Andrew Houwen’s note: The Japanese poet Kazue Shinkawa has described Noriko Ibaragi (1926-2006) as the “big sister” of post-war Japanese poetry. Ibaragi had her poetry first published at the age of 19, at a time when published women poets were a rarity. As both an inspiring poet and the founding co-editor of the poetry magazine Kai (Oars) in 1953, she not only created a space for now-famous names such as Shuntarō Tanikawa and Makoto Ōoka to grow but also for countless other Japanese women poets. After having survived as a teenager the devastating consequences of the Second World War’s ultranationalist hatred and tyranny, she became a passionate advocate for greater cross-cultural understanding: for instance, she translated numerous Korean poets, which earned her the Yomiuri Prize for Translation in 1990. Underpinning this advocacy, and indeed her entire oeuvre, was her conviction that the individual should be independent in their thinking and not blindly follow what they are told to think by figures of authority. In this, she inspired not only her own but all subsequent post-war generations in Japan.
Her work struck a chord that resounded beyond the relatively marginalised poetry world to reverberate throughout Japanese society. Her fifth poetry collection, Jibun no kanjusei kurai (Your Own Sensitivity At Least, 1977), in which “Seinen” (“Young One”) first appeared, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies; after Ibaragi’s death, it was one of the year’s best-selling books. “Young One” is a poem that encapsulates her desire to reach out to others. Rather than projecting her own thoughts onto the “young one” sitting next to her as they wait for a train to arrive, though, the speaker acknowledges her own lack of understanding: “a student or salesman or embryo office boy? / I’ve absolutely no idea”. She can only see “a face rejecting others with blinds down”, one that requires the speaker to keep reformulating her reading of it in the poem’s opening without arriving at any final interpretation. The speaker can only “trace his gaze” from the Musashino station (a poetic reference to Tokyo) as they both look at Mount Fuji “dyed wine-colour” in the evening distance.
“Kono shippai ni mo kakawarazu” (“Despite This Failure”), included in Ibaragi’s next collection, Sunshi (With Thanks, 1982) is similarly concerned with its speaker’s uncertainty. As she “listen[s] in” to a student in a nearby house practicing English. The “student’s voice” appears to falter, resulting in “silence”. The speaker, likewise, tries but fails to understand what has happened: “What’s happened? Right now. // Was it to ease a broken heart? / Or suddenly pulled down / to thought’s abysmal depths?” The student’s apparent failure parallels the speaker’s, as the latter struggles to hear the snatches of his voice in the “Maytime breeze”. “Despite this failure”, though, the speaker understands the “need to go on living” and to “nurtur[e] other things living as well”. Our desire to understand others is restrained by the inevitable imperfection of such an understanding; still, though we cannot “get the original text”, we—whether poet or translator—make do to the best of our ability. Any attempt at understanding others requires at first an understanding of what we do not, and cannot, understand.
The limitations imposed on our ability to reach out to others are perhaps most powerfully and painfully felt after the loss of a loved one. In 1975, her husband of some 25 years, Yasunobu Miura, died. Ibaragi never remarried. Her poems dealing with her grief at his loss, which include “Yume” (“Dream”) and “Tsuki no hikari” (“Moonlight”), were never published in her lifetime; they appeared, instead, the year after her own death in 2006, under the title Saigetsu (The Years). The poems in this collection are perhaps the most touching and emotionally profound poems not just in her oeuvre, but also in post-war Japanese poetry. In “Dream”, the poem’s speaker senses the “traces” of its addressee, who is both absent and, somehow, present. How he is present, though, the speaker cannot say, “Not knowing whether it’s reality [utsutsu] or dream [yume]”. This saying alludes, as the choice of the more poetic “utsutsu” suggests, to multiple famous classics of Japanese literature, among them Genji monogatari (“The Tale of Genji”), with its questioning of what we can really know in this world of illusions.
A face adrift
or rather, dark
or rather than dark, depressed
a face rejecting others with blinds down,
I recall for some reason the deep gloom over him—
a student or salesman or embryo office boy?
I’ve absolutely no idea.
Were you to say ‘Excuse me’
perhaps his eyes would turn away—
so a young Japanese then
looking while not looking.
Were you to trace his gaze
towards Mt Fuji, evening,
its side dyed wine-colour
while sun sank at Fuji’s left shoulder,
looking from this Musashino station
when sun sank on Fuji’s left shoulder
spring, too, gradually unravelled.
Buffeted by a cold wind,
silently sitting beside me,
both waiting for the train to arrive,
a slight dizziness came
like the me of some twenty years back
had taken this young one’s shape and sat beside me.
青年 (Young One)
DESPITE THIS FAILURE
Riding Maytime breeze
comes the sound of read-out English,
a student’s voice in the house behind;
then renderings into Japanese follow.
He needs to give a presentation somewhere?
A brave voice he’s put on—
but English and Japanese don’t weave together.
when I rest my hands
and listen in …
Despite this failure,
despite this failure …
Then, suddenly, silence.
What’s happened? Right now.
Was it to ease a broken heart?
Or suddenly pulled down
to thought’s abysmal depths?
On that blowing breeze
his voice no longer rides.
After, there’s only the lilacs’ scent.
The original text I can’t get either,
but after will just carry on.
Despite this failure,
me too, I must go on living,
not knowing why, and not only living,
but nurturing other things living as well.
この失敗にもかかわらず (Despite This Failure)
そこで はたりと 沈黙がきた
Lightly a weight
on my body here and there
carved the marks of you
less hurried than days, us just married,
soaking into the whole of my body,
a sense, being satisfied, not of this world,
bit by bit opening up my whole body,
suddenly I wake to the sound of my own voice.
Though the bed’s empty beside me,
it’s full of your traces,
something like music reverberates even,
a lingering sound.
Not knowing whether it’s reality or dream,
what remained there in my body
was a sad purity.
Gradually I arise.
If I count, it’ll be day forty-nine tomorrow night.
That was a typical greeting of yours,
showing affection in so many ways
Why, let’s allow it enter, resistless,
if this is goodbye
at a country hot spring
you took a nap after bathing.
A bright full moon shone clear on you,
a quiet like the watery bottom of all things.
You mustn’t sleep in moon-light—
Where did that saying come from?
Where did I read that?
All of a sudden it entered my mind.
Yet without moving you
or closing the door
or covering your face,
I only wanted to let you sleep tenderly on.
Perhaps that was not the right thing.
floating into my eyes,
bathed in a pale light,
you were sleeping—
the bridge of your nose,
your bath robe,
bare feet …
Noriko Ibaragi (1926-2006) was a pioneering Japanese woman poet. In 1953, she founded and edited the poetry magazine Kai (Oars). Her early work portrays her desire to let new life blossom out of the war’s rubble. Although she emphasised the importance of personal independence, she always sought to forge connections with others, as demonstrated by her longstanding interest in translating Korean poetry. In 1975, her husband of twenty-five years, Yasunobu Miura, passed away, and she never remarried. Her poems addressed to him, including “Dream” and “Moonlight”, were published a year after her death in her final collection, Saigetsu (The Years).
Andrew Houwen (1985-) is a translator of Dutch and Japanese poetry. His translation, with Chikako Nihei, of the prize-winning post-war Japanese poet Tarō Naka’s Music: Selected Poems, was published with Isobar Press in 2018 after some of its poems had appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Shearsman, Tokyo Poetry Journal, Cha, Tears in the Fence, and the Poetry Salzburg Review.
Peter Robinson (1953-) has published various books of aphorisms, fiction, and literary criticism, as well as poetry and translations (mainly from the Italian) for which he has been awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize, and two Poetry Book Society Recommendations. His versions of Noriko Ibaragi’s poems, made with the help of Fumiko Horikawa, were published in 1992 as When I Was at My Most Beautiful and Other Poems (Skate Press). A substantially enlarged and revised selection from her work, in collaboration with Andrew Houwen, is currently nearing completion. Visit his website for more information.