Individually, her poems have a single, tender conceit. It ranges from the tragic, to the inci-dental, to variation on the transcendental in ‘Antelope’, where a childhood encounter with an antelope at a mountain spa resonates through the years:
To the spa in my dreams In the dead of night gently I put my toes into the hot water Through the steam opposite I can hear faint steps That antelope Returns each time
Images of mountain and water inform a number of Masayo Koike’s poems. Among her many supple and inventive works, ‘Hakozaki on Deep Blue’ is notable for the humour and urgency of its observations:
Nothing captured Hakozaki Ichiro’s heart as much as deep blue flowers One day When he was waiting in front of the station for a friend By chance his eye fell upon a nearby flower bed There quite by accident A mass of small blue flowers was growing His line of vision As if harvested by a vacuum cleaner was sucked into it
In ‘the sequel’, the poet notes her own love of the colour blue, particularly of blue flowers: ‘Aren’t I Hakozaki? Isn’t Hakozaki me? We love blue.’ She extends the reach of the poem into minute evocations of the colour, whether it be a spot of blue on a body or a faint touch in the white of an eye. The employment of narrative and close attention to the texture of words underscores an appealing originality.
Shuntaro Tanikawa (b.1932) seems to have more in common with his female compatriots than with the masculine ‘grunge’ of the Chinese poets Yi Sha and Yang Xie. In this selection, he appears to be a poet of extraordinary range, with a free-wheeling persona that takes him comfortably through a variety of form and subject. He possesses a clear and candid voice, which immediately engages the reader. Like Masayo Koike’s work, there are many references to sea and forest; and Rin Ishigaki’s poetry may also be compared to Tanikawa’s poems, in which everyday objects often reverberate beyond themselves:
In the distance the sea caught the light From the unvarnished table that arrived yesterday the faint scent of forest But birdsong faded away (‘Here Now’)
The direct voice can on occasion be complex, as in the fine ‘Shaping Sand’ which plays with the very idea of writing:
The lines born from your fingertips Shape forms without shape and unshape forms with shape Reject the flora and fauna of a single star
Tanikawa’s poems about family, especially his father, are particularly strong, but equally striking is the finely delineated ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, poised as it is between nature and art, between the costly acquisition and the found leaf. The poem begins:
Next to the Chagall lithograph that I bought with all my savings I placed a Japanese chestnut oak leaf that I picked up on the road
The sound of Ravel played on the piano in the background swells Today becomes one with eternity In the blue sky outside the window my heart and my body melt … Where did these tears come from?
Moving from the aesthetics in ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, a world defined by the beauty of image and sound, we enter into a different world, a contemporary world full of noise, turmoil and extempore choice. My first reaction to the poetry of Lưu Diệu Vân (b.1979) in the selection from Vietnam was that I wanted to hear her read live:
ask a poem to a bar leave it alone sit at a distant table watch its every move while intoxicated take another poem home (Lưu Diệu Vân, ‘time killers for poets’)
Rich in theme, with a brave and lively selection of imagery, Vân excels at incisive observation – at times tragic, and more often than not, very funny. The poem ‘post-feminism’, coming after a crisp dissection of Confucianism in ‘dead philosopher’s apologia’, is a highlight. Here are some snippets from this tale of an unfortunate dinner-date:
he eagerly criticizes, after a few inhales of thick smoke you have yet to possess true feminine traits ... I wear red high heels, clingy off-shoulder silk dress, and elegant white pearls ... I widen my eyes in surprise and yawn discreetly with my mouth covered, slowly cross my long legs, neatly fold both hands on my lap, calmly interrupt his second criticism after asking the waiter to bring me a separate bill for the lemonade and crème brûlée to take home ...
Feminist and political appraisal is strengthened by Vân’s awareness of neighbourhood, specifically its imagery in such poems as ‘dolls and bicycles’ and ‘the finality of peace’. This location of politics in the individual’s life is evident in ‘my 1975 story’, through a transposition of time that presents national tragedy in two short, vivid pages:
I am a young woman, approaching eighteen years of age scrambling around the square, morning, noon, day and night where they bind prisoners to flagpoles under the broiling sun imploring gazes offering to exchange wedding bands and keepsakes for half a sandwich and a mouthful of cold water
The other two poets in this Vietnamese volume, Lưu Mêlan (b. 1989) and Nhã Thuyên (b. 1986), are both promising writers in their twenties and at the beginning of their careers. Both show an exuberance and inventiveness in their use of language. For Nha Thuyen, water appears to be her chosen element, in that it works as an expressionistic device to make a frag-mentary, and fractured, connection with the world. An example of this trait can be seen in ‘unfamiliar appearances (1)’, where:
the girl shrinks herself behind the wooden door, clutching a handful of rain from somewhere the autumn sky pours down on the garden she dips one by one a pungent kumquat leaf of water
Lưu Mêlan also reveals a fragmentary, disconnected and migratory self when she evokes in ‘Ninh Thuan’, ‘a sun shined Saigon’ of ‘somber clouds and chilly winds’; a Saigon which is deceptive, illusory and alienating. Such features are also present in the final volume to be dis-cussed, a selection from the Philippines.