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Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

On the back cover of this new Isobar publication Eric Selland registers the delight and importance of this translation of poems by the Japanese poet Sarashina:

“Such a rare treat – one of the few examples of Japanese proletarian poetry to appear in English. Sarashina’s work, like that of the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, is a poetry of testimony, one in which he documents the lives of those living in pre-war Hokkaido, often in their own words.”

The comparison with Reznikoff brings to mind of course the four parts of TESTIMONY: THE UNITED STATES, that extraordinary poetic narrative which recorded the social, economic, cultural and legal history of the United States. Robert Creeley commented on the first volume TESTIMONY describing the collection as “an extraordinary document of human event – terrifying, comic, and deeply, deeply moving.” Creeley went on to suggest his admiration for Reznikoff’s ability to locate given instances “sans distortion” and to place his narratives “in the intense particularity of time and place.” In 1977 Milton Hindus published his monograph on Reznikoff emphasising the important role of history in the American poet’s recitative:

“We all belong to history, but we do not all know it…Coming into contact with what one recognizes to be history in the high sense of the term can be an unnerving experience, which inspires to expression those who might otherwise be counted among the voiceless tribes”.

That word “expression” appears in the superb introduction which the translator has added to this selection of Sarashina’s poems. Connecting the Japanese poet with his proletarian peers, Nadine Willems writes

“As Sarashina’s work demonstrates so well, they remained sharp and sympathetic observers of the everyday life of the lower strata of the population in all its mundanity and desperation. The focus was less on engineering an ideal future society than on the expression of real life struggles in a changing and unfair world.”

Between 1930 and 1931 Sarashina acted as a substitute teacher in a primary school near Kussharo Lake and he identified closely with the seventeen pupils, most of whom were Ainu (an increasingly displaced people). It was from these children and the other residents of the kotan (village-community) that he learned the stories which he then re-formed into poetry. In one of the ‘Kotan School Poems’ he acknowledges this debt:

“Fourth-grader Sekko knows what’s not in any textbook
The deep-down layers of life”

The substitute teacher records his own humility and merges it with a sense of LIFE as his pupils ask him those questions to which there are answers before moving their thoughts outwards to ask questions to which there are none:

—What would you like to do?
—Go outside and play!
—OK. Let’s go
—Wow. Really?

—Sensei, what’s this?
—A spring gentian whose flowers are the colour of the sky
—Sensei, and this?
—That’s a dandelion bud
—Sensei, why does the sun shine?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why does it rain?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why are you alive?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why do you get angry?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why is the world here?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Why are we alive, sensei?
—So that you can all get along
—Sensei, who did you learn this from?
—From all you lot

—Sensei, Tā-chan thumped me

Nadine Willems’s introduction is a delight to read on account of its direct simplicity as she tells us of the political background to these poems. She points us to central issues concerning the Ainu people and highlights the close connection “between people and nature” which “mirrors the connection that exists between the physical and intangible worlds.” These poems take me back not so much to Reznikoff as to Tolstoy whose 1861 essay on ‘Schoolboys and Art’ makes such a fine comparison with Sarashina’s experience as a primary-school teacher. Tolstoy has taken a group of boys out after school and as they walk through a white darkness which seemed to sway before their eyes one little boy, Fédka, asks the teacher to tell them, again, about the murder of Tolstoy’s aunt:

“I again told them that terrible story of the murder of Countess Tolstoy, and they stood silently about me watching my face.
‘The fellow got caught!’ said Sëmka.
‘He was afraid to go away in the night while she was lying with her throat cut! Said Fédka; ‘I should have run away!’ and he gathered my two fingers yet more closely in his hand.
We stopped in the thicket beyond the threshing-floor at the very end of the village. Sëmka picked up a dry stick from the snow and began striking it against the frosty trunk of a lime tree. Hoar frost fell from the branches onto our caps, and the noise of the blows resounded in the stillness of the wood.
‘Lev Nikolaevich,’ said Fédka to me (I thought he was again going to speak about the Countess), ‘why does one learn singing? I often think, why, really, does one?’
What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital and legitimate connection between this question and our preceding talk.”

Kotan Chronicles is another wonderful production from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press and I urge you all to put the date September 20th in your diaries for the launch:
Isobar Press will be launching Kotan Chronicles: Selected by Poems 1928-1943 by the Japanese pre-war proletarian poet, anarchist, and ethnographer Genzo Sarashina at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on 20 September with a talk and reading by Nadine Willems (translator) and Paul Rossiter.

Date: Wednesday 20 September, 6-8 pm.

Place: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

Ian Brinton 4th September 2017.

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