Found in Translation: Women’s Voices From Japan – A Bilingual Poetry Reading

On a chilly Spring night at the University of Canberra, we gather to listen to four Japanese poets and their translators – Takako Arai (with Jen Crawford), Kayoko Yamasaki (with Subhash Jaireth), Harumi Kawaguchi (with Melinda Smith) and Hiromi Ito (with Jeffrey Angles).

This event (part of the Poetry on the Move Festival) is splendid not simply because of the poetry which stands on its own merit in Japanese and in English but because of the way in which it is delivered by both poets and translators (who are all poets as well). Rina Kikuchi (who organised this event and, with Jen Crawford, edited the excellent anthology Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan) asserts that her selection of these poets was to break the illusion of Japanese women and to discard and displace “outdated stereotypes of their ‘obedient’ and ‘passive’ nature”. These poets were chosen to demonstrate the variety and diversity of women’s voices in Japan and they definitely succeed in doing that.

Each of the poets is completely individual in style. Takako Arai is a petite elegant woman clad in a neat black cocktail dress but her demure image is a façade. This is a poet whose performance is dramatic, lively and haunting. Her poem ‘Dollogy’ leaves us reeling. Jen Crawford’s translation is superb but even before she delivers it we understand at some visceral level what Arai is telling us. The image of the rounded girl doll with her tiny waist in stinking layers of red silk is surreal and appalling but we recognise the profound truth in lines like: “Of course. Girl dolls are the mummies of silk worms / Of course. Girl dolls are the mummies of young girls.” Arai subverts age old images from Japanese traditional poetry: blossoms, silk worms, mountains and the moon are lifted out of Zen serenity and turned upside down. “… Blossoms, then more blossoms from / within your mountain gorge … give me red ones / because I’ll dye them, because I can’t stop. Of course it stinks when you lift / these layers. / That’s / the moon.

Jen Crawford (left) waiting as Takako Arai (right) reads.

Takako Arai with Jen Crawford

There is a lovely connection between Arai and Crawford and in the poem ‘A Lightbulb’ their voices dance together in easy rhythm. Arai is a born actor – her careful and precise movements clearly convey the two characters in this poem. Crawford is more measured but their collective voices create a moment of sharp shock in the lines: “… I grab the neck, / pull at it, grab her breast – / it’s not there / her breast.” Arai’s breathy painful sighs are echoed by Crawford’s softer ahhs. The crescendo comes in the last line: “Turn it on.” It is an intense and fabulous finish and the applause is immediate and heartfelt.

The next poet is Kayoko Yamasaki. She stands before us, a small graceful woman in an embroidered skirt and gorgeous red shoes. Her voice is soft but infused with expression. She and her translator Subhash Jaireth offer us two poems: ‘The Hour Glass’ and ‘Tree’. The gentle repetition of “soft like so’’ in ‘The Hour Glass’ is juxtaposed against the terrifying reality of the surgery and the surgeon’s hand – “meanwhile in the surgery the air / is edgy …” The subtle imagery in this poem: “soft like so it falls we are but sand / grains as light or heavy  coloured / pale red of a pigeon’s scrawny leg” is contrasted with the horrific heart wrenching narrative in the next poem, ‘Tree’. Yamasaki’s low voice delivers the ghastly account of the life span of a tree which stands in a nightmarish war torn landscape of “blood stained clouds and a raven lost in flight.”  We are left open mouthed in horror as the slaughter of chooks transforms into a massacre of children and women.

Subhash Jaireth (left) and Kayoko Yamasaki (right) reading.

Kayoko Yamasaki with Subhash Jaireth

Yamasaki does not shrink from depicting the most frightening and terrible realities of war: “… the man now dressed as a soldier, his hands on his hips / will roar a shameless laugh … and will drink and drink as my stump / will be drenched in the blood of the dead.” Subhash Jaireth delivers the English lines with a ponderous gravitas which balances the delicate timbre of Yamasaki’s voice.

Yamasaki is a Japanese-Serbian poet and it is a real treat to hear her spontaneously speak a third poem in Serbian. Her voice is almost whispery but full of meaning as she utters the last lines of ‘Coming Home for a Brief Visit’. “I gaze / at the face / of my motherland / mine and yet / nevermore / mine.” All of us who are diasporic understand the perfect truth of this poem.

The third Japanese poet is Harumi Kawaguchi who opens her session with a drawled, “G’day mate.” Her translator is Melinda Smith. Kawaguchi is almost translucent, tiny and waif like. Her voice is filled with expression but quiet and steady when reading the first poem, ‘Artificial’. The poem moves fluidly between languages and the sound of sadness and loss, mirrored in the voices of poet and translator, moves us to tears. Kawaguchi’s poems are narratives which unfold chapter by chapter. ‘Artificial’ juxtaposes the happy scene of lake and swan boats, amusement parks and delighted shrieks with the loss of a child. The colloquial command of a mother “Don’t let go of my hand … Keep holding on like that OK?” is followed by the chilling lines: “She was supposed to keep holding on like that / but before I know it, my daughter has disappeared.”

Melinda Smith (right) and Harumi Kawaguchi (left) reading in front of microphones.

Harumi Kawaguchi with Melinda Smith

The story is cleverly structured by these two poets. The breaks come in strategic places and we wait with bated breath for the next instalment of this dream like tale. Was there a daughter? Is this moment of loss as artificial as the lake? Nothing is certain. Like the great Japanese writer, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Kawaguchi confronts our notions of objective truth. The lines: “She isn’t anywhere / It may be she was never here to begin with / My daughter, never anywhere …” fill us with dread. The boundaries between reality and illusion are completely blurred but what is certain is an absolute understanding of the human condition. Kawaguchi is profoundly aware of the universal feelings of fear and loss, despair and searching that exist in all relationships: “Things that have been lost and things that are not there, / things I can’t recall and things I can’t forget, melted and mixed, into / the skin of the water …”

We realise Kawaguchi’s rare genius when this pair reads the next poem ‘Welcome Home’. Her whole demeanour changes and it is as if another person has entered the room. She speaks at a rapid rate in a voice full of comical animation. This time the narrative is light, bright and very quirky. The story is of a wife who receives an aquarium for her birthday (which is not really her birthday) and ends up living in it while her husband drinks beer and looks “at the aquarium with the / same face he used to watch the TV with. Nothing in his head.”  Both Kawaguchi and Smith bring a vivacious exaggerated whackiness to their presentation of this bizarre scenario but there is also a dark and frightening aspect of marriage being presented here and both poets never lose sight of this. The deadly repetitiveness of an empty relationship is echoed in the lines: “I’m home goodnight welcome home I’m home welcome home goodnight / welcome home welcome home.” The poem opens and closes with the cutely articulated greeting “Happy Birthday!” and while we laugh at the humour of this cartoon like situation we also feel deep discomfort at the lines, “I am full of nothing / When I get broken this time he’ll be on his own, perhaps he’ll / need a trolley, for the day he’ll have to take me / to the large waste drop off.” Once again Kawaguchi gives us a story where nothing is as it seems but everything is crystal clear.

The evening ends with a riveting theatre performance as the final pair of poets take the stage. Hiromi Ito and Jeffrey Angles are pure entertainment. Ito is charismatic, funky and hilarious. She and Angles have an on stage chemistry that is mesmerising. The poem ‘Coyote’ is a tale of Ito’s obsession with American wildlife and by extension with America itself. Angles’ American accent tangles and melds with Ito’s Japanese syllables. These poets are ad libbing yet their dialogue is exquisitely structured and their comic timing is flawless. Angles later admits that it is fun “like jazz.”

Jeffrey Angles (left) and Hiromi Ito (right) reading.

Hiromi Ito with Jeffrey Angles

When Ito orders Angles to howl like a coyote he resists and then obeys. Their repeated delivery of the words, “too cruel” to describe a wild life book from Ito’s childhood is uproariously funny. Everything Ito utters in Japanese is completely comprehensible because of her dynamic vocal expression and her kinetic presence on stage but Angles is absolutely necessary to this performance. He is a brilliant foil for Ito. His light dry American voice heightens the zaniness and force of her poetry.

Their final poem ‘Killing Kanoko’ deals with post-natal depression, infanticide and abortion. This is not easy stuff to speak out loud. Ito’s language is brutal, terrifying and macabre. It makes us squirm in discomfort. We are uneasy because this is grotesque, graphic, frenzied and powerfully candid. It takes real courage to write and perform this kind of poetry.

“Kanoko forces me to deal with all her shit / I want to get rid of Kanoko / I want to get rid of filthy little Kanoko / I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko who bites off my nipples.”

The wild almost manic build up of feeling in these lines is made even more unsettling because of Angles’ male voice translating these very female emotions. Again these poets almost talk over each other and it is hard to hear where one language stops and the other begins.

“I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko / Before she spills my blood … / Congratulations on your destruction / Congratulations on your destruction”

Ito’s face is an impassive mask as Angles utters the translation: “My own self is dearer to me.”

These astonishing poets smash all the stereotypes about Japanese women. Their poetry is startling, fresh and confrontational yet it never loses its connection with the mythology, iconography and history of their culture. We are taken on an unforgettable ride through humour, heartbreak, terror, tenderness and joy in a range of poems which dazzle us in both Japanese and English. The extraordinary performance by these four marvellous women and their remarkable translators is a stunning tour de force.

Anita Patel

Anita Patel is a Canberra writer who has had work published in various journals including Conversations (Pandanus Press, ANU), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Mascara Literary ReviewHer poem ‘Women’s Talk’ won the ACT Writers Centre Poetry Prize in 2004.

© 2017

Photos courtesy, International Poetry Studies Institute. © 2017
The Japanese poets featured in this review are included in a new anthology: Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan, Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford (e
ds), Recent Work Press, 2017.

This review has been translated into Japanese and is available in Arai Takako’s poetry journal, Mi‘Te website.