During his lifetime Kotaro Takamura was a widely popular and highly respected poet in Japan. He published a number of volumes of verse which were highly acclaimed, and one, Tenkei, won the Yomiuri Literary Prize in 1951. He was also noted for his translations of poetry and prose, and wrote a biography of Auguste Rodin. He pursued these diverse literary activities while simultaneously devoting himself to a lifelong career as a sculptor. Despite his long established position as a leading modern poet in Japan, his work is scarcely known outside his own country. This posthumous volume, which is a revised version of a book of verse first published in 1938, then updated in 1974, is one of the few publications of Takamura’s which has received any real international attention. It is an attention long overdue.
Takamura was an extraordinarily creative artist, equally adept at shaping language or stone, carving wood or arranging words. Whether his verbal talent in any way affected his sculpture would be difficult if not impossible to say, but his sculptor’s vision—the compelling impulse to embody the abstract idea in the concrete representation—lends to his poetry a singular impact, a unique effectiveness. His poetry is very translatable because words for concrete images have so much more nearly identical counterparts in other languages than do abstractions or intangible ideas. This is not to suggest that the ideas are not there, for Takamura’s poems are much more than interesting images conjured up through words. The images, metaphors, and similes he uses are special vehicles, yoked to his ideas, infused with his vision, and expressed through his poetic control of words.
The poetry in this volume is not only intensely visual, but often sensually tactile as well. He refers to Chieko’s body as agatelike, maintains that she is “phosphorescing in my cells,” and describes how in the hour of her death her “clean teeth bit fresh into the lemon,” and the juice restored lucidity for an instant.
Chieko’s Sky has a single unifying subject, Chieko, and an unrelieved seriousness and directness of approach. The poet speaks in his poems of playing, laughing, and romping with his beloved wife, but he does not play, or laugh, or romp with words. There is no comedy, no satire, no merriment in his verse. It is lyric verse, expressing a vast range of human emotions from anguish and despair through exhilarating joy; but the verse itself is straightforward, solemnly intent on conveying the message of the moment.
The poems span the years from the time Kotaro met Chieko in 1912 until 1951, just five years before his death and thirteen years after she had died of tuberculosis. These verses are a lyric panorama of the long love affair which illuminated the poet’s life. The intimacy and the explicitness of the moments captured in these lyrics—some of them revealing his reflections while alone, and others describing hours shared with Chieko—provide the reader with an almost unparalleled entrée into the personal world of the poet. He is generous in his candor and the effect is an awesome impression of the magnitude and sustained force of his love.
One expecially moving group of lyrics is that containing poems written between 1948 and 1951. In these poems there is a renewed sense of life and a tone of placid joy after his despair during Chieko’s madness and the years following her death. Here the poet asserts in various ways that she is really always with him—infused into his very being and into all of nature. These final poems are especially exemplary of the sculpture-mindset of the poet; for Chieko dead, the disembodied spirit is affirmed by the poet to have entered into and become a living element within his own flesh where she maintains a genuine identity. He asserts that Chieko exists in absolute reality, and that to the extent that we can have contact with that reality, so much the better people we are. Kotaro plainly idolizes Chieko, and his obvious sincerity makes the reader realize that he really does not know any other way to think or talk about her.
It is impossible fully to appreciate the melody and cadences, or the sounds of the words in Japanese when one is reading translations in English. But it is surely only just to mention that the translator, Soichi Furuta, has performed his job well; for the English translation is characterized by a pleasing rhythm, melody, and grace of phrasing. The verses celebrate simplicity, wholeness, and totality. They sing of simple meals, quiet moments, and of the total commitment of love. Above all, they celebrate, whether joyously or sadly, the intense bond of devotion between these lovers.
In addition to the poems contained in the volume, there is a section devoted to prints of Chieko’s paper cuttings. Most of these are representations of flowers, and they have a harmony of line and color which make them delightful to view. Another section of the book is a brief prose essay narrating the circumstances of the meeting, marriage, and life together of Kotaro and Chieko. It also tells of her lapse into insanity, and the subsequent years of anguish. It is an account which in its simple dignity achieves the grace of the poems themselves.
The poems have the quality of combining intense passion with high seriousness and mature dignity. They evoke images of Chieko’s beloved sky, the mountains, grasses, scents, and sounds of the beautiful countryside of Japan. The delight the pair experienced in romping playfully over the hills and fields is as carefully and passionately etched in verse as is the tragic suffering that came later. The poems are infused with the splendor of an abiding love, and this love is expressed with warmth, candor, and dignity, in language that is touching, and in images that are beautiful and haunting. This moving book of lyrics is an excellent way to become acquainted with Japanese poetry.
Booklist. LXXV, September 15, 1978, p. 148.
Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, July, 1978, p. R108.