Misuzu Kaneko’s poems resonate across times and cultures


Book review, from Tokyo – I can’t remember when I first read a children’s collection of Misuzu Kaneko’s poems. Roundish, cartoony figures, cats, dogs, flowers, and clouds left a lasting impression of cute, simple poetry about the nature of things. Take “Tsuchi to kusa” (literally dirt and grass) for example, a poem that reminded me of the drab, unseen mother of its many more appreciated embellishments – grass, bushes, trees, flowers, anything that sprung from it.

Then came news of Chin Music Press’s Are you an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. Eager to see more of her work, I ventured to Amazon.com to get copies over to Japan quickly. Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri, the book weaves a selection of the poet’s literary expressions into her life story. Hajiri’s vivid depictions of scenes of Japan in the 1900s are based on actual research, coupled with an on-site visit to Senzaki, where Kaneko lived, now part of Nagato city in Yamaguchi prefecture. Hajiri combines these scenes with Japan’s famed “five seasons”, which includes the rainy season ahead of summer, to immerse readers in Japanese sentiments of seasonal change.

The book covers her life, from her upbringing in a family bookstore to her breakthrough as a promising poet, and her marriage to a philandering husband. Kaneko would go on to end her life. Weakened by gonorrhea and having lost custody of her young daughter after her divorce, the pages covering her decision and determination for the child to be raised by her grand mother are accompanied by a poem “Cocoon and Grave” and a shining, fluttering butterfly breaking through the shadows.

Her poems then became lost alongside other literary works in the imperial propaganda and the outbreak of war. Her works were later found, another story in itself that is covered briefly at the start of the book. Those who were in Japan shortly after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami might recall the TV commercials by AC Japan that followed. One of them used Kaneko’s poem, “Kodoma deshou ka”, translated into English as “Are you an Echo?” in the title of the book. Some thought this reminded people of others and the fact that everyone is in it together. To me, it remains one of my favourite, alongside “Tsuchi to kusa” (not in the book) mentioned earlier, and “Bird, Bell, and I”. By the time I had finished the book, I had a new perspective on her work.

The book wraps up its journey with a selection of 15 out of her 512 poems, each one unearthed from the sands of the time to ring across the ages. They have most certainly travelled across the seas, thanks to this publication, hopefully to be spoken about and read by many more.

Title: Are you an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (see more of his work here)
Narrative by David Jacobson
Translations and editorial contributions by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi
Publisher: Seattle, Chin Music Press, 2016

(Ed. Added link to illustrator’s website, corrected poem title)

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