Around the same time that I read Takuboku Ishikawa (see last week’s post), I also delved into the work of Yosano Akiko – famed tanka poet and friend to Ishikawa.
I was so taken up by her work that I couldn’t help but respond to her in several tanka. Here’s one:
she speaks of the River of Stars outside her window and I cannot but listen on the other side
In the selections below, Akiko refers to an instrument called a koto (see photo). I got to hear someone play one of these in the evenings while I waited for my train back when I worked in New York City. Like most stringed instruments, its power is derived from tension. When Akiko talks of destroying one with an ax, it is more than a metaphor – it is music.
from River of Stars – Yosano Akiko
While mother begins
chanting a deathbed sutra,
beside her, the
tiny feet of her infant,
oh so beautiful to see.
From her shoulder,
falling over the sutra,
a strand of unruly hair.
A lovely girl and a monk.
The burden of early spring.
The gods wish it so:
a life ends with a shatter –
with my great broadax
I demolish my koto.
Oh, listen to that sound!
And now you must ask
whether I’ve written new songs.
I am the mythic
koto with twenty-five strings,
but without a bridge for sound.
Takuboku Ishikawa (1886 – 1912) said the above statement at the end of an essay, explaining how he approached the form with the intimacy of a diary. They were “sad” because he wrote them while unhappy – they were “toys” because they were useless to society.
This outlook is better understood within the context of Ishikawa’s short life which was burdened with illness and poverty as well as a frustrated ambition to be a novelist. He felt his gift for tanka was useless and felt his novels and essays were of more value. This misplaced ambition opened up in him the possibility to really give himself to his tanka. Despite his outlook, he is known to have said that on “unhappy days…[there is] no greater satisfaction than to write tanka.” *
Since landing in Cincinnati, I have been busy revising poems and putting together a new manuscript. In working through this notebook from two years ago I came across my notes from first reading Ishikawa’s work. His ability to channel restlessness and desperation into short lyrics moves me to this day.
There is also that spirit, that high, of going on a good writing jag . Ishikawa had a famous three day writing spree where he only stopped to walk through graveyards.
The poems I wrote after reading him delve a bit into the past – into childhood – back when I would play with the toys above – little luchadores I would keep in a box under the kitchen sink. His directness with the line – which can be grasped in the lyrics below – helped me wrestle past myself towards a clearer line.
excerpts from “Sad Toys” – Takuboku Ishikawa
like a stone
that rolls down a hill,
I have come to this day.
Fallen leaves of late autumn, destined to decay!
Following them in sympathy, I hurried to start my journey.
Not knowing where the wind has gone that blew it from its twig,
This stray leaf, bewildered and lost, has fallen on my sleeve.
her black pupils
absorbing only the light of this world
remain in my eyes
as boys born in mountains
yearn for mountains,
I think of you when in sorrow
waiting til I was dead drunk,
she whispered to me
those many sad things!
these poor thin hands
to grasp and grasp hard!
bristling over the way
my moustache droops,
so like the man’s I now hate!
* I found some useful information on Ishikawa for this post here.