Late poet’s grace shines through tragedies

ARE YOU AN ECHO? THE LOST POETRY OF MISUZU KANEKO

ARE YOU AN ECHO? THE LOST POETRY OF MISUZU KANEKO
Test and translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi; illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri (Seattle: Chin Music Press, 2016, 64 pp., $19.50, hardcover)

This is a sad and lovely story about a young poet and the legacy of her work.

A poet named Setsuo Yazaki read a poem called “Big Catch” in 1966 and was curious to know more about its author, Misuzu Kaneko. He spent 16 years searching. There were no books of her poetry in the library or in bookstores. The firebombing of Tokyo in World War II destroyed the only known copy of her poems.

Yazaki made a breakthrough in 1982. He located Misuzu’s 77-year-old younger brother Masasuke, who had saved three of his sister’s diaries containing 512 poems she had written. Masasuke provided some biographical material. Misuzu was born in 1903 in Senzaki, a fishing village on the Sea of Japan. She loved the beauty of her surroundings.

Her father died when she was 3 years old. Her mother managed a bookstore. She believed in the importance of education, so she allowed her daughter to stay in school until she was 17, even though in that era most girls left school after the sixth grade.

Misuzu loved to read and had a vivid imagination, sometimes confusing real life with what she read in books. She had empathy for everything around her. In one of her poems, “Fish,” she says she feels sorry for the fish on her dinner plate.

In “Snow Pile,” she feels the loneliness of the snowflakes in the middle of the pile because they have “neither earth nor sky to look at.”

As a young woman of 20 working in the family bookstore, she submitted a few of her poems to four different magazines, and her work was chosen for publication by all four. Her poems began to appear regularly in publications.

Despite this success, Misuzu’s personal life at this time was very unhappy. Her unfaithful husband had given her a “disease that caused her great pain.” She had difficulty taking care of her infant daughter, but she tried to remain positive. “To Like it All” speaks of her desire to be a loving, grateful person.

After a few years Misuzu made the decision to divorce her husband, but the law in Japan gave custody of children to the father. On their last night together, mother and daughter ate sakura mochi (sweet sticky rice wrapped in a cherry blossom tree leaf). Misuzu wrote a letter asking her husband to allow their daughter to live with her grandmother. Then she took her life. She was 26 years old.

Misuzu’s mother eventually did get custody of her granddaughter. On the anniversary of her death, they eat sakura mochi together, remembering her kind and gentle soul.

After reading the poems saved by Misuzu’s brother, poet Setsuo Yazaki published them. Japanese children now read them as part of the elementary school curriculum.

In 2011 after the earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku in northern Japan and 2,000 people lost their homes, one of Misuzu’s poems, “Are You an Echo?” was broadcast on TV. It gave people the message that they could help. One million volunteers traveled to Tohoku to help. People were comforted as they rebuilt their lives. Misuzu gave them hope.

The book ends with a selection of 15 of her poems written in Japanese and also translated into English. Despite the fact that translations of Misuzu’s poetry already existed in 10 languages, this is the first time her work has been translated into English She is beloved in Japan for the kindness and grace found in her work.

Everything about this book is inviting: the poems, the sad biographical material, the sweet illustrations, the cover, and even the high-quality paper on which its pages are printed. I hope you will enjoy it.

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