“Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko”

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After the 2011 tsunami, TV commercials were, out of respect, replaced with public service messages. One was the following poem:

 

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”
If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”
If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
And then, after a while,
becoming lonely
I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”
Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

 

The poem, by pre-War children’s poet Kaneko Misuzu, the pen-name of Kaneko Teru, created echoes of sympathy and hope of its own at a time when they could hardly have been more needed. Well-known and famous in her time, her work was largely forgotten until rediscovered a half-century after her death in 1930.

Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, Misuzu Kaneko, David Jacobson (text), Toshikado Hajiri (illus), Sally Ito (trans)and Michiko Tsuboi (tran) (Chin Music Press, September 2016)
Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, Misuzu Kaneko, David Jacobson (text), Toshikado Hajiri (illus), Sally Ito (trans)and Michiko Tsuboi (tran) (Chin Music Press, September 2016)

Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko is combined biography and poetry book for children. Fully, and charmingly, illustrated, it tells the story of the writer’s sadly truncated life and includes a selection of her work in new translations.

This is a lovely, artfully-constructed book with illustrations, poetry and prose integrated into something very much than the mere sum of its parts. It begins with the story of the poet’s life, interspersed with poems. More or less on whim, it seems, Misuzu—as she is referred to in the book—sent her poems to some journals which snapped them up.

 

Misuzu was only twenty years old, but she quickly became a star children’s writer.

 

The book then tells her of her tragic demise, after an unhappy marriage and divorce, ill and by her own hand at the age of twenty-six. The exact nature of her illness is dealt with euphemistically:

 

Misuzu caught a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.

 

(This is a book for children, after all.) The tragic story tinges all the poems with sadness.

Are You an Echo? is nominally targeted at children ages 7-10, but I think 7-70 would be more accurate.

The poems themselves are small gems: words whose simplicity belie the deeper meanings beneath. These are poems that don’t speak down to children but rather speak to them of their thoughts, questions, worries and joys:

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The poems also reach out across language and culture; they work very well in English, and are a credit to translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, who explain some of the challenges in an informative afterword:

 

In Japanese, girls have a particular way of speaking that is affectionate and endearing. Misuzu’s poetry is filled with the emotional tones of this girlish language. Japanese readers understand this voice and connect immediately to the gracefully expressive style of Misuzu’s words…. English is limited in its capacity to convey Misuzu’s subtle feminine sensibility and the elegant nuances of her classical allusions.

 

The second post-biography half of the book, which is just poems, includes the Japanese original, which isn’t of much use to English readers except for the beauty of the presentation. The book is, finally, lovingly illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri.

Are You an Echo? is nominally targeted at children ages 7-10, but I think 7-70 would be more accurate. Anyone with any memory of childhood is likely to be touched.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.