Shuntarō Tanikawa’s New Selected Poems is a comprehensive, arresting and insightful survey of the Japanese poet’s career from his first collection, Ten-Billion Light Years from Solitude (1952), through to the quite recent Kokoro (2013), and many intriguing points between. In total the book covers twenty-two of Tanikawa’s immensely varied collections, with abbreviated portions from each one presented chronologically. The translators, William I. Elliot and Kazuo Kawamura, who have ‘translated Tanikawa continuously since 1968’, render the Japanese source material into lively and elegant English.
The poems included here reveal Tanikawa as an audacious, impulsive poet unrestricted by form or any particular barrier to subject matter. His work veers between assorted stanzaic work-outs and explorations of textual space in quite a number of prose poems. He is intensely interested in the possibility of stanza and line, the different shapes they can take and the content they can hold.
As with any selected works the sum total can only offer glimpses of the poet’s practice and due to Tanikawa’s output some collections seem to lose out in how well represented they are in comparison to the much longer examples from others. The portions from To a Woman (1991) and On Giving People Poems (1991) only run to a couple of pages each. Perhaps this wasn’t a vintage year for the poet? The final stanza of ‘Spring’ from the latter book suggests this isn’t the case: ‘You vanished into Hades long ago. / I’d really like to talk with you – / but what would we talk about? Here I lie this morning late abed / reading old poems filled with the songs of birds / and they are critical of me.’
Tanikawa’s output through the years has amassed in scale and range. As a result this New Selected Poems does have a slightly scattered feel. This may well be entirely the poet’s fault and the book does give a clear indication of his experimental, inconstant, roaming nature at each point in his career through the snippets it offers.
Those poems found in the extract from At Midnight in the Kitchen I Just Wanted to Talk to You have the jazzy, chatty immediacy and easy-goingness of Frank O’Hara. The dedicatory poem ‘For John Coltrane’ outlines a debt to that genre of music: ‘You lived and breathed – that’s all; / sighing a thousand times every fifteen minutes. / In your whole life you shouted only once, / and, after all, what difference did that make?’
Likewise, in ‘Written at 14 E. 28th Street, New York City’ the writing seems just as off the cuff: ‘Every day one station or another / carried Bach. / My hotel window let in no sunlight / let alone the sky. […] It’d be great / if all I had to do was save my own soul; / but since other souls are mixed up with mine / I can’t even say which soul is mine.’
The section from 62 Sonnets (1953) presents thirteen of these poems all of which use the same two-quatrain-followed-by-two-tercet shape. Elements of the traditional haiku and waka, which Tanikawa hoped to divert his Japanese readership away from by introducing western forms such as the sonnet into Japanese literary culture, do remain in the imagistic compactness many of these poems possess, but these are a part of, rather than the whole, of his larger narrative structures, as in the opening from ‘58’ (the poems’ titles come from their numerical place in the collection): ‘It’s distance that makes / mountains mountains. / Looked at closely, they start to resemble me. / Vast panoramas stop people in their tracks / and make them conscious of the engulfing distances.’
In considerable contrast to these sonnets are the prose poems of Definitions (1975) with their long lines and substantial, chunky paragraphs. These are quasi-philosophical monologues that hang somewhere between an outright interest in the physicality of objects or things, and an object-oriented ontology where Tanikawa questions and attempts to reason with his chosen subject matter. ‘Obsession with an Apple’ is indicative of this: ‘You can’t say it’s red. It’s an apple – not a colour. You can’t say it’s / round. It’s not a shape but an apple. You can’t say it’s sour. It’s not / a taste but an apple. You can’t say it’s expensive. It’s not a price – / it’s an apple. You can’t say it’s pretty. It isn’t beauty – it’s an apple. / You can’t classify it, because it’s not a vegetable but an apple.’
‘A Personal Opinion about Grey’ displays a similarly inquisitive attitude and tone: ‘There has never been a perfectly black black. In a black that / completely lacks radiance, an imperceptible trace of white is / present, like a gene, and that is invariably the nature of blackness / itself. From the very onset of blackness, black points toward / whiteness …’.
Tanikawa’s influences are vast. Pop culture crops up from time to time, see the collection Coca Cola Lessons (1980), a mixture of prose and lyric poems, and Mickey Mouse by Night (2003) where the concerns of the poems’ speakers, as in ‘On Earth’, are contrasted with the Disney character’s comedy and silliness: ‘The earth is not a planet that science explains to us. / It is a transient wasteland where mortals are dancing.’
At other points the poet takes his cues from high culture, see the collections Listening to Mozart (1995) and A Chagall and a Tree Leaf (2005). ‘Bare Ground’ from the former gets at a feeling of being stationed and set that opposes the flighty music referenced in the collection’s title and even it’s own instincts: ‘I happily kick the street’s asphalt with my Reeboks / and evade the electric poles to the accompaniment of someone’s / requiem. / I called the model plane I made as a boy ‘Tottering Angel’. / It used to zigzag up, spin and plummet nose first to earth. / Ever since, the earth has been my teacher, / telling me that I have no place to live or die except on the bare / ground.’ The natural world, the sky, cities, fruit, trees, art in its various guises and an array of commonplace objects are never far from Tanikawa’s mind and thinking. At other times the poems issue more from concept as in the collection Minimal (2002) where Tanikawa embraces transience and the poems live in the moment, ‘Sitting’ serves as a great example: ‘Beautiful things are beautiful. Even ugly things / have something beautiful about them. / Just being here / is fantastic / and I cease being myself. / I stand up / and drink some water. / Water is also fantastic.’
As an interesting aside, the book is a departure from Carcanet’s usual and familiar design with its gatefold cover adorned with a tasteful, rather muted black and white photograph, (a disembodied foot against a monochrome grey sky), taken by Hannah Devereux. Appropriately, the image seems to tap into some parts of the Japanese iki or wabi-sabi aesthetics in its austerity and emptiness.
Bringing this new selection of Tanikawa’s vast output together from his sixty plus published collections was surely no easy ask, but the representative offering presented here offers a compact, easily navigable, albeit at times unbalanced resource to those readers already familiar with the poet and perhaps looking for an abbreviated hit. It also provides a sprawling, exciting gateway for those brand new and looking to get into Tanikawa’s poetry.