Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Still Moving: The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa

by Collier Nogues


Chika Sagawa (author), Sawako Nakayasu (translator), The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, Canarium Books, 2015. 184 pgs.


As Sawako Nakayasu points out in her introduction to this volume, Chika Sagawa was Japan's first female Modernist poet, a movement whose poets, Nakayasu notes, have received less attention than they deserve for historical reasons. Sagawa and her contemporaries were part of a lively literary avant-garde in Tokyo in the 20s and 30s, but once the war period and its censorship began, poets were discouraged from writing "unpatriotic" work, particularly poetry which engaged with Western artistic ideas. Even after the war, literary critics tended to favour the more classical traditions of waka (tanka and haiku), and much Modernist work remained little read or reviewed for decades. Sagawa herself died before the war, at 24 from stomach cancer, after seven years of writing and translating in Tokyo's cosmopolitan poetry scene. She translated English and American modernists including Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Charles Reznikoff and Mina Loy, and took great interest in the ways her fellow writers responded to Western literary movements ranging from surrealism to objectivism. Her own work, Nakayasu suggests, deftly straddled the "dislocated, tenuous ground" of Eastern and Western traditions and new literary innovations. For today's English-language readers, this first comprehensive translation of Chika Sagawa's poems is both a window into the unique forms Japanese modernism took and an introduction to a singular poetic intelligence whose work feels remarkably fresh and resonant with 21st-century poetic concerns.

Sagawa's primary subject is the way a perceiving being, the poet, acts and is acted upon by the world surrounding her. Her poems are strikingly visual and sensory, often featuring synesthetic images like "I hear daylight run by" ("Beard of Death") or "Flax flowers smell of melting haze" ("Spring"). They also feel spare and clean, but alive with contradictory motion in a fully animate world. Take, for example, "Rusty Knife," which appears here in its entirety:

Pale blue dusk scales the window.

A lamp dangles from the sky like the neck of a woman.

Murky dark air permeates the room—spreads out a single blanket.

The books, ink, and rusty knife seem to be gradually stealing the life out of me.

While everything sneered,

Night was already in my hands.

The objects in this poem are agents, and they all enjoy juicy, active verbs: the dusk scales the window, a lamp dangles, the air permeates and spreads, the books and ink and knife steal, everything sneers. Notice how unspecific many of her nouns are: dusk, the sky, a woman, air, everything, night. Sagawa's poems are populated with near-abstractions that nevertheless feel very concrete and real because of the movement and agency with which she endows them. They also feel real because that agency is part of a constantly shifting balance of power—the dusk can scale the window, while the lamp can only dangle, and while some objects "seem to be gradually stealing the life out of me," the poem's speaker "already" possesses night "in her hands." The poem is composed of multiple forces, always moving, always exerting pressure on each other. The human observer is only one, and her agency is matched by her surroundings.

Observation is itself inseparable from the surrounding world in Sagawa's poems; she suggests that the human eye is not only how we see our world but also a site in which the world happens. In "Falling Ocean," she writes, "The ocean builds a blue road from the vicinity of my eyes." In another poem, "The people wait for spring, / In search of lost time. / They will wish for the seagull / To once again return to their eyes" ("Wind is Blowing"). "Eyes" are where the blue road begins, where the seagull returns: they participate in images as much as they perceive them.

Some of Sagawa's more explicit insights about the connection between seeing and artmaking are present in this collection as well, in several prose works in the book's last section. In one essay she writes, "I believe that the work of a painter is very similar to that of a poet. I know this because looking at paintings wears me out." Elsewhere, she makes the distinction between what can immediately be seen, however clearly, and what's actually there: "Wearing glasses was not for the purpose of seeing things more clearly. That is to say, if what I see is limited by the width of my face, I might misperceive only that which appears before me, the sparks of the phenomenon itself often distracting me before I learn just how the thing spreads out or permeates."

The question of "how the thing spreads out" is fundamental to Sagawa, and we find evidence of that in poem after poem, as she returns to the gesture of spreading. Here are a few:

Recollections accumulate upon the path of memory. As if spreading white linen. ("Circuit")

… the beautifully burning green flames spread high, circling the outskirts of the earth … ("Green Flames")

Night has spread completely. ("Black Air")

The ocean froths / And is spreading its lace. ("Ocean Bride")

In the mirror of diamonds, the snow / Curves / Spreading its wings like the light. ("Song of the Sun")

And, of course, the poem reprinted above, "Rusty Knife": "Murky dark air permeates the room—spreads out a single blanket."

The concern with amorphous, abstract forces that spread and permeate reminds this reader of the other forces that were spreading in Japan in the early 1930s: nationalism and imperialism. 1931 marked the escalation of Japanese occupation in Manchuria, and throughout the early 30s as Sagawa was writing, militarism was on the rise. It is of course possible that Sagawa was not thinking of this, was quite insulated—artists sometimes are—but there are moments in these poems which suggest otherwise. Several poems feature "the people" in processions ("Shapes of Clouds") or hanging their heavy hearts ("Blemish on the Grape") or continuing to move forward despite "chopped down" space and "shriveled, deridable despair" ("Backside") or "open[ing] their mouths" in the wake of sailors laughing "with their teeth bared" ("Waves"). And take these lines from "The Mad House," one of the few poems with concrete locations:

He will soon arrive in Baghdad.

It is quite bustling there.

Soldiers of the Red Army, curly-haired artists, pale-skinned Ryazan women, the spiral staircase of the cabaret.

The piano makes tinny sounds.

People standing on a mere footprint's worth of dirt are sharpened crystals. One wrong step leads to death. The infinite propagation of the sun.

There's a distinct awareness of geopolitics here, in the mention of Baghdad and the Red Army. And while it's a stretch to make assumptions, it's also true that for readers familiar with Japan's political atmosphere in the early 30s, images of "the sun" juxtaposed with death and soldiers may ring a bell. In the pre-war period, Shinto religion played an increasing role in Japan's nationalist ideology, in particular in constructing the emperor's divinity, whose source was Ameratasu, the sun goddess from which the Japanese ruling line was thought to be descended. For this reader, at least, the "infinite propagation of the sun" (another image of spreading) just after "[o]ne wrong step leads to death" in the context of war and soldiering seems implicitly political. And then I look at the next poem, "Shapes of Clouds," and see a procession through an empty city with a garland swaying in its centre, where "fingertips thin like leaves / are drawing maps," and I think of how it might have felt to live in imperial Tokyo, immersed in an avant-garde literary community reading literature and political poetries from abroad, and I wonder if these poems would have registered as political critique to Sagawa's contemporary audience.

Whether we attend to these poems' historical context or read them as worlds unto themselves, they are always astoundingly alive, brilliantly contradictory. As Nakayasu puts it, they demand to be read "not as fixed, stable objects, but something more architecturally complex." In Sagawa's world, "All shadows" may "drop from the trees and gang up on me," but just one line later "my emotions dance about the city / Until they have driven out the grief." These poems have not stopped moving in nearly a century; it is pure pleasure to move with them.

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