style” poetry – went beyond most poets of her time: a use of multiple voices (male as well as female); an unprecedented focus on the naked body derived, it was said, from European painting & from the erotic side of the ukiyo-e (floating world) tradition of print-making; & a sense of mystery & ambiguity, created by formal means (“asymmetry, ellipses, and numerous allusions”), that she called shinpi & that Beichman delivers further as “the palimpsestic effect.” Her work, as it moved into the new century, was voluminous; by Kenneth Rexroth’s count, “she wrote more than 17,000 tanka, nearly five hundred shintaishi (free verse [poems]), published seventy-five books, including translations of classical literature, and had eleven children.” She was also an active pacifist & a socialist sympathizer, who openly opposed Japan’s military adventures in the twentieth century, as in a fiercely anti-war poem addressed to her brother (1904), which brought denunciation as “a traitor, a rebel, a criminal who ought to be subjected to national punishment.” (In the light of her radical independence, her relation with her poet husband, Yosano Hiroshi [a.k.a. Tekkan], assumes far less significance for her work than it’s usually given.) Writes Rexroth further: “She is one of the world’s greatest women poets, comparable to Christina Rossetti, Gaspara Stampa, Louise Labe, and Li Ching Chao. She is certainly one of the very greatest poets of her time – the most perfect expression of the ‘Art Nouveau’ sensibility – like Debussy, who should have set her poems to music.”

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, copies now available & scheduled for formal publication in January 2009. Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, August 7, August 16, September 7, September 22, October 3, October 9, October 20, November 27, & December 11. The full table of contents for volume 3 can be found at http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10540/toc.pdf]

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