A way long time ago in 1988 a friend here in Tokyo gave me a just published collection of poems called Salad Anniversary. The poems were by a still relatively unknown teacher of Japanese, barely 25 years old. The book, in a very short time, made the name of Tawara Machi practically household words.
Tawara spoke for a generation of young Japanese trying to find their way ebulliently through the ups and downs of city life. She wrote about love, or the lack of it, about family, baseball and music, and all the things that characterize life in a megalapolis as both thorny and exciting.
What makes her poems so effective and so interesting is the clever mix of old forms with new words, ideas and experiences. Tawara’s form is the classical thirty-one syllable tanka poem, which dates from the 8th century in Japan. Of course, this syllable count refers to the Japanese, and carries little relevance when the words are put into another language. But the poet is adhering to certain rules in composing tanka, and she meets those rules, but then quickly gives them a jaunty cuff on the ear. She follows one rule, but breaks the next. In many of her poems you find the classical aligned with the modern, vernacular expression mixed with classical conjugation.
Despite the seeming complexity, Tawara’s poems abound with freshness and the zest of life. Even now, 22 years after their publication they still have significance to the workings of the heart. If nothing else, the poems in Salad Anniversary are universal in their appeal. Still today they call up that, “Yeah, I know what you mean” response.
One of my favorite things about the poetry of Tawara Machi is the beauty she finds in every day small things. Whether it be green peas or electrical cables, she extracts a nugget of unexpected charm or beauty.
About the four examples from Salad Anniversary I am introducing here, the themes run from erotic love to memory, music and city experiences. Take a few minutes to savor the thoughts and observations of Tawara Machi. Maybe you too will read them with a feeling of, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
Secretly I try on your jacket
drinking in your smell
and strike a pose like James Dean.
Longing for the past…
are like frozen mixed vegetables
except you’re not supposed to try thawing them out.
On the way home…
Pausing to vomit
a day of work-weariness and load another
the Yamanote Rail Line circles through murky twilight.
After a live concert…
Cords and cables flopped across the stage
as though they’d melted a score sheet
and let it drop.
The above English translations are by Jack Stamm from the 1988 First Edition.
Kodansha International Edition (1990)
English translation by Julie Winters Carpenter