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Autumn 2008, vol 6 no 3
 
 

Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama
translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden
A Review by Robert D. Wilson

 

Amelia Fielden and Kozue Uzawa, the 2007 recipients of the prestigious Donald Keene award, have made available in English a compilation of tanka penned by the late Japanese poet/playwright Shuji Terayama. Kaleidoscope introduces readers to one of Japan's great gendai poets:

 
while an ant
toiled from the dahlia
to the ash tray
I was forming
a beautiful lie
 

Shuji Terayama wrote tanka for several years, then abruptly stopped before he reached the age of thirty, concentrating instead on theater. In many ways the theater was an extension of the surreal world he'd painted with words like a Japanese Salvadore Dali. And like the English poet William Blake, he created his own mythology; a synthesis of truth, half truths, and a surreal imagination, tools used to transcend tradition and staid boundaries, to overcome personal sadness and inner rage, building short poems that broke rules, admired rules -- a yin yang of contradiction and unpredictability.

His life was shadowed by World War II, the American occupation, and the turmoil of a nation adopting western ways and a global economy. Terayama's father, a former policeman, died fighting for Japan in Indonesia when Terayama was 9. In 1945, he and his mother narrowly survived the American bombing of Aomori that slaughtered over 30,000 people. After the war, Terayama's mother left him in the care of relatives while she worked on an American military base in Kyushu. Writes Kaleidoscope's co-translator Kozue Uzawa, "His complex feelings of being abandoned by his mother, longing for his dead father and siblings he did not have, and longing to be freed from reality are expressed with extraordinary imagination." Uzawa later states, "You will go on to find many of his tanka are products of imagination when you understand his life." Great art and genius are often the products of a dysfunctional life and inner turmoil. Shuji Terayama's tanka are imaginative, interwoven with cultural memory and the emotions he expressed via surreal thought, recurring themes, and personal mythology. Terayama authored close to 200 literary works, and over 20 short and full length films prior to his death in 1983 from cirrhosis of the liver.

Not all his poems depended on imagination. He also speaks realistically of his life:


with a battered
summer hat
on my knees
my vagrant life grew
accustomed to buses


Terayama was rarely understood and not easily categorized, an avant-garde artist who viewed life from a perspective far removed from the conservative norm of his day. Purists criticized his tanka and accused him of plagiarizing parts of other people's poetry -- which he did, utilizing a technique the Japanese call honka-dori, that is similar to the practice by rap music writers of mixing (sampling) parts of famous songs and fusing them into their songs to form a multifaceted sound collage. In this case, Terayama borrowed a phrase or image from a well known poem to add to his own tanka, forming a poetic, textured collage. Take, for example, the following haiku by Kakio Tomizawa:

ippon no / macchi o sureba / umi wa kiri

striking a match / I see fog / upon the lake


Borrowing "striking a match" from Tomizawa's haiku, Terayama builds a complex, poignant tanka that transcends Tomizawa's shasei descriptiveness (realism):

macchi suru / tsuka no ma umi ni / kiri fukashi / mi sutsuru hodo no / sokoku wa ari ya

striking a match / momentarily / I see the foggy ocean ---/ is there a motherland / I can dedicate myself to?


Matsuo Bashô borrowed phrases from well known waka, Taoist literature, Tang Dynasty poetry. So did Shotetzu, Teika, and many others.

Who's to say what is real and what is fiction in Terayama's poetry. All of his tanka convey mood, reflecting in whole or part the man's emotions, complexity, and social memory. The human mind is complex and the most creative human beings are oftentimes misunderstood. Shuji Terayama was no exception.

In some poems, Terrayama portrays the experience of a third person, even though he may use a first person pronoun:

 
failing even
to become an actress
I listen to
the sound of seagulls
shot in the winter marsh
 

Birds shot by a gun are a recurring theme in Terayama's tanka. Of course he was no stranger to warfare, living through a war that took the life of his father and thousands of innocent people. In his mythology, it is possible that his references to birds served as a metaphor or code, for human beings, specifically his countrymen. Prior to the end of World War II, one was not at liberty to criticize the actions of the government:

 
fixed
with my cold gunshot
a sparrow on the roof
might be
my mother


having shot
a winter dove that
might be my god,
I go home
with smoking gun


for a small bird
to come back
after it's shot
there is a grassland
in my head
 

Perhaps Terayama felt imprisoned by the world surrounding him, and wanted to find something that would set his soul free:

 
a horse's mane
inserted
between pages
of the diary
he kept in prison
 

Breathing in unison is a form of deep meditation, a transference of emotion, a melding of minds. As far fetched as the following tanka appears, it is similar to the way the Miwok Indians in Northern California's High Sierra Mountains sometimes interacted with the prey they were hunting. Before a Miwok hunter would kill his prey, he'd ask the animal for permission to kill it and explain why. Terayama appears to have had an affection for animals, seeing them as equals, and not taking them for granted. Read this sensitive, poignant tanka, and decide for yourself:

 
I was breathing
in unison
with a pregnant cow
waiting for her turn
to be slaughtered
 

Shuji Terayama is eloquent in the way he puts together a tanka, the separations tight, the meter flowing, and the imagery vivid and symbiotic. He didn't like the taste of tobacco, yet like many of his era, smoked anyway. In the morning he'd light a cigarette, allowing the air drawn in to soothe his being, momentarily centering his psyche. In this tanka he uses beautiful imagery to articulate the experience:

 
when I smoke
a bitter bitter morning cigarette
the wings
of a seagull
skim my heart
 

A hard bound book, Kaleidoscope's design is second to none, with crisp graphics, surrealistic collage photos by Terayama, and an attractive dust jacket, setting a new standard for books of Japanese short-form poetry. Amelia Fielden and Kozue Uzawa are to be commended for translating and having the foresight to give to the English-speaking world this important new book of tanka by a great Japanese poet.

 


Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama
translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden
The Hokuseido Press © 2008
US $20, plus postage.
Available through any Kinokuniya bookstore worldwide; also, in North America through Kozue Uzawa at uzawa@shaw.ca and in Australia/New Zealand through Amelia Fielden at anafielden@hotmail.com