As started last week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Today’s post is by poetry committee member and Reading the World podcast host Erica Mena.
Time of Sky & Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata, translated by Sawako Nakayasu
Publisher: Litmus Press
Why This Book Should Win: Outsiders are cool, two-for-the-price-of-one, 1st ever repeat translator winner, the poetry will explode your brain and send you spinning into dreamspace.
Time of Sky & Castles in the Air are two separate books, collected into this single volume, and their contrast underscores Ayane Kawata’s breadth of poetic talent and Sawako Nakayasu’s impressive range as translator. Time of Sky is Kawata’s first collection of poems, published in Japanese in 1969. At the time of publication, Kawata was (and still is) an intentional outsider in the Japanese poetry world. This remove is perhaps the strongest feature of this first part of the collection: the distance of the observer from the poetic world she engages with.
These sparse, short verses seem at first to belong to the tradition of abstract, imagistic Asian poetry that most Western readers are familiar with. The grammatical minimalism, the intense images, the staccato rhythm of constrained lines, all of these things feel familiar, within the comfort-zone of contemporary Japanese poetry. But there is a dark tension lurking beneath the surface, and in places it bursts through, startling:
From the trace of the incontinent blood of an angel walking along
holding some sky cut out with a class cutter, the dawn—
Will the lark’s vein blow up
Or will an earful of the distant blue make its way inside
At the speed of a reed of blood crawling about the brain
As if to assault—
Not all of them are about blood and veins blowing up, but the sky is a threat in many of these poems, a violent imposition on life, body and nature. The distant blue that is too bright, and cut up, and ominous and penetrating and rupturing, is a spectacularly original feat of imagination.
There is also a layered femininity in these poems, that builds sexuality within protest and suffering.
O naked women letting out screams and passing through the
invisible automatic doors of the blue sky
Breasts that hatch
Mirrors resound and melt
The sky goes missing
How long will the women be gasping as they open and close their
arms in the towering forest of mirrors
The reflection of the body in a mirror is a clear gesture toward feminist positioning, but at such cold remove, such seemingly idle wondering, that the violence of the watcher’s gaze is all but undone. This first book is full of startling imagery, more striking for the distanced tone which Nakayasu preserves throughout. This tone, which could become monochromatic or dully repetitive, emphasizes the layers of image and meaning, and hints at innocence and indifference. But if the tone gestures towards indifference, it is even more exciting to encounter the violence and strangeness of these sharp fragments of image.
Castles in the Air, published in Japanese in 1991, is a dream journal presented as prose poems, and operates within its own hybrid rationale. Operating within a familiar dream-logic, these poems are at once unbearably personal, shamelessly intimate, and frankly grotesque. They unflinchingly reveal the subconscious monstrosity of the speaker, but so bluntly, so unapologetically that the reader too is implicated by the assumed understanding in the tone. These are dreams we all have had, in one way or another, and so no embarrassment is necessary.
With an infant
A man is chasing me—so in order to escape I try to have a relationship with an infant. The idea is to drive the man away by having him see me make love to the infant. The infant understands the situation completely.
Throughout this sequence the poet struggles with impossibility – the attempt (often failed) to escape pursuit, to be seen, to be heard. Familiar tropes of an unsettled dreamer, these are transformed into revelations of weakness and strength.
I have a flute in my hands and try to play it, but no sound comes out. I accidentally breathe in and something like a scrap of silver foil gets left behind in my mouth. As I am wondering what it’s like inside the flute, the thin wooden flute splits vertically like a cicada shell, exposing the metallic scraps and grass seeds mixed inside. The flute sounds because of something inside it. I put it back together and try again to play it. Still no sound comes out.
This collection moves from cold remove to shameless vulnerability, from verse to prose, from imagistic to dreamlike. In maintaining a recognizable voice and preserving the disparity between pieces, Nakayasu created a remarkable translation, deserving of close and repeated readings.
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