REVIEW by Dan Bradley NWR Issue 107
by Machi Tawara, trans Juliet Winters Carpenter
Machi Tawara is that rarest of things: a poet who makes a living from her art. When her debut collection was first released in 1987, introducing a wry, modern take on the classical tanka
form, it sold a staggering 2.5 million copies in its first six months, catapulting this shy high school teacher into the national spotlight. Following Juliet Winters Carpenter’s English translation two years later, Tawara’s poetry was able to reach an even bigger audience, with over 8 million copies sold to date. The appeal of her work was clear: a fresh, modern twist on a neglected literary heritage, weaving together classical grammar with lyrics from Elvis and The Eagles; universal themes of new love, heartache, motherhood, travel and family, and a light, conversational style that captured youthful romanticism and naiveté as well as the wisdom and insight of experience. But that was twenty-eight years ago. Does the collection still stand up to scrutiny?
At its best, there is the wonderful humour and bittersweet irony of ‘Pretending to Wait for Someone’, reflecting upon a failed affair. Tawara’s ironic and conversational tone, never bitter or didactic, reveals the stinging regrets glimpsed in the details of daily life:
like a package of mixed vegetables
that mustn’t be defrosted
Or the self-deprecating, sad and brilliant portrait:
Loneliness of being in love
in December –
my heart impervious to ‘Jingle Bells’
Each poem is a sparkling constellation of non-linear moments, memories, flashes of insight or reflections triggered by domestic details, music, food and travel or her experiences as a lover, a daughter or a teacher. They are gathered together in three-line stanza sections, four per page, which stretch the poems out to tens of pages and create an indelible impression of space and, more importantly, of pause.
In a superb addition for those interested in Japanese poetry or translation, there is a fine afterword by Carpenter discussing the tanka
’s 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic grouping and the way that Tawara plays with the form in the original. However, Carpenter is also candid about the impossibility of transplanting an entire literary history between such disparate languages and cultures. She instead opts to translate the 31-syllable line, often split in two in the Japanese, into a three- or four-line stanza that is freer with the syllable count, focussing the word choice and cadence on capturing the small, intensely lived moments that hold the real power in this work.
Unfortunately, in having to remove this formal, literary scaffolding that’s at the heart of the appeal in the Japanese, many segments are left flat, opaque or forgettable. And while Tawara is generally spot on when it comes to skewering cliché and her own foibles, there are also segments that hold no feeling or weight, and verge on the mawkish: ‘Eyes shut, face buried in your beer mug, / you don’t even look at me – / what is it that you thirst for?’ For every arresting phrase such as ‘I finish writing, put on the stamp, / and time begins to flow/ toward the moment of your answer’, there is an adolescent ‘“I’ll die at thirty,” you say, / and I in turn decide / not to die till then’. The tight focus on insight revealed in the quotidian succeeds more often than not, but the collection frequently lost my attention (and, occasionally, my patience).
The lush cover of this re-release, the production as beautiful as anything else in the Pushkin collection so far, shows a young girl plucking petals from a flower, letting them float down to the mountain of discarded petals she is kneeling on. It depicts a stanza in ‘Wake-up Call’:
He loves me, he loves me not;
if only I had as many loves
The collection is overflowing with ‘loves’: romantic, familial, real and imagined, found and lost. But while there are many striking and beautiful lines here, and the non-linear temporal and thematic structure invites well rewarded re-readings, it is markedly the work of a young poet, inspired by the possibilities of romantic love, but still standing tentatively on the edges of adult life.
is a writer and translator from Japanese
previous review: Cheval 7
next review: The Dead City Rollers