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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3

REVIEWS

Hudson, by Kisaburo Konoshima
A Review by Michael McClintock

~ Konoshima’s American Diary: A Present to Kindred and Friends ~

Hudson was written in the United States by Kisaburo Konoshima (1893-1984) and published in Japan by Hakuyo Shoin under the same title in 1970. This English-language edition, translated by Konoshima’s grandson, David Kei Callner [Carolyn Callner, Konoshima's youngest daughter, is the translator’s mother] contains the entire contents of the original book, about seven hundred tanka.

Reading Konoshima’s Hudson was, for me, like being left alone in a room with a very large bowl of mixed nuts. I was hooked in the first two pages, where I found these three tanka under the heading “New York Sunrise, 1951”:

When I fling a snowball and it bursts against a tree trunk
scattering with a whack my spirits brighten

There is a little monkey earnestly polishing an empty can
as I stand pondering verse

I sadly scorn myself for being a good-natured fool
then accept what I am and feed the pigs

Without restraint or any sense of passing time, I dived into this book with both hands and an empty stomach. I craved what this book seemed to be offering me. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

Clearly, the poet Kisaburo Konoshima in his later years found retreat and refuge in his practice of tanka. His poetry became a means of exploring and observing his life in the United States—probing it for its textures, values, and rhythms—while maintaining that connection to Japan, the land of his birth and early life, which appears to have been essential to Konoshima’s sense of self and spiritual integrity. These poems reveal a person of great modesty and dignity, a soul simultaneously serene and ill-at-ease. As Konoshima, his wife Yoshi, and their children were absorbed into American life, things Japanese and the old sights, sounds, and ways of home appear to have been dearer to him the farther away they became in both time and geographic distance. While becoming American, he remained Japanese; his birth-home never faded from his consciousness, and appears to have been a constant presence in his thoughts and private moments:

Young people stay one or two years and practically become New Yorkers
I have lived here twenty years and am still Japanese

There are many tanka that return to the tone and mood found in this portrait of Konoshima and his wife:

Speaking with my aged wife whether we should visit Japan once again
I squish my evening sake’s sea-bass roe on my tongue

In fact, Konoshima was able to return to Japan several times during his lifetime; there are many tanka expressing his joy and pleasure on these occasions. Here are two of my favorites:

Even the sparrows twittering chi chi at daybreak
I listen to them wistfully from my hard futon
Gurgle gurgle – day and night go the sound of the rapids
How many lamented friends rest in this town?

Konoshima also collected Japanese swords and studied the lore of their history and manufacture; to him, they appear to have been concrete representations of the land and culture he loved:

Thoughts will not come together this icy evening
I unsheathe an antique sword and stare at it

Similarly, this poem about a Japanese fan:

More than a cooler – more than an electric fan
it is a tattered Japanese fan that quiets my heart

The seven hundred tanka in this book show a wide range of style and subject matter. About one out of five tanka are poetical, lyric reflections like these:

Having left without informing even my aged wife of my whereabouts
I take the little path to the end and stand alone

With an urge inside to shout something out
difficult to grasp – I stand at the river bank

Washed by showers how many times each day
moist coco leaves shine glossily in the trade wind

More than half the tanka appear to be a kind of simple but disciplined note-taking, or form of diary entry, the tanka structure becoming for Konoshima a consistent and comfortable vehicle for recording his thoughts about those things that caught his eye, focused or gained his attention, or passed through his life: people, events, incidents, moments of happiness, sadness, and longing.

Teenage crimes of butchery increase
even the governor and mayor take alarm

While thinking of a quondam samurai cut off from his stipend
I mend a fan in tedium

An important thread throughout the book are poems that reflect Konoshima’s abiding sense of being an outsider, of being forever Japanese. He and his wife were not officially naturalized as citizens until 1955. We frequently find ourselves looking over Konoshima’s shoulder at the mysteries and peculiarities of American life, or sitting beside him in his apartment’s living room as he ponders his ancient roots and his present life:

In a time when the art of advertising can become a science
I who am Meiji born stand perplexed

While gazing at the figure of a Hokusai courtesan
I am drinking alone – the atomic age’s dead of night

Related to these poems are those on themes of alienation, isolation, and the impersonality of life in New York City:

Without a single neighbor to say good-bye
I leave the apartment where I’ve lived twenty years

Japanese magazines know more of the American language
than I who have lived in America forty years

A mass of people without affection or charm
great New York is a human desert

Lost in a subway station – when I inquire the way
that person too is a stranger

In contrast, other tanka containing self-portraiture are more at peace; despite a hard life, Konoshima appears to have few regrets and a stoic’s sense of endurance and satisfaction:

Neither a wicked man nor conscious of being a virtuous man
the expression “ordinary person” redeems me

Desiring to make a life of the soil and sweat I left for America
but with no ties to the soil I grow old in New York

Simple homilies like the two above are a favorite mode or “voice” for Konoshima, as are tanka containing a dignified, quiet self-mockery, or poems that express a modest man’s simple wishes or desires:

Donning new coat over new suit
I go out to the street as though wealthy

On what business was it I came to the kitchen?
still unable to remember I pick at some food

While feigning indifference it appears that upon occasion
my aged wife reads the poems I write

Without troubling people or the world
O to quietly live my old age and die is what I desire

The tanka are arranged in over 60 groupings that carry such titles as “Autumn at Fifty-five Years Old”, “A Human Desert”, “Fifth Avenue 1959”, “An Old Friend”, and “The Summer Hudson”. Within these groups, the tanka provide variations on a theme, or a kind of synoptic view of a particular event, incident, or personal experience.

Many of Konoshima’s tanka have to do with prominent, headline events in the nation’s life:

With guards on rooftops more than twenty stories up
New York City welcomes the Soviet premier

I detest the photograph of Truman celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday
because of Hiroshima

Making a day’s round trip of four thousand five hundred miles
the sixty-eight-year-old Pope appeals to the United Nations for peace

While unremarkable as poetry, and frequently recorded with little or no personal comment, such poems provide an historical context and flavoring to the other material, reminding us of the era in which Konoshima lived.

I admire Callner’s willingness to set for himself such a time-consuming, painstaking task—this project took six years to complete. As we all know, poetry is not easily translated from one language to another. Sound, phrasing, and meaning frequently find no adequate equivalents in the target language. As a result, most translators cherry-pick the poems they translate, selecting only those that feel most at home in the target language and its inherent culture, and which provide sufficient opportunity to show-off the translator’s own poetic skills in that language. Perhaps Callner has been willing to take more risks because of his familial relationship to the poet, and because he has little interest in being a professional translator. Whatever the case, Callner has done admirable work here, giving his grandfather’s history, American experience, and achievements in tanka a second life, in a new language, for a new readership.


Callner chose to use a two-line format for his translations, explaining his decision this way:

“I was uncomfortable with the five-line form that maintains the 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese meter, so after attempts with various other structures, all my own, I arrived at a two-line version that roughly maintains the upper and lower tanka form (kami no ku shimo no ku) but completely ignores the 5-7-5-7-7 meter. I believe this brings me as close as I can come to the essence of the original Japanese.“

The bi-lingual reader will be pleased to find each English-language rendering accompanied by the original poem in Japanese. While Hudson was the only book of his tanka to appear in Konoshima’s lifetime, all one thousand five hundred of his tanka were published in the Japanese magazine Cho-on between 1950 and 1984. Callner hopes to complete the task of translating the remaining nine hundred poems “in the not too distant future.”

A modest, brief “Chronology” of events and dates in Konoshima’s life is provided, together with information in a Foreword by Konoshima’s daughter, Carolyn Konoshma Callner. The outward facts are as follows:

Konoshima was born in Yamato-mura, Gifu Prefecture, where his father and mother farmed and raised a large family in the remote village of Kitano. With a degree in Economics from Doshisa University, Konoshima emigrated to the United States in 1924, coming to Stockton, California, which at that time was one of the major agricultural centers of the San Joaquin Valley and yet to be made famous in the novels by John Steinbeck. Finding work as a farm laborer, Konoshima promptly sent to Japan for his wife, Yoshi, and four children, whereupon he undertook the life of a hired hand for the next eleven years, laboring in the fields of Stockton, and later in Mountain View. Through hard work, savings, and with an eye to opportunity, Konoshima eventually partnered with another Japanese man and began an independent farming operation to the south, in Santa Clara. This enterprise, a fruit and truck farm, apparently thrived almost from the beginning. With the advent of war with Japan in 1941, Konoshima and his family were scooped up by the Federal relocation decree that removed all people of Japanese descent from the coastal areas of the western United States. After a short stay at the Santa Anita racetrack in the small town of Arcadia, in southern California, about twenty miles east of Los Angeles, the family was shipped to the Heart Mountain relocation camp in Wyoming. They remained confined at Heart Mountain for four years.

All that is just framework for what is truly remarkable: the legacy of the poetry, in which we find all those other things that are in fact the content of a man’s life— thoughts, reflections, dreams, and those entirely personal occasions having intimate value, meaning, and satisfaction. Given the life he lived, the privations and hardship, the outward humiliations, and the struggles to overcome the events of history with which he had nothing to do, to make a life, raise a family, attend to the welfare of his children and their education—what incredible strength and dignity this man possessed, and what peace, tranquility, and clarity of spirit these tanka exhibit, straight from the heart, in ink on paper. . .

In his postscript to the Japanese edition, from which excerpts are provided in this present edition, Konoshima describes his interest in poetry in this way:

“From the time I was a child, as far back as I can remember, I felt a vague admiration for poetry. This was probably due to hearing people in my house speak of the poets Saigyo, Ryoukan, Ono No Komachi and others. On long winter nights the elderly would sit around the irori, the sunken hearth, engrossed in conversation while they drank tea and snacked on tsukemono, pickled vegetables. . .
...“It was exactly twenty years ago, shortly after the end of the abominable Second World War, that I became a member of Cho-on and began to compose poems fairly continuously. Since joining Cho-on I have received the truly thorough and considerate instruction of Mitsuko Shiga . . .
...“Setting aside the proficiency of my poems as poetry, I consider them as a record, written fragmentarily and subject to the emotion of excitement from certain times and occasions over a long and eventful life . . . I have come to believe that it would not be wholly meaningless to gather a collection as a present to my seniors, my kindred and my friends from whom I constantly receive kindness.”

Kisaburo Konoshima            
July 1970, New York            

I think it is fair to say that while few of the poems here will be models for tanka in English, in terms of their craft or content as English poetry, as a body of work in the autobiographic vein Hudson is unique for its point of view, wonderfully readable, and a volume having permanent value to the history of tanka in the West, written by a man of refinement, sensitivity, and courage. Hudson tells a story that is well worth our time to absorb, ponder, and welcome as a friend and fellow traveler on the tanka path.


Hudson: a collection of tanka
by Kisaburo Konoshima, translated into English by David Callner.
Tokyo, Japan: Japan Times, 2005.
ISBN 4-7890-1179-8
5.5 x 8.25, perfectbound, 136 pp.
2500 Yen ($25 US).

Inquire with the translator, David Callner, 11 Davis Place, Latham, New York 12110. To purchase, contact David Callner at email address >davidcallner@hotmail.com<

The book is selling in America for $19, shipping included; payment can be done via Paypal and a copy will be mailed directly to the buyer. Additionally, Hudson is on consignment in various Manhattan bookstores and in Japan.


Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku