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Spring 2009, vol 7 no 1

Tanka by Kisaburo Konoshima
newly translated by David Callner*

This is the fourteenth in a series of new translations of selected tanka by Kisaburo Konoshima

1971 - 1972  
Swept up between passing automobiles
a single leaf tumbles down the road
Flitting upwards - fluttering sideways
the buoyant leaf is not run over
I linger watching the leaf flutter down the road
it resembles my eighty years of life
Awakened by rain pattering the big leaves - again I contemplate
an eighty-year lifetime of perpetual wandering
By day and night for twelve years
the turnpike hills feed my dreams

(The hills of the Palisades Interstate Parkway, across the Hudson river from Konoshima's apartment in Yonkers, New York. D.C.)
A scroll painting of the hermit Lin Hejing and his cranes by West Lake
hangs on my wall as I grow old by the Hudson

(Lin Hejing - 967~1028 - was a poet, calligrapher, and scholar who became a favorite subject for Chinese and Japanese artists. He was most often portrayed as a hermit living with his pet cranes on an island in the middle of West Lake, in Hangzhou, China. After WWII Konoshima began acquiring what was to become a significant collection of Japanese art and antiques from East-side antique shops in New York City. This collection is now part of the Herbert R. Johnson Museum at Cornell University. D.C.)
My niece sent tea from my village three days before she died
I finally receive it after her Hyakka Nichi

(In Buddhism and perhaps in Japanese popular culture during Konoshima's time, Hyakka Nichi, the one-hundredth day after a person's death, marks when the deep sorrow of those left behind begins to be relieved. D.C.)
A white-haired rubicund old couple astonish me
introducing themselves as my students from fifty years past
A fortune made and children raised in Brazil
the aged couple will visit their family grave in Japan
So used to people are the sparrows here
one stumbles over them as they play on the sidewalks
By a hedge lies a brocade of lightly frosted leaves
touched with scraps of paper
The sun shines dimly on weeds by a field
prostrate in the frost - their seeds all sown
The Hudson turns a deeper blue this fine autumn day
the moon in the morning sky floats on the river too
I cross a field the fine autumn day and cut a fart
it sounds dry - tomorrow should be a fine day too
The opposite shore changes color with an overnight chill
morning speaks bracingly of autumn's end
Why not summon the two leaders to the Council of Mice
the fable of the United Nations General Assembly?

(From Aesop's "Belling the Cat." The leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. D.C.)
Nixon's sudden new economics
bewilder everybody in this economic world power
This autumn is the time for domestic issues
Nixon declares without scruple
"We reap the mistakes of our forefathers" - our grandchildren say
Who reaps the mistakes of our grandchildren? When?
The fundamental condition for freedom is restraint
this basic principle has been forgotten
If dreams become ideals and ideals become reality
young men - dream of eternal ubiquity
Hours of torrential downpours
bring towering new cascades into the ravine
My Hudson neighborhood of twelve years
deteriorates and ruins my dreams
Of course my spirits feel light
Honolulu's perfectly blue lucent sky

(Konoshima usually wintered at the home of his second daughter in Honolulu. He moved there permanently in 1978. D.C.)
A cardinal sweeps through the clear morning sky
and greets me with ringing song
Strangers on the street say hello
rusticity still lives in Honolulu
Appreciative of my Honolulu friend's excessive kindness
I vanquish my heart's burdens with a prayer to Amitabha

(Namu Amida Butsu is a prayer to Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. The prayer is an act of Buddhist devotion, but in Japanese popular culture the invocation of Namu Amida Butsu is simply a wish for good luck or an expression of gratitude with no religious meaning. D.C.)
"Clip clip" - but right away
the Honolulu shrubbery grows lushly back
Flowers smile - birds twitter - people are in harmony
feelings seem to drift through the streets
Unharmed through a number of hair-raising crises
now I choose a nobori for my great-grandson

(Nobori, or koinobori, are wind socks fashioned after carp to be flown for the two weeks preceding May 5, Children's Day in Japan, celebrating a son in the family. It is often considered an honor and a pleasure for grandparents to buy koinobori. D.C.)
Deep in the Mill Creek valley a pheasant cries
the ghost of a creaking water wheel

(In the spring of 1972 Konoshima and his wife moved to the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore to live with the family of his youngest daughter. Mill Creek ran near Konoshima's new residence. D.C.)
Valley Forge - with George Washington's headquarters
an ancient battlefield near my new home
Cherry blossoms scatter and following apple blossoms azalea blooms
dogwood hurries not to be left behind
The word "Deceased" will surely follow my name
if I continue to drink sake
Eighty years old - no sake nor even a good poem
yet I celebrate my birthday with all my heart
"Victory" - I write in bold strokes
see how this old man fawns on himself
Feet damp with morning dew I watch my vegetables grow
a daily routine of pleasure
The only Japanese in my new town
I live the life of a mannequin
Three months in my new surroundings
without seeing a single person of Japanese descent
My little house is tucked between fine mansions
I hear nothing but the songs of small birds
Hills - valleys - and fine mansions
a cool breeze swells the verdure
Could summer be cool for the abundant grace
of the neighboring mansions' luxuriant old trees?
Arranging photographs from fifteen to eighty
I rest my hands and abandon myself in recollection
Faded creased and torn old photographs
they tell the story of my life's vicissitudes
I linger in my garden - insects swarm and fireflies flit
and recall the village of my childhood
Father once told me it was made into maces
I discover a Japanese yew in my American garden
My aged wife and I compare the names from our childhood
for each insect vying in song outside
I move and my Siamese cat strays away
I think of him with pity the sleepless nights
Wretched cat - hoping for food but chased off with rocks
where do you wander in this rain?
The moon still shines as day would break
moist leaves gleam through my open window
Day breaks in the luxuriantly thick woods
already rending the darkness a cardinal sings
Nixon says he visits Beijing with earnest prayers
for peace negotiations that would cover the world
The road for Nixon's earnest prayers is long
a mere beginning would be cause to rejoice
Migrating geese - whence do you come, whither do you go
calling to each other through the thick fog?
The morning mist spreads an autumnal chill
my vegetable garden shows signs of decline
Nine thousand miles across ocean and mountains
autumnal insects sing my seventy-year longing for home
Gripping the coin I begged from mother
I dashed to the candy shop
Taffy - one piece a penny
the candy shop a distant memory

*Readers who have enjoyed this series of tanka translations may now add them to their personal libraries in the perfect bound, 136 page book:

Hudson: A Collection of Tanka by Kisaburo Konoshima
Translated into English by David Callner
Tokyo, Japan: Japan Times, 2005.
ISBN 4-7890-1179-8


Kisaburo Konoshima Kisaburo Konoshima was born in 1893 in Gifu, Japan. He left his village for an education in Tokyo when he was fifteen years old, and went on to become a professor of political economics at the now defunct Shokumin Gakkou in Kyoto. In 1924 he abandoned academia for the life of a farmer, and emigrated to California with his wife and children. In 1941 Konoshima was forced off his farm and he and his family were interned in the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming. Following the war Konoshima moved to New York City, where he devoted himself to his children's education and his poetry. In 1950 he joined the Japanese poetry society Cho-on, which published his entire opus of over fifteen hundred tanka in the Cho-on quarterly, from 1950 to his death in 1984.

David Callner David Callner was born in 1956. His youth was spent in France, England, Italy, and America. Since 1978 he has lived in Japan. He has written four novels. He teaches English as an adjunct at Nagano University.