3 Translated Takako Arai Poems

By and | 1 August 2017

Takako Arai (1966 —) was born into a silk-weaving family in Kiryū city, Gunma Prefecture, on the outskirts of Tokyo. She began publishing poems in the early 1990s, and since 1998 has run a poetry magazine, Mi’Te, which features poems, translations and poetry criticism. Her second poetry collection, Tamashii Dansu (Soul Dance) was published in 2007, and received the Oguma Hideo Poetry Prize. Her latest collection, Betto to Shokki (Beds and Looms), published in 2013, explores the lives of female textile workers, applying a unique language inspired by the local dialect of Kiryū.

Takako’s poems in English translation are anthologised in Four from Japan: Contemporary Poetry and Essays by Women (Belladonna Books 2006) and Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai (Vagabond Press 2016). Her poems have been translated into many languages, including Chinese, French, Italian, Serbian and Turkish, and recited at International Poetry Festivals in countries such as America, Argentina, Italy and Turkey. Takako will perform her poetry at the Poetry on the Move Festival in Canberra in September 2017.

A Lightbulb

Withered while bowing, tsubaki1— single bloom on the hedge. Scoop it up & there’s— this old girl, lipsticked, watching from a doorway: “A lightbulb. Perhaps you could help?”

It startles me, her stranger’s phrasing. Yes. Better go in, better shed these worn-out scuffs. “The same socks as him!” Her voice runs clear & cold down my back. The floor creaks—

Her ceiling’s unbelievably high. Can’t reach it—not me. She points, I go for the stepladder, come back,

& she’s standing—
this old girl
in her bright red wrap

In dim light through paper screen I can see her looking down, touching her sash, her sleeves, standing on the kimono’s fallen layers—feet bare already! Crazy! I drop the ladder, of course, & turn to go—

“Pardon me. I’m not going to do anything. I just want you to take a look.” Her voice is pleading, catching me. Thin, thinner, sharpening, red, the whet barb hooking my ear’s depth. Ahh—ahh—her breath pushes back, her scent’s rising like smoke, my heart chokes, I turn—we turn to one another. Her make-up’s slipping. I can see her naked face.

Ogres, snakes—I’ll take what I can get. Pull it together, go to her. Push her down, tear open the wrap—what? Another underneath—silk, fine and white as a shroud. “I told you, I just want you to take a look.” Her thighs are twisting, she’s wrapping herself back up. Her face smooths, cool & waxy, her eyes flash a deep red. I grab the neck, pull at it, grab her breast—

it’s not there
her breast

a handspan cut
smooth as mountain snow
& Scolopendra flat.
“The operation was twenty years ago.”


the operation         twenty years         ahh         like this         you’ve looked down on me the sea of my breast surging         reviving         ahh         so red         the scar that tips my heart reviving         as if new-born         ridges swelling, yes?        Scorpius         of my breast ahh         these stitches         the scissors
like the tail, yes?         the needle-tip puncturing
and should I let this stretch         ahh         ahh         with my deepest breath?

That morning a bloom                 single, on the hospital hedge.
I was put in a white gown. The doctor looked like you, with your strong nose.
The anaesthetic began to work

                                and through the haze to my lost ears
        the voice echoed

                                                        Let’s begin

frantic         I prised open         my inner lids
        & the bulb’s sting                 was printed
        on the water mirror

                                                        my inner abyss

Quickly, turn it on         again
you look like him         today again
                                                                                the hedge
                                                        and in a white gown
                                                I         bloom         yes

Turn it on                         c’mon

you just brush past me         with your scissors         so chilly
and I’m surging         surging         showing         hot red scissors
I         forever         and ever in a white gown
you         forever the doctor

slashed them, didn’t you? the white tsubaki
chopped them into pieces         so I came in red!

Why doesn’t it turn on!
                                                        the single bulb
the poisoned needle         prising         scratching         at my eyelids
scratching me         stabbing         pushing me down         stinging bright

Just turn it on!

                                                                                so sweet, this anaesthetic haze.
                                                                                                                                so chilly
I’ll puff         puff till I burst
                        and swell
                                                my belly
                                                                        gross, yes?
let me hang on the hedge.
Red or white, it doesn’t matter.
        it blooms anyway—
                the flower
                                lightbulb swinging in the wind
                                                                        pendant         star of the sour night dew
        clambering, stitched thread clenching         clambering
                hanging, dangling, Scorpius, bound up, springing droplets
                        swollen                 scorpion belly
                        reflecting         in this image, this compact
                                lightbulb, a lightbulb, a lightbulb

                                                                                                                Turn it on

  1. Tsubaki is a single-layered winter camellia, usually deep red or pure white. The flower is associated with traveling courtesans, who carried it both as a medicinal remedy and to indicate their profession. There is also an association with La Traviata, the title of which is translated, in Japanese, as The Camellia Princess.
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