The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika


Sagawa Chika


Raining like flower petals.
Hit by a heavy weight, insects descend the tree shade.
Gathering at the mast wall, trailing a faint breeze –
Sounds are killed by the sun, the waves.
My skeleton places white flowers upon it.
Interrupted by thoughts, fish climb the cliff.

Dark Song

Upon the new carpet all abloom
Quietly  slowly
Two donkeys pull a cart.
On the street where the proud flower petals burn
Silk feathers are dyed by pollen.
And where her toes touch
A white rainbow is portrayed.

Ocean Angel

The cradle rings loudly.
A spray shoots up,
As if stripping off feathers.
I wait for the return of those who sleep.
Music marks the bright hour.
I try to protest, raising my voice –
The waves come erase it from behind.

I was abandoned in the ocean.

translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu

Read the original in Japanese

Read translator’s note

Sagawa Chika (real name Kawasaki Aiko) was born in 1911 in Hokkaido, Japan. In 1928 she moved to Tokyo and quickly integrated into the literary avant-garde community – she is now considered by many to be the first female Modernist poet. Stomach cancer took her life at the age of 25, at which point her poems were collected and edited by Ito Sei and published as Sagawa Chika Shishuu (Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika) by Shourinsha in 1936. Later a more complete collected works, including her prose, in memoriam writings from poets, and a complete bibliography, was published as Sagawa Chika Zenshishuu (Collected Works of Sagawa Chika) by Shinkaisha in 1983. In 2010, her Collected Poems was republished by Shinkaisha, who also in 2011 published a new book collecting Sagawa's translations from English-language poetry, including poems by Charles Reznikoff, James Joyce, and Mina Loy.

Sawako Nakayasu was born in Japan and has lived mostly in the US since the age of six. Her most recent books are Texture Notes (Letter Machine Editions, 2010) and Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009). Books of translations include Time of Sky//Castles in the Air by Ayane Kawata (Litmus Press, 2010) and For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide (New Directions, 2008), which received the 2009 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent. Her translation of The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika is forthcoming from Canarium Books. She has received fellowships from the NEA and PEN, and her own work has been translated into Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese. More information can be found here.

Many consider Sagawa Chika as Japan's first female Modernist poet, and yet those who are aware of her work and her influence also agree that Sagawa has been heretofore underacknowledged. Her work was written in a concentrated span of seven or eight years, before her death in 1936, a few years before WWII disrupted (to put it mildly) most cultural activities in Japan that did not involve war propaganda. The postwar period saw new developments in poetry – along with new means of recovering and canonizing Modernist poetry – but until recently, most studies of Modernist avant-garde poetry have excluded Sagawa. There are various theories as to why this is so, but it is most likely a combination of factors – her early death, the fact that she was a woman, or the fact that she was a woman and yet didn't write about "women's issues." I suspect that if Sagawa had managed to live a bit longer, she would have continued to develop her technique and become even more of an influential poet.

Though Sagawa was female, she never made this the central theme of her poetry. (A contrast here would be Yosano Akiko, who revolutionized traditional poetic forms while espousing a fierce and passionate feminine aesthetic, while also raising 11 children.) There is little emphasis on gender in Sagawa's poetry. By this I do not intend to suggest that gender did not play a role, simply that the uniqueness of her poetry did not depend on it. In other words, there was no tokenism in her acceptance – her poetry was admired entirely on its own terms. On a recent trip to the Museum of Modern Literature in Tokyo, I perused the pages of Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics) to discover that Sagawa was also the first woman (and ultimately, one of only a few) to have published in this influential journal.

Born in Hokkaido (the northernmost island in Japan) about an hours' drive from Sapporo, Sagawa was only 17 years old when she, against her parents' wishes, followed her brother and his friend Ito Sei (who later became a novelist) to Tokyo. With their help, she tumbled into the midst of the most interesting poetic developments of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time when many Japanese writers were looking outward, avidly translating texts coming out of European Modernism. The young and the fashionable were trading in their kimonos for Western-style clothing (one can see this change through photos of Sagawa herself), jazz cafés were sprouting up everywhere, and even the Japanese language itself was swaying under the many influences of modernization.

Sagawa's work was highly respected by many, including Nishiwaki Junzaburo, and in particular, Kitasono Katue, who became one of her greatest advocates. They, as well as I did many years later, recognized in her work a distinctly Modernist, yet personal style: it combines Modern techniques and ideas (Surrealism, Imagism, Objectivism, collage, parataxis, juxtaposition, to name a few) with an intense emotional register. Her work synthesizes images from her nature-rich upbringing in Hokkaido with those from the chaotic and hyper-dynamic megalopolis that Tokyo was quickly becoming, which also parallels the clash between old and new which figured in the works of many Modernist poets. (This is perhaps more apparent in her earlier poems, rather than the three included here, which were published in the last few years before she died.) No doubt she was also influenced by her translations of James Joyce, Virginia Woolfe, Mina Loy, and Charles Reznikoff, as well as the radical experimentation of many of her Japanese peers.

Sagawa's poetry and translations have only recently been reprinted in Japan. Perhaps it is with good timing, then, that my own translation of her collected poems is forthcoming from Canarium Books – I hope that this, along with increasing scholarship on Sagawa's contribution to Modernist poetry, helps bring her some long overdue credit, in her own as well as in many other languages.