A Single Young Shoot Growing Straight Up Out of the Snow: The Stinging Brilliant Green of Sagawa’s Modernism

Eric Ekstrand

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa. Translated by Sawako Nakayasu. Marfa, TX: Canarium Books, 2015. 184 pages. $14.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In this first English language Collected from Canarium, Sawako Nakayasu’s cold-rolled translations introduce Anglophone readers to the forward expressionism of Sagawa Chika, one of Japan’s early and almost-forgotten Modernists.

In her introduction, Nakayasu explains that at the start of World War II, following Sagawa’s death from stomach cancer at age twenty-four, a nationalistic cultural contraction snuffed l’esprit nouveau with which her work is associated. Fellow members of the influential Arcueil Club, a literary coterie in Tokyo influenced by the Western avant-garde (Sagawa translated Loy, Woolf, and Joyce, among others, as well as riffs on Reznikoff in her poem “Gate of Snow”), were intimidated into writing in what were considered to be more “patriotic” modes, namely using traditional forms to address domestic and natural subjects.

Even Kitasono Katue, the Arcueil Club’s sun and center, saw enough writers arrested by the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu, a governmental arm known colloquially as the “Thought Police,” that he retreated from his public advocacy of the avant-garde, even composing with brush and ink for a time. Kitasono was investigated himself in part for using the Latin alphabet instead of Japanese in the title of his journal VOU (pronounced bu-a-u or ba-u interchangeably). In the last issue, Kitasono writes, “Old vocabulary is preserved by old thinking. One old word takes away the effect of dozens of new words.” The censorship had its intended effect, at least for a time: but for a few devoted readers in America (among them Pound, Rexroth, and Olson), Tokyo’s experimental interwar poets did not receive serious critical attention until John Solt’s scholarship in the 1980s. Nakayasu first encountered Sagawa in Solt’s landmark biography of Kitasono.

Nakayasu’s first treatment of Sagawa, the Verse Prize–winning volume Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals is loose, playful, and interspersed with original poems by Nakayasu—a conversation between poets—while the Collected aims to establish Sagawa’s contemporary relevance in English. Sagawa’s vision is daunting enough that when we read her, we read under her: “While everything sneered, / Night was already in my hands.” Here, night is the advanced weapon on which we, Sagawa’s enemies, gain before she snatches it from us and, all-victorious, turns to face us—the ones who itch with our new subjecthood. Sagawa’s gale-force image-making tempers just as often to more melancholic and nervy tones: “A snail crawls through the forest / Above its tentacles is the sky” (“Flower”). In the current American poetic moment which, among other things, values sympathetic surrealism in the plain style, Sagawa might be read as a standard-bearer. Her turns are mischievous, frequently employing dream logic to layer distinct memorial spaces in a diction- and syntax-like reportage: “On the street where the proud flower petals burn / Silk feathers are stained by pollen. / And where her toes touch / A white rainbow is portrayed” (“Dark Song”). Commonly, Sagawa’s speakers conflate fashionably Westernized Tokyo street scenes with the northern coastal landscapes of the poet’s childhood (in the above example, the petals burn on the street and the feathers are silk but stained by real pollen), giving image to her application of a Western-inflected poetics to the material and history of Japanese.

She skirts closer to Baudelaire’s surnaturalism than the “sincerity” and “objectification” (in their technical senses) her American contemporaries were just beginning to discover, or the surrealism of her mentor Kitasono, in claims like, “To see . . . is for the purpose of reaching the end of one part of the phenomenon. . . . I do not think we should attribute the concept of roundness or redness to the object [of an apple]. . . . Perhaps the way poetry finds expression is by taking materials that had once been reflected into reality and returning them to the realm of thought” (“Had They Been the Eyes of Fish”). Sagawa’s world doesn’t exist so much as insist, and her restoration of ideatum to idea can be playful, sad, or even stinging—what Sagawa calls a “more three-dimensional observation” or simply “fresh.” Emblematic of her own poetry’s edgy engagement with waka and haiku, nature is often rendered artificially or metro-ized with glee. For instance, in a prose piece called “While Waiting for Christmas,” the praise of a cake shop’s display windows serves as a comic undercutting of the expected natural scene, “Yellows and reds, or perhaps whites and purples—look how [the sweets] fill both sides of the streets so beautifully, like blooming flowers.”

And, in the same moment, Sagawa criticizes poets whose work she sees as inauthentic: “The clever ladies always press their lips up to the window of the cake shop, gazing at the decorated sweets and exclaiming Oh! How beautiful!—but they have not once claimed to want to eat them.” Later in “While Waiting for Christmas,” the speaker takes on the position of a salesperson recommending orchids for an evening out because, “fake flowers are so passé.” Peppering one’s poetry with French was characteristic of l’esprit nouveau, though Sagawa considers her synthesis of French symbolism to be more integral than the poses of some of her contemporaries, whose work she describes recursively as surface and sweet (like a cake shop display window, for instance). In this way, she creates rival purposes for the image: both as praise of artificiality and critique of superficiality. If the image is therefore imprecise, and I don’t think it is, it may indicate the developing argument of a still young poet. Hear a similar acerbity towards a merely fashionable, “pastry-like” poetry in “When Passing Between Trees”:

The wheat grows vigorously like a victor, shining in white rows against the black earth. I wonder if the sun in May isn’t a little too bright for the Japanese poets of today. They speak only of dreams and illusions, failing to harmonize with this all-too-French air . . . neither their pastry-like sweetness nor their enumerated language could be seen as having the freshness of the young leaves on the zelkova trees by the side of the path I walk.

Like the contemporaries she criticizes, Sagawa often insists on a dreaminess adopted from symbolism (her moniker “Sagawa” is written with the characters for “left” and “bank,” a possible nod to the Left Bank of the Seine known for its bohemian literary scene), although she sees her own work as a distinctly “fresh” revision. Sagawa’s poems are the vigorous and victorious wheat, distinct not necessarily in the sense of “laudable” but as “contrasted against”—fresh like Zelkova leaves, bright like the sun in May; and this quality of freshness, whether applied to the field or square, remains a consistent poetic ideal. To express her admiration for a poem called “Morning Pipe” by her close friend Shōko Ema (or “Ms. Ema” to Sagawa, another of the three female members of the Arcueil Club whom she met while writing ad copy with Kitasono in Ginza), she calls it “fresh.” Young leaves and shoots, the color bright green recur. “Waiting for Christmas” ends with a brief ode to mogas (“modern girls,” jazz-loving urbanites who adopted Western dress, music and attitudes) that gives figure to the fresh quality Sagawa chases:

Now where can I find a sassy young woman who would jump out of a restaurant with a black beret angled down over her forehead, a tiny tiny yellow chrysanthemum pressed under it? That fresh flower that goes so well with this season, that dress in that moment, now that’s what you should consider your personal emblem. Don’t you just love the charm of tossing a wilted crumpled red flower out the car window late at night? Okay goodbye.

While waiting for the Western import of Christmas, a chrysanthemum (an announcement of early winter) is pressed under the purposefully French beret to wilt as the night progresses, and another flower is thrown breezily from a car window—“goodbye”—a dramatizing of l’esprit nouveau. Cavalier, fun, assured, fashionable, unescorted, easily cosmopolitan: a wanted ad for a new femininity and, by proxy, a new poetry.

For Sagawa, freshness doesn’t only mean “that which is hip and new,” but is a special perception that restores objects to their math and perceivers to their spirit, or perhaps to what Robert Creeley calls in his foreword to Robin Blaser’s Collected, “the adamant given of our common fact.” Sagawa describes this freshness as “a language of the heart, not visible from the surface . . . words selected out of deep contemplation. . . . Very sparse and most strict, it is a skillfulness right on the brink of burning out like a flame” (“When Passing Between Trees”). The sparse, strict language is a limited vocabulary of trees, moons, blooms, snow, night, death, suns, leaves, stems, greens, flower petals, flower petals that turn into butterflies, and butterflies that returns across the poems, building in “Tree Spirits” what Sagawa calls “simple scenery”:

A swarm of mosquitos circles higher and higher under the eaves

Ah—won’t you return. Right away
In the form of joyful cries. Deepening the melancholy of the boy’s day that shakes the mountains and seeps into the distant sky, all traces of people fade out into the distance.

Vision is fresh not in spite of but precisely because it is “on the brink of burning out.” “Opal” ends with the realization, “My vision is about to come to a halt.” One could explain the temporary and mortuary in the poems biographically—rising oceans, as well as the recurrent contrasts between tomblike interiors and over-bright landscapes—and Sagawa’s is an important, improbable story. But I think instead of Sagawa’s language: seeing the end of the phenomenon once reflected into reality returns it to thought.

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