Sea, Land, Shadow by Kazuko Shiraishi, trans. by Yumiko Tsumara (New Directions Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Clara Guyton
Nicknamed “the Alan Ginsberg of Japan” by Kenneth Rexroth, Kazuko Shiraishi brings readers a sight-seeing drive through the mystical mountains of Japan in her collection Sea, Land, Shadow, complete with sharp turns and curves, moments of awe-inspiring depth and darkness, and instants of effervescent lightheartedness.
“on a mountain road in a traffic jam
I have poetry, so I’m fine…” (8)
Two lines from Shiraishi’s poem “On a Mountain Road in a Traffic Jam” prepares the reader for the winding journey through the celebrated 88-year-old Japanese woman’s latest poetry publication. Comprised of a collection of poems written over a sixty year period, Sea, Land, Shadow is a book composed of haunting juxtapositions. Exploring themes of death, home, love, and nature through a playful lens, Shiraishi’s words magnify the fragility and strength of the human condition.
Though Shiraishi was born in Vancouver, Canada, she depicts the Japanese countryside with an acute longing flirting with homesickness. Familiar items of home such as a futon, a condom, or a boiling pot of potatoes are often used to highlight themes that the Earth and its natural wonders is a home; our home. She describes nature as interacting with her in practices that are homely and human, like sex or getting ready to go to bed. In her poem “The Sea is Barking,” she likens the way the sea tempts and tosses her to a brave man, as if the sea is having sex with her. She explains to the sea her choice to abstain because she recognizes the power of the sea supersedes the power of man. A powerful message humankind is quick to forget.
“even though the waves are not having sex with me
I might want to do something with you but […]
it is not a man but a wave so if I get in
it will be cold and I will die sorry…” (10)
Taking cues from ancient Japanese Haiku poets, Shiraishi often personifies nature in this collection of poems. Just as she likens the sea to a brave lover, she gives the setting sun a gentle voice as it leans towards the west to hide in the mountains. She describes how she wants to drink a full moon floating in a sake cup, or eat the moon like a hot fresh dumpling, and how the mist got drunk and came to kiss her.
“I want to give you
one delicious full moon
like romantic love
I want to drink a full moon
floating it in a sake cup…” (52)
Her poems are filled with that insatiable curiosity and glimmering creativity of the classic Japanese Haikus we know today.
In fact, though her poems are longer than the traditional haiku, they almost appear to be extended haikus on the page. Translator Yumiko Tsumara makes attractive and peculiar choices on each page by adding extra spaces between words or italicizing seemingly random nouns and verbs. Additionally, they chose not to omit capitalized words, except for the pronoun “I,” and there are only question marks, quotation marks, and commas for punctuation. The result is an airy look to each poem, as if the poem has a body moving on the page before it is ever spoken. Unfortunately, the book does not have the original Japanese poems preceding each translation. There is a mysterious magic to the choices of this author and her translator. I’d love to be able to have an extra clue to its mystique.
This special collection of poems is a mystical journey through Japan and beyond, bringing to life the central theme that the Earth is humanity’s home, and the natural world to be revered and adored as a friend. Shiraishi reminds us that tsunamis and the sea are to be feared, the ghosts of those who died are not to be forgotten, and the natural world is a home to our curiosity, love, mischief, and insatiable desires.