‘Backside’ by Chika Sagawa

A look at a poem by one of Japan's great modernists


Night eats color,
Flower bouquets lose their fake ornaments.
Day falls into the leaves like sparkling fish
And struggles, like the lowly mud,
The shapeless dreams and trees
Nurtured outside this shriveled, deridable despair.
And the space that was chopped down
Tickles the weeds there by its feet.
Fingers stained with tar from cigarettes
Caress the writhing darkness.
And then the people move forward.

Translated by Sawako Nakayasu

Chika Sagawa was born in 1911 on Hokkaido, an island in the north of Japan. At 19 and with the encouragement of her brother, she left home for Tokyo. That transition from the outskirts of the country to its political and social center figures prominently in her poetry. In Tokyo, she was exposed to western artistic movements, like Dada and surrealism, and western writers. Her first published work was not poetry, but translation, of modernist contemporaries working in English (Woolf and Joyce). Only just beginning her writing life, she died at 25 from stomach cancer. Though largely ignored for many years after her death, she is now often cited as the first female Japanese modernist poet.

Her poetry ascribes human descriptors to inhuman things. A sky will stand, or be clutched. Figs sleep. A city opens and closes. The effect is often exquisite; her poetry contains some of the loveliest images I have read. But beauty is often a burden in her writing. The sky does not exist merely to give humans pleasure; it has a life, plagued with wanting. By endowing these things with human activity, she also curses them with human plight. To exist, in the poetry of Chika Sagawa, is to suffer.

It is unclear as to whether suffering—experienced through a common vocabulary by all things—creates any sort of kinship. Man and nature exist together in the same space, a habitat of words that is at once spectacular and awful. We see this occurring in ‘Backside.’ The poem is a small marvel, like a fist of orange and gold leaves on a tree otherwise skeletal. But its smallness belies a biblical scope. In eight lines she renders the world, her trees replete with light and images of the sea. Then, fingers appear, disembodied and blackened. The fingers are stained with tar from cigarettes—what people give off appears before they do—and her image suggests that a stain is more than a blemish, it’s a wound: a scar with coloration. Darkness writhes; night eats. Flowers wilt and are deemed ‘fake.’ The world is in a sort of unmistakable agony; one can hear the wind in the trees as a kind of wheezing, lungs made to strain.

It is when this ‘despair’ is established that the last of God’s creation comes creeping in. It is hard not to read that final line as something horrible, but then, the horror goes both ways. One can see the trees cowering, but one can also see how a world like this could cow a person. That last sentence starts to take over the poem—is it people who are enduring this world, or is it the other way around? Whose fingers are those? That cigarette might just be a sort of ballast, as Salinger once wrote, against a world as callous as branches in autumn.


You can read more of Chika Sagawa’s work, and hear it read in the original Japanese, in the July 2011 issue of Asymptote.

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, featuring all published poetry and prose by Chika Sagawa, in English translation with a selection of Japanese originals, is forthcoming in 2014 from Canarium Books.

‘Backside’ was originally published in the April 2009 issue of Poetry.

Photograph by Zack Newick.