Carolina Maugeri

Distant Memory, Distant World: A Review
GutCult Winter 2005 Reviews

Poems by Sagawa Chika, Translated by Sawako Nakayasu

       In the summer of 2004, I first read the beautifully mysterious and sensual poems of Sagawa Chika (1911-1936) in the online journal, How2, which dedicated their translation section to the “Japanese Modernist Innovation,” organized and introduced by Sawako Nakayasu.*  In the introduction to Sagawa, Nakayasu expresses a desire to read and know more; I want to, too. At the present moment, however, no books of Sagawa exist in print. In 1936, Itô Sei, a friend of Sagawa’s brother Kawasaki Noboru (who also figured significantly in Tokyo’s literary activities at the time), edited and published a posthumous collection of Sagawa's poetry in Sagawa Chika Shishû (Collected Poetry of Sagawa Chika), and in 1983, Shinkaisha published, in only an edition of 550 copies, a more thorough collection of poems and prose by Sagawa, dedications by poets and her contemporaries, and a comprehensive bibliography in Sagawa Chika Zenshishû (Collected Poetic Works of Sagawa Chika). The writings of Sagawa Chika are rare and hard to come by. Even the personal website of Ririka, a young woman who Nakayasu mentions as having transcribed some of the materials from the collected works and posted them on her site, inexplicably went offline within two months of Sagawa's publication in How2. Although the original writings of Sagawa may not easily be accessible to us, Nakayasu conveys, through the translation of fifteen poems into English, the imagistic brilliance and intensity of Sagawa’s words.

       At the age of seventeen, Sagawa Chika moved from the northern island of Hokkaido to Tokyo, where she joined a literary community that saw a rapid progression and diversification in concurrence with Dada and Surrealist ideals. Led by experimental poet Kitasono Katue, the Arcueil Club, named in homage to Erik Satie, consisted of innovative pre-war Japanese writers among whom Sagawa was considered to be one of the best. For a short period of six years, 1929 to 1935, before her death at the young age of twenty-five, Sagawa Chika wrote more than eighty poems and translated writers including Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Of what we see in How2, Sagawa’s poems may at first seem small and short, but the long lines of her words behave in motion, hyper-textually spinning flux and compact imagery, undermining the tight text spaces that act more like a geometric prism than a painter’s canvas. Without stating exactly who or what influenced Sagawa Chika in her writing, we might consider Sagawa her own best influence. Her poems demonstrate a purposeful design yet maintain the mysteriousness and the timelessness of dreams in her unrelenting investigation of privacy’s collision with the world.

       What moves beyond anthropomorphizing of images into language is the most remarkable quality of Sagawa’s craft: her capacity for synthesis that facilitates an escape from and a reluctant return to the world – from the natural to the unnatural, from the concreteness of objects and things to intangible abstractions and dreams. In “Morning bread,” Sagawa presents the speaker as seeking an unattainable solitude while witnessing the world’s inevitable cold violence:

              Temptation of the green insect. In the orchard a woman stripped of her socks is
                 murdered. Morning,
              sporting a silk hat, follows along from behind the orchard. Carrying a newspaper
                 printed in green.

              I, too, must finally get off the hill.

At this point, the “I” of the poem emerges almost perfectly centered and signifies the speaker’s perspective, which frequents other poems involving balcony-like settings. Tops of hills and balconies represent a relatively confined space in which a person might have a limited bird’s-eye-view without the freedom that birds have. At the same time, the speaker in these situations has the choice to “get off” or to step down from that position. Also, the unexplained, mysterious motivation behind the speaker’s decision (seemingly always) to step down, to return to the city or to the world creates a paradoxical tension similar to a “stolen expression” in another poem, “Insects,” in which “night makes the bruised woman...go mad with joy.” A feeling of frustration arises from the speaker’s struggles to move higher than the given hill and to see outside her peripheral vision. As a reaction, and almost to the speaker’s satisfaction, the poet then moves to confine the images by blurring people and objects. The speaker in “Morning bread” proceeds, “The city cafés are beautiful glass spheres, and a troop of men have drowned in wheat-colored liquid. / Their clothing spreads in the liquid.” Sagawa ends the poem with the “Madam with the monocle,” who with her own somewhat restricted vision resembling that of Sagawa's thwarted speaker behaves erratically and defiantly by taking “her last hunk of bread and hurl[ing] it at [the men].”

        In addition to the Madam wearing the single eyeglass, Sagawa’s poetry acquaints us with a rather unconventional, colorful cast of characters. They appear as personified objects and abstractions with human-like qualities such as insects, a rooster, a blue horse, a swan, a madwoman, a heart, a knife, a crowd of death, light, memory, time, trains, etc. In effect, the layers over layers, the multiplication and saturation of rotating images, cause each poem to puncture and evolve as if in defiance of nature. In Japanese, junkan means cycle, rotation, and circulation – common motifs in Sagawa’s poetry that she enables through a manmade “ventilator.” Sagawa’s poetry admits its own synthetic qualities. The constant motion of the world as defined by things is both disturbing and empowering in the same moment. Time becomes an object constantly changing its composition. Two of Sagawa’s poems, “Rusty knife” and “The blue horse,” most adequately illustrate this phenomenon. Both poems scrutinize the speaker’s changing chemical make-up. A rusty knife is not an easily definable object because it constantly changes until the knife turns almost completely to rust with the rust replacing the knife. An echo of death resounds when the speaker says, “The books, ink, and rusty knife seem to gradually be stealing the life out of me.” Whereas in “The blue horse,”

              Summer dyes blue the women’s eyes and sleeves, and then whirls merrily in the town
              Sad memories should be thrown out like a handkerchief. If only I could forget the
                  love and regret and the patent leather shoes!
              I was saved from having to jump from the second floor.
              The sea rises to the heavens.

With the last line, “The sea rises to the heavens,” acting out the ultimate impossible feat, Sagawa ignores any sort of defeat, defies the genetically stamped Japanese brown eyes and black hair, and replaces these colors with the unattainable color blue.

        The question of attainability in the world seems recurrently to preoccupy the subject in Sagawa’s poetry. Death’s intimidation and the objects that may have become lost over time only add to the poet’s anxiety. In a eulogy to the poet that can be found in Sagawa Chika Zenshishû, Kitasono Katue says of Sagawa, “She walked a path from a happy morning to an uneasy afternoon and then to a night full of pain.” We might assume that Sagawa Chika followed in the steps of the dark, melancholy Italian Twilight Poets, poeti crepuscolari, like Marino Moretti, especially after reading the short poem, “Ocean of memory”:

              Hair disheveled, chest splayed out, a madwoman streels.
              A crowd of white words crumbles upon the crepuscular ocean.
              A torn accordion,
              a white horse and black horse storm across over it, frothing.

However, the exception here is the unpredictable imagination and actions of a woman that allows for a rediscovery of all things lost. Sagawa reminds us of elements of what we can retain and save in memories and dreams. In“Illusion of home,” she says,

              The long dreams of people encircle this house many times over, only to wilt like
                 flower petals.
              Death gently clings to my finger. Peels off the layers of night one by one.
              This house continues the brilliant road to the distant memory of a distant world.

As Gaston Bachelard explains in The Poetics of Space, a person’s relationship to the house and universe (“It is as though something fluid had collected our memories and we ourselves work dissolved in this fluid of the past”), Sagawa Chika moves beyond the simple assemblage of words and memories and dives into the oneiric brilliance of her world.

        Without a doubt, Virginia Woolf had a great impact on Sagawa Chika. Through her writing, Sagawa occupied a private space where she struggled to be both inside and outside of her “room,” where she would occasionally find the need to escape from her own privacy. Could a Western influence have complicated the issue of urbanity present in Sagawa’s poetry? We do not know the longitude and latitude of the city in Sagawa’s mind, whether we are in Tokyo or Paris, etc. Although we long for more access to her biography and the complete corpus of her work, we nonetheless have in Sagawa's work an adaptable poetry unencumbered by the limitations that always come with "origins." In this regard, the partial occlusion of Sagawa's own story serves her poetry very well, which remains as fluid and timeless as she must have wished.

* It is worth noting that, in Japanese, last names come first in the presentation of names.