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BOOK REVIEW: Breasts of Snow by Hatsue Kawamura and Jane Reichhold
Reviewed by Robert Wilson


"When I faced the fear of cancer, which is said to be irremediable, I was able for the first time to rise from my conviction of unhappiness and reach for the deepest layer of my life."

the leaves of trees
have an agonized look
at night
I think with wonderment
of the sound of the forest


Breasts of Snow is the story and tanka of one of the best tanka poets of the 20th century, Fumiko Nakajo, a humble, soulful Japanese poet who died from breast cancer at the age of 32. Although young, she wrote with the insight of someone who had been on the earth a long time. Her life was not easy. Divorced, the mother of four children, financially lacking, and a victim of cancer, she could have easily wallowed in self-pity and closed herself off from the world around her. Bravely, she chose to bare her soul to the world, writing from "the depths of her despair, buoyed by a sense of hope."

Say the authors, "The tanka of Fumiko intensified until they burned with a white heat." Fumiko didn't seek fame. She wanted more than anything else to live a normal life, to be married, and provide for the needs of her family. Fate had other plans for her.

Her artistry as a poet didn't become known until she was near death. During the last year of her life, she wrote fervently, submitting to the journals of the organizations she belonged to. Days before her untimely demise, a book of her tanka, The Loss of Breasts, was published. After her death, people hungered for more of her works. Books and a movie about her life were forthcoming.

According to the authors, "For countless men and women facing the hard times after World War II, and the horrific numbers of persons facing cancer as the result of radiation sickness from the atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, her tanka served as beacons of courage and determination along with a certain wild beauty and honesty."

It is apt that this book about the life and tanka of Fumiko Nakajo was written by female authors. Fumiko wrote tanka in a culture dominated by male poets. This remarkable woman took her stand, "not only for the hardships of her life, but the tanka writing from the sort of woman not easily admired by men. It is easy for male readers to 'fall in love' with the works of a 'sweet hot thing' but not a dying woman, scarred with the loss of both breasts with children weeping in the background."

Breasts of Snow is a must read for those serious about the study of tanka. Liberally interspersed with her tanka, Fumiko's life is laid bare . . . the verses correlating with her life, especially during her last year.

I recommend this book to anyone wanting to know the mindset of this Japanese poet; to those seeking a better understanding of what tanka is and is not. There is good tanka and bad tanka in the worldwide literary community. This book is a roadmap to the good. Reading this book, one cannot help being influenced by the beauty and soul of Fumiko Narajo and her poetry. And being the better for it.

close to death
for me an everlasting
vow of love
in a requiem song
has begun to ring

~ Fumiko Narajo


Book Details: Breasts of Snow, published by The Japan Times, Tokyo:2004. Perfect bound, 8.5 x 5.5 inches, 152 pps., kanji, romaji and English. ISBN: 4-7890-1161-5. Order, outside of Japan, from Jane Reichhold, POB 767, Gualala, CA 95445 USA, $20.00 ppd.


Hatsue Kawamura: Tanka writers are familiar with the name of Hatsue Kawamura as the editor of The Tanka Journal in Tokyo, Japan. And they may also know of her translations of the tanka of Fumi Saito, Akiko Baba and Kyoko Inaba. Her own works include four books and recently Amelia Fielden, who has won many prizes for her own tanka and translation works, has now given us a book of translation of Hatsue Kawamura’s tanka – On Tsukuba Peak.

Jane Reichhold: Anyone familiar with the world of haiku knows the name, Jane Reichhold. She began publishing haiku books in 1979. Her publications, awards, affiliations, and honors are too numerous to include here, but an internet search for "Reichhold, biography" will provide the reader with that information.