Kazue, Shinkawa. Selected Poem of Skinkawa Kazue. Translated by Lento Takako and Yotsumoto Yasuhiro. Vagabond Press, 2021. RRP: $25.00, 96pp, ISBN: 9781925735284.
Emerging Critics on the Editor’s Desk
This year marked the first iteration of a new Westerly initiative: our Emerging Critics Program. Designed to support both the Higher Degree by Research community at UWA, and to work in partnership with Pelican (UWA’s student magazine), we hoped to provide editorial guidance and mentorship, as well as publishing opportunities, for a small group of up-and-coming critics. The fruits of this process will be seen on the Editor’s Desk in special posts spanning December and January 2021-2022. The successful applicants for the Program were chosen in two ways: nomination by Pelican’s 2021 editors, Riley Faulds and Millie Muroi, and by the Westerly team after applications from HDR students across the Humanities. We’re so pleased with the calibre of work our first Emerging Critics have put forward, and can’t wait to introduce these new critical voices to our readers!
Reviewer note: In order to be consistent with and acknowledge the request of the translators, all Japanese names in this review are presented in the Japanese order of family name first followed by given name. The one exception is the reference to ‘Not A Metaphor: Poems of Kazue Shinkawa’ translated by Hiroaki Sato, which was published using the occidental order of first name followed by family name. This title has been replicated as it was published.
Selected Poems of Shinkawa Kazue, translated by Lento Takako and Yotsumoto Yasuhiro, brings together a rich but focused collection of Shinkawa Kazue’s writing from across her career. Shinkawa is a beloved and significant figure in contemporary Japanese poetry. More than thirty books of her poetry have been published, with her work also appearing in a variety of media including national newspapers, radio, TV programmes and serious literature reviews. Despite her significance in Japan, only one other collection of her writing has appeared in English: Not a Metaphor: Poems of Kazue Shinkawa, translated by Hiroaki Sato (P.S., A Press, 1999). As such, Selected Poems of Shinkawa Kazue is a welcome contribution and provides a strong entry-point for English readers to engage with a selection of Shinkawa’s body of work published between 1953–2013.
In his introduction, Yotsumoto Yasuhiro sets the collection in the context of a ‘soul’s journey’—framed by an early mission of Shinkawa’s: to ‘restore the native Japanese rhythm and emotions grounded in life to a modern poetry marred by conceptual diction’ (15). Yotsumoto says that: ‘For [Shinkawa], poetry needed to be worthy of the weight and richness of reality. Poetry should not be a tool for intellectual games or for clarifying policy or principles’ (14). As the collection includes poetry from such a large portion of Shinkawa’s career, the poems selected allow readers to follow this thread, upon which Shinkawa contends with this initial ideal of restoration and a ‘poetry that reflects the richness of reality’ against the influences, contexts and experiences of her own life, as well as the ‘layered linguistic properties (Chinese words, Western conceptual terms and native vocabulary) of the Japanese language’ (15).
Throughout the collection there is a consistent sense that Shinkawa examines the milestones of her existence not in its grand gestures, but in the small components that collectively make up a reality. That, for Shinkawa, ‘poetic truth’ might be found in the lit cigarette of a stranger (‘Ode to Fire 17’) (71), the ever-present ‘heifer’ watching a river go by (‘Lethe—The River of Oblivion’) (86–88), the ‘frozen cuttlefish couple’ that won’t come unstuck (‘Maudlin Autumn’) (72), or the wrinkles on the face of W. H. Auden as he sits in an airport lounge (‘A Face in Europe’) (38–40).
Shinkawa deftly deploys a vibrant wit throughout her writing, keeping the collection buoyant and approachable without losing any emotive rigour. Several poems use playful simile amid actions grounded in ‘everyday’ modern routines or observations. Shinkawa’s description of unruly hair in the ‘Body parts poems’ is an example:
Some mornings my hair balks at being fixed
Like a sheaf of wheat from somebody else’s field
No, I didn’t steal it, but somehow I feel panicked
Which makes it even harder to fix it (65)
This observation sits between the lonely and mysterious ‘Temples’ (64) and the grounded power of ‘Navel’ (65–66) as an exasperated lilt that keeps her writing in a place that is accessible and tangibly connected to reality, so that these moments of levity sometimes feel like an open hand beckoning. Shinkawa’s work is praised for its accessibility (12) alongside its technical skill (13), and this makes it easy to see how her writing has found such a broad audience in Japan. It brings to mind the sort of intimate referential evidence alluded to by Zadie Smith in her foreword to Feel Free (‘My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I am struck by this thought—are you?’) (9). This intimate quality may have contributed to Shinkawa being given her own poetry column in the Mainichi Newspaper’s Asian Continent edition at the early age of fourteen.
My favourite poem in the collection, ‘The Star and the Boat’ (93), is the penultimate, and one of the small selection of Shinkawa’s poems for children included in the book. In ‘The Star and the Boat’, in the early hours of the morning, one star ‘in the eastern sky’ and one boat in the sea ‘has stayed there, not moving / Since last evening’ deep in conversation through the night: ‘The star about a vast universe / The boat about voluminous salty water’, with neither wanting to leave. Here, Shinkawa articulates a particular pleasure of living—that of staying late deep in a joyous or thoughtful conversation—and plays it out between two ‘universal’ entities. The poem wraps together ideas of the ‘soul’s journey’ (the boat) and Shinkawa’s omnipresent attention to the ‘richness of reality’ (the star) and provides a safe harbour for considering Shinkawa’s body of work. This harbour is not an end, necessarily, but a space for reflection and whimsy, for playfulness, and for celebrating the detail of Shinkawa’s world.
In Selected Poems of Shinkawa Kazue, the collaboration of Shinkawa Kazue, Takako Lento and Yotsumoto Yasuhiro has resulted in a vibrant, focused and robust collection which has immense value and significance as a resource for understanding both Shinkawa’s body of work, and the wider context of contemporary Japanese poetry.
Shinkawa, Kazue. Not a Metaphor: Poems of Kazue Shinkawa. Translated by Hiroaki Sato, P.S., A Press, 1999.
Smith, Zadie. Feel Free: Essays. Penguin General UK, 2019.
Heather Blakey is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, researching affect and aesthetics in video games and digital communication. She is a strategic communications professional specialising in the publishing and writing industry and has worked for academic and commercial brands in Australia and the UK.