[Review] “Take on the Challenge: Tarō Naka’s Music: Selected Poems” by Michael Tsang

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 42 (January 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Tarō Naka (author), Andrew Houwen and Chikako Nihei (translators), Music: Selected Poems, Isobar Press, 2018. 138 pgs.


Tarō Naka’s poems are difficult. Although highly esteemed among Japanese poets, his works remain little translated into English and do not enjoy the deserved popularity in the market of world literature. Andrew Houwen and Chikako Nihei’s translation in Music: Selected Poems serves to remedy this. The result is a poetic journey that requires the reader to navigate through densely written verse, in order to understand Naka’s Buddhist-inflected sensitivity to the world and to poetry.

Naka’s poems are dense. An adept poet, he uses a variety of techniques to craft works with elaborate imagery, paying particular attention to both the optic and sonic aspects of words. For instance, in the poem “July,” Naka uses synaesthesia to good effect: “the rain’s harp sweeps past allegro [… and] from a green wound a drop drips andante.” Readers are invited to imagine a dynamics of rain drops, how their visual movement crosses over with their sonic quality: the intensity of a heavy rainfall is compared to a fast musical passage strung by the rain’s silvery lines, versus the grace of a rain bead as it slides through a leaf and eventually drips form it.

One rhetorical device often found in Naka’s poems is the use of homonymic wordplay, often called kakekotoba in Japanese. Naka suggests in the essay “Polyphonic Poetics” (not translated in this collection) that kakekotoba demonstrates a unique poetic beauty in the Japanese language, where meaning is always multi-layered because a combination of sounds can carry different meanings at once.

Another reason for the density of his poems is found in the way descriptors work in Japanese. A Japanese noun can be modified by many other grammatical forms, such as another noun, an adjective, an adjectival phrase and so on. These forms all come before the noun they modify, and because they are all different grammatically, no comma is required between them (as opposed to English which usually requires a comma between multiple adjectives, thus producing a break in the rhythm). What this means poetically is that an image (that is to say, a noun) can be preceded by a combination of these forms without sounding trite or repetitive. It is by taking advantage of this characteristic of the Japanese language that Naka manages to produce dense and rich imageries.

To exemplify the complications mentioned above, consider this line from the poem “Trees”: “emaciated naked trunks supporting/burnt-up brown diseased leaves.” Houwen and Nihei have had to use three adjectives to describe the noun “leaves”: “burnt-up,” “brown” and “diseased.” Although there are no commas, readers may be tempted to insert a pause between them nonetheless. The Japanese version reads “moetsukita kasshoku no wakuraba,” in which “moetsukita” is a compound verb in the past participle that means “finished burning”; “kasshoku” is a noun for dark brown, then connected with the noun connector “no” and “wakuraba” is a compound noun that literally means “illness-leaf.” Thus while in English all three modifiers are grammatically adjectives, in Japanese the “leaf” is described by two verbs and two nouns glued together through a variety of grammatical functions (participle, noun connector, compounding) without the need of a comma. This is how the density of Naka’s prose is accumulated through the linguistic characteristic of the Japanese language.

Those who can read Naka’s poems in the original Japanese will therefore understand the challenge these two aspects of linguistic flexibility pose to the process of translation. Indeed, one thing that becomes clear while reading this collection is the effort Houwen and Nihei have put into negotiating these polyphonic puns into another language. Not all poems by Naka are fit for translation (especially those that play on the four Japanese writing systems: hiragana, katakana, kanji [characters] and romaji [Roman alphabets]), but among those that are, the translators have tried their best to remain faithful to the imagery, meaning and aural quality of Naka’s poetry. The struggle to understand his poetic universe is partly aided by the helpful paratexts in the collection, such as an appendix of notes and Japanese names, and an informative translators’ foreword explaining Naka’s philosophy and poetics.

Here are two more examples that illustrate the complexity of translating Naka’s verse. In “Décalcomanie II,” one can experience Naka’s sensitivity to the sounds and meanings of Japanese words. The poem uses a decalcomanic technique and produces wordplay on two pairs of homonyms: shi which means poem or death, and me which means eye and bud. In Japanese, all four nouns are written in different characters, but a Japanese reader would understand the homonym despite the visual difference. Rather than comparing the two shi or the two me, each stanza pairs up a shi and a me, contrasting “poem” with “eye” and “death” with “bud.” Hence the poem opens:

shi (poem)           is a needle’s gleam spreading on the marble
me (eye)   is the magnet on which its light converges

shi (death)            is invisible sap climbing inside a tree
me (bud)  is the thorn it feeds pricking the outside world

But if one were to translate word for word from the Japanese, the second line would have read: “me (the eye) is a magnet that draws in that light” (me wa so no hikari o shūren suru jishaku). Here, the magnet (and thus the eye) is active, while the translation uses the construction “on which its light converges” to transfer the active voice to “the light.” Both “poem” and “eye” are described as metaphors in the Japanese version, connected by the gleam, whereas the English translation gives the slightly different impression that the poem becomes the gleam that actively enters the eye.

The last example comes from the three-stanza poem “The Fragrance of Apples”:

the season ages                gracefully
day by day as it bluely quietens
sunlight on tree roots
the ageing season one night, quietly
lets out a silver dream and departs
keeping the fruit flesh’s remaining fragrance

In the first two stanzas (the first of which is quoted above), the poem presents a cosmic view of nature, talking about how nature ages through the seasons without any mention of the fruit in the title. This creates an illusion of what the poem’s subject matter is, and it is only in the last stanza (also quoted above) that reader expectation is overturned: the season motif is used to describe the ripening of a fruit almost in an inversely proportionate relationship (the season “ages” as the fruit “ripens”). But Naka carefully inserts the word “remaining” to describe the fruit’s fragrance, as if to remind us that the apple too is part of nature and its golden days will pass as well. This is a short but powerful poem that demonstrates Naka’s sensitivity to the environment and the world around him.

Here, too, the English translation gives a slightly different perception: the verb “let out” above comes from the word tosha in Japanese, whose meaning is closer to “spit out.” Thus “to spit out a silver dream one night quietly” suggests that nature changes its appearance completely and abruptly in the short expanse of one night and, when life is asleep, whereas “to let out” in the English version invokes a similar sense of tranquillity as “quietly.”

These examples of Naka’s poetic craft hint at a deeper philosophy that, as one would expect, can be found in his other writings. The collection ends with the translated essay “Notes for a Poetics,” which complements the poems and provides glimpses into Naka’s reflection on the nature of poetry, the enterprise of writing and the philosophy of words. As seen from the above, Naka believes that words themselves have meanings. This is not the same as the Western structuralist view of language which divides a word into the signifier and the signified; in Naka’s view, both the visual and auditory “forms” of the word already carry significance.

He also believes that a poem “is necessarily cut off from the writer and surpasses him [sic]” and “the reader makes the meaning exist.” Yes, his poems are difficult, but we should not be intimidated by the toil, because underneath the challenge of making sense of this linguistic density is an immense richness of beauty that a poetry lover cannot afford to miss.


Michael Tsang.jpgMichael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha and a co-editor of Hong Kong Studies. Visit his Warwick profile for more information. [Cha Profile]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s