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Volume 33.1
Winter Spring

book review

Einstein’s Century: Akito Arima’s Haiku
by Akito Arima
translated by
Emiko Miyashita & Lee Gurga


reviewed by John LaCure

Einstein’s Century: Akito Arima’s Haiku by Akito Arima, English translation by Emiko Miyashita & Lee Gurga. Introduction by William J. Higginson. Decatur, Illinois: Brooks Books, 2001, 128 pages, $18.50 ppd.

This book is a translation of haiku by a noted Japanese physicist, educator, and politician. The scientist-poet is not an unusual figure in modem Japanese poetry. Perhaps the most beloved of all modern Japanese poets, Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933), taught chemistry, natural science, and agriculture. He used scientific terminology and Buddhist imagery in his poems about life in northern Japan. Gary Snyder did an excellent job of translating some of Kenji’s poems in his The Back Country (New Directions, 1967)

Gary Snyder also contributed a short blurb for the back cover of this collection. He points out that Dr. Arima’s poetry “combines traditional elegance, and the seasoned perspective of a world traveled professor and scientist.” While Miyazawa’s poetry concentrated on the countryside of northern Japan, many of Dr. Arima’s poems are picture postcards from a globe trotter. There are poems about snake charmers and magic lamps in India, a suit of armor in the Tower of London, cotton fields in Mississippi, oysters in New York, Venetian glass in Venice, ancient tombs in Rome, theologians in Israel, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The midnight sun shows up both in Moscow and Finland.

The tradition is of that of the utamakura (literally: poem pillows). Originally these were set phrases associated with different localities. Eventually the term came to mean the famous places themselves. Each of these places might have a particular flower, season, or feature for which it was particularly famous. For example to speak of the mountains of Yoshino near Nara meant to imply cherry blossoms. The blossoms were the hon’i (poetic essence) of the place. In this collection the Eiffel Tower becomes the hon’i for Paris:

the cat’s cradle
the Eiffel Tower too
into winter

ayatori no
efferutô mo
fuyu ni iru.

Although travel poems dominate this collection, there are also a number of poems about nature, the seasons, and everyday life. Some of these are my personal favorites. In his introduction to the collection William J. Higginson points out one that is particularly charming:

a kitten
however it is called
it answers back

neko no ko no
dô yobarete mo
kotae keri

Another notable aspect of the poems is the frequent use of Christian imagery. There are several references to the bible, Joseph and Mary, and to Jesus. For example this poem is set in Italy:

spring haze—
from the lake a man
resembling Jesus

umi yori iesu ni
nitaru hito

The poems are arranged in reverse chronological order and span almost 30 years. In general the translations are excellent. I would quibble with the rendition of tsuyu as “plum rain.” The translators point out in a footnote that tsuyu in Japan is the rainy season. This is a rather unpleasant meteorological phenomenon in late spring or early summer. For a period of several weeks incessant rain and extreme humidity make life without air conditioning a miserable experience. The word is written with the two Chinese characters, one for plum and the other for rain. Japanese abounds with examples like this, much like Greek roots for English words. It can, however, produce a strange impression if the words is broken up and the etymology is translated rather than the meaning.

This is, however, only a quibble with one translation in an otherwise very well translated collection. The book is very attractive with calligraphy by the author on the cover. It is 5.5" by 8.5" perfect bound. In addition to the introduction by William J. Higginson there is an introduction by the translators and an author’s preface. The book contains approximately 170 haiku with two poems on each page. Included are the vernacular Japanese, romanized Japanese, and English translations. It is certainly a welcome edition to the growing number of books in English which introduce major figures in contemporary Japanese haiku to the Western audience



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