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Collected Tanka 
by AKITSU Ei

translated 
by Miyuki AOYAMA & Leza LOWITZ

 

 
   
 

 

AKITSU Ei, 
a prize-winning tanka poet is also the flag bearer of feminism

  by Hatsue Kawamura

 Ms Akitsu Ei, born in Japan in 1950, has challenged the unequal status of women. Before her, women were mostly satisfied with looking after their families, and thus wrote tanka about their husbands and children. AKITSU rejects such a traditional way of women's life and emphasizes equality between man and woman. She wants women to have an independent and dignified life like that of the famous ancient poet Princess Nukada (ca. 659 - 72) who wrote an ode to autumn in which she says: 

" However, when I see
the leaves upon the autumn hills
my eager hands
tremble with their load
of crimson leaves"

          Akitsu Ei has an even more sensual approach to herself and to nature as in her tanka: 

#3 
Like Princess Nukada         
I walk 
to a lily magnolia,
my fringe swaying
in the wind.

 $4 
Kicking wind
woman goes,
her skirts flare out, Isn't there a woman
who's respected and honored?

She thinks that women should not be a sex slave of a husband and that husband and wife should to live on equal terms.   She admits her own sexuality while at the same time demanding changes of the relationships.

 #40 
Oh, your eyes and  your penis
grow senile!
 I wish they would become mine immediately now.

#62 
Man and woman  living together,  pathetic -
like we've been swallowed up
by a gourd.

 #85 
I read
 I want to live,
always with the spirit of a prostitute,"
It must be her feelings,
but I wonder if it is good.

 Many of her tanka are out-spoken against the tabooed morality.

 # 97  
Man and wife should live together
and should make love."
I wonder which fool made this a rule?

She ironically criticized the modern matrimonial system, which brings such inequality to women. She is the first to write tanka by using colloquial terms for sexual words which have been thought, until now, to be unsuitable to this form of poetry. By excluding emotional and poetical beauty from her tanka, she demands that we think about the questions; what is a woman? what is a human being? what is tanka?

Miyuki Aoyama and Leza Lowitz have made a collection  representative of tanka from Akitsu Ei's four books to translate into English.

I pray that English speaking people read her tanka and think about the problems she presents as well as her novel approach to the ancient form of tanka.

 ***

Akitsu Ei is one of Japan's leading tanka poets. Born in Fukuoka in 1950, she studied psychology at Kyushu University and began writing tanka in 1974. She published her first book, To Lily Magnolia, in 1980. It received the Modern Tanka Poets Meeting Award. In 1984, she published Opium in Heaven, which won the Modern Tanka Poet's Society Award. She has been particularly interested in the place of women in Japanese society and has worked at the forefront of the movement since 1984,  organizing symposiums, lectures and readings.
 
Her third book of tanka, Faint White Light, came out in 1987. Two years later,  The Collected Tanka of Akitsu Ei was published. Her book of critical essays,  Ishta's Apple, was published in 1993. And another book of tanka, Cosmic Dance, came out in 1995.  Her most recent book is a collection of critical essays, A Study of Orikuchi Nobuo's Essays on Women's Tanka, 2001.

***

 

Miyuki Aoyama is a poet and literary critic. She teaches American literature at Seitoku University in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. She is co-editor of the popular anthologies of contemporary Japanese women's poetry: A Long Rainy Season, which won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Editorial Excellence,  and Other Side River (Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA 1994/1995). She is author of a book of poetry, West Wind (Shichosha, Tokyo 1998), and has just finished writing a book-length essay on Native American literature.  She is currently writing another poetry book. She lives in the Japanese countryside  with her family.

***

 

Leza Lowitz was born in San Francisco in 1962. A poet and fiction writer, she has published two books of poems, Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By (Stone Bridge Press, 2000) which received the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Best Book of Poetry 2001, and Old Ways To Fold New Paper (Wandering Mind Books, 1997). Her fiction has appeared in The Broken Bridge: Expatriate Writing from Literary Japan (Stone Bridge
Press), and An Inn Near Kyoto (New Rivers Press), Prairie Schooner, and many others, and is forthcoming in the anthology Expat (Beacon Press, 2002) and The Louisiana Review (2002).
 
Lowitz lived in Japan from 1989-1994, where she taught writing and
American Literature at Tokyo University, and was a freelance writer for the "Japan Times" and many others. She was also a columnist on contemporary Japanese art for "Art in America" and the "Asahi Evening News" and her essays on expatriate life were regularly broadcast on NHK Public Radio's "Japan Diary." Lowitz edited and co-translated the popular anthologies of contemporary Japanese women's poetry, A Long Rainy Season (with Miyuki Aoyama and Akemi Tomioka) and
Other Side River (Stone Bridge Press, 1994/5) with Aoyama.  She was
co-translator of the award-winning art history volume Japan: Spirit and
Form (Charles E. Tuttle, 1994) and author of a travel book, Beautiful
Japan (Charles E. Tuttle, 1997).  She reviews books regularly for the
Japan Times. Recently, she has covered Japanese literature for the San
Francisco Chronicle,  and done interviews for The Bloomsbury Review, The Pacific Sun and Poetry Flash.

 For the past decade, Lowitz has been Corresponding Editor to Japan for Manoa (University of Hawaii's literary magazine), for whom she writes regular reviews. She has guest- edited two special features on Japanese literature for Manoa, most recently "Silence to Light: Japan and the Shadows of War" (Summer 2001). She and her husband Shogo Oketani are currently translating the poetry of influential Japanese modernist postwar poet/critic Ayukawa Nobuo, who was the translator of TS Eliot
and William Burroughs.
 
Her honors include the Copperfield's Fiction Award (2001), the Money for Women/Barbara  Deming Memorial Award in Fiction (2000), the Japanophile Fiction Award (1999), the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award (1990), and the Tokyo Journal Fiction Translation Award (1995) and others. She has received a translation fellowship from the NEA (1997), a California Arts Council grant in Poetry (1996-7), an Independent Scholar Fellowship from
the NEH (1995), and two Pushcart Prize nominations in Poetry, 2001. She has a B.A. in English from U.C. Berkeley and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, where she taught creative writing before moving to Tokyo.
 
Her books are available at www.stonebridgepress.com

 


     Part II

#51

On the tatami* mats

dampened by rain

we are fighting

in the ferocious voices

of birds and beasts.

 

*woven grass

 

 

#52

On the water's surface

in a pool of soft mud

the tongue

of a spring wind

comes to play.

 

 

#53

A fiendish laugh

through tears -

when the misty rain

climbs up to the top

of a mountain.

 

 

#54

Staying inside

from the perpetually blowing wind

and raindrops coming down -

My desire inflames

for a seat on the bus.

 

 

#55

Spider,

hovering in the sky

with its legs high:

I wonder what it would be like

to be him for a day.

 

 

#56

If flesh turns to dust

how much

will it weigh?

These forty-two kilograms

of my body.

 

 

 

#57

The moon,

crossing

a steel-framed forest -

I sense it blue

and extremely spherical.

 

 

#58

I love the pastoral

atmosphere,

but that lump of earth

and that green

are private property.

 

 

#59

With a foolish word

called "labor"

people can't stop

praising

ant-like things.

 

#60

Oh, has the great palm

of his hand

shown up,

plucking human beings

blooming on the earth?

 

 

from Opium From Heaven, 1984

 

#61

Ah, we're unaware

of arms dangling

from heaven!

We were born on an earth

almost impure in vice.

 

 

#62

Man and woman

living together,

pathetic -

like we've been swallowed up

by a gourd.

 

#63

Imagining my sister -

happily supporting her family

as a bag of flesh -

I suspend her

in my dream.

 

 

#64

I don't know the fate

of this black man,

whose job is

to keep

beating the drum.

 

 

#67

Like fascism -

in the blue tent

I hear

a clown blowing his flute,

the bark of his dog.

 

 

#68

Sorrel, standing rusty red

and creaking

in the heat -

how distorted

a family always is!

 

#69

I wonder what I dreamed?

When I tied my hair

this morning,

it felt dirty and heavy

in my palms.

 

#70

After a baby's sucking -

how impudent

and fierce

nipples

become!

 

 

#71

Brown-eared bulbus

flying along,

warbling

matricide, patricide

in the rainy season sky.

 

#72

Rolling up the pasta

and eating it -

Through the window

I see a telephone pole,

bound firmly hand and foot.

 

 

#73

Clutching a radish

carrying it

brightly,

evermore brightly -

I am a naked insect.

 

 

 

#74

Sowing the seeds of a radish,

the flowers

of the radish bloom,

the flowers

of the radish.

 

 

#75

On my body

sleeping deeply at daytime,

a sort of fern

or lichen

emerges.

 

 

#76

Loneliness like a blind alley,

sand collecting

in front of

a soft drink

vending machine.

 

 

#77

Nothing remains.

A mole becomes the spirit,

blown away

in the autumn wind

rising.

 

 

#78

Thinking

a human being

is a dirty river,

I lean against a window

on which an evening glow burns.

 

 

 

#79

Feeling pity

for the Juri* in the Ryukyus**

who have long lived

cheerfully -

January ends.

 

*geisha or prostitutes in Okinawa
**old name for the Okinawan kingdom

 

 

#80

Oh, clouds

hanging low in the west,

through which sunbeams

stream chaotic;

my left thigh itches.

 

 

#81

A cloud

floating across

the scarlet sky -

it looks

drunk.

 

 

#82

Body of mine stands erect

when I cross a rut

in which water sparkles.

The sound

of indecency.

 

 

#83

Though saying

"I love the human race,"

I see a shaggy fly glistening

and flying

over a septic-tank.

 

 

#84

A pregnant woman

sitting down,

clasping a white handkerchief.

I feel disgusted

by her belly.

 

 

#86

Looking up at the sky

with dark clouds running across it,

I remember many times,

"Being a woman is

a fearful occupation."

 

 

#87

If he should die...

the three million yen I'd get

flickers -

there's enough time, still

to go through with it.

 

 

#88

In my dream

my father looking sensual,

how I felt

when I spoke to him

lingers in my mind.

 

 

#89

An undertaker

ties the dead feet

with flapping

gaiters

for sale.

 

 

#90

At the wake

a monk writing

"Save us merciful Buddha,"

the letters slant to the right, distorted

in pale ink on paper.

 

 

#91

How amazing

to see a vagina with teeth!

I lift the head

that was peering into a

well.

 

 

#92

A white magnolia

at twilight -

a bill tears and pecks,

right and left

at its petals.

 

 

 

#93

Dissecting

the Blessed Virgin's belly,

the purple womb

emitting smoke

on a summer's eve.

 

 

#94

Us, having been gods once,

I look down a whirlpool

in a washing machine,

into which I might fall down

from heaven.

 

 

 from Faint White Light, 1989

 

#95

Last night

I read

"Ideas cause bloodshed,"

ever since then

oh, my heart...

 

 

#96

Crouched down

under a loquat tree

for seven or eight minutes

on that day,

today.

 

 

#97

"Man and wife should live together

and should make love."

I wonder

which fool

made that a rule?

 

 

#98

Six red snake cucumbers

hanging from a tree,

eaten by birds

have lost

their weight.

 

 

#99

"Oh, young men and women,

how we wish you would dance

on green grass

sprouting from our bones!"

This is how ancient people sing!

 

 

#100

A one-piece dress

swelling like a snake

at my feet,

giving off

my heavy body odor.

 

 

#101

Around a

great tree trunk,

double-coiled wire.

I wonder:

what is it for?

 

 

#102

It seems I'm decaying,

after taking a bath

the hollow of my navel

decorated with

a water drop.

 

 

#103

Like a "secret affair"

the sole of a cat's paw

touching

the sole

of my foot.

 

 

#104

Drawing up my knees,

feeling driven

into a tight corner--

"Should I go out

for some Korean noodles?"

 

 

#105

Even so,

at sunset

the burnt heart

of a sunflower

is swaying.

 

 

#106

Into the vermilion

of the vermilion surface

of a tiled alley wall

I'm trudging

on through.

 

 

#107

When walking on an alley

looking up

at the sky,

I desire a pot

to put on my head.

 

 

#108

Myself a phenomenon

passing through Azuma street

where the musical

instrument of twilight

sounds.

 

 

#109

At the cry of

large brown cicadas,

ivy twined around

wire netting

begins to wither.

 

 

#110

My forehead

passing under

the tangled electric wires

in the dimly red sky -

the green soaking in.

 

 

#111

The sky

shining between the buildings -

an overripe, rotten

corpse

dangles.

 

 

#112

A whistle blows

a door closes

and words flash into my mind.

A dung beetle

is stuck on dung.

 

 

#113

Sound of unzipping

upstairs -

my room,

my cat and me,

begin to dissolve.

 

 

from Cosmic Dance, 1995

 

#114

Hydrangea blossoms

standing darkly,

withered -

Turn the corner

swallowing a snake.

 

 

#115

When I stand up

conceiving

a lump of a stone,

the tree and plant spirits

recede.

 

 

#116

Like the belly

of a cursed black bull,

the evening sky

hangs over me

deeply.

 

 

#117

Stroking the face

of a guardian dog

peering into

an offering box,

I go home.

 

 

#118

A withered penis

drooping

in the crotch

of the grand sky -

me in this street.

 

 

#119

In the decayed void of a stump,

green grass stands

and sways.

The feeling of laughter

surges within me.

 

 

#120

Putting powder

on my face,

I enter

the human way

of life.

 

#121

When I passed the ugly surface

of the trunk

of an old cherry tree,

we made love

in a glance.

 

 

#122

The legs of a bulbul,

flapping its wings

about to perch on a branch -

I see them

stout and exposed.

 

 

#123

Oh, I who have a contempt

for human beings -

I lost the brightness

of the heart of poetry

this much.

 

#124

Stepping on a twisted wire

gathering red rust,

I walk

through the winter grass field

looking down.

 

 

#125

The rain stopped

and the sky

was getting dark,

let the madly howling kite

be pulled down!

 

 

#126

Your bones sinking

into the roots of a tangerine tree.

When it bears fruit

I will eat you,

I will.

 

 

#127

While I hear

the rain dropping on my shoulders

on black leather -

sound of bones

breaking.

 

 

#128

I see

a great face with a broad forehead

beaming,

one half of it

distort, turn ugly.

 

 

#129

Cherry blossoms

blooming thick,

many slender shoots growing straight

out of an opening

of the old trunk.

 

#130

How is it that

the sky's blueness

was born by the vibration

of the sky's flesh?

I'm looking at it now.

 

#131

In a car of the train

like a gut,

lit up brightly and red,

a flock of faces

relaxes.

 

 

#132

Toward the sky

where the night milk flows

a dogwood

with red leaves

stood on tiptoe.

 

 

#133

"Ripping the stomach

into which I was crushed by teeth

and swallowed

I will be born,"

a great poet sings.

 

 

   
   
  Translation Copyright by Miyuki AOYAMA & Leza LOWITZ 2002.
Online Book Version  Copyright AHA Books 2002.

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