Far Beyond the Field:

Haiku by Japanese Women

Compiled and Translated with an Introduction by:

How does a reviewer describe the value of a book such as Far Beyond the Field? There are so many levels on which it must be praised!

The Preface to this book calls it a collection of four hundred haiku by twenty Japanese poets spanning three and a half centuries, and so it is, but that is only the surface of the purposes and uses of this book. Ueda mentions in his preface that selecting the poets was a great challenge. Haiku in pre-modern times was a man's art, while today there are tens of thousands of female Japanese poets. Each of the poets is introduced with a brief biographical sketch that helps us understand why Ueda selected this poet to be representative of her period of the history of haiku.

Poems in the book are arranged two to the page, with Ueda's English versions prominent on the page followed by romanji originals and footnotes below. Ueda is a generous translator, explaining double meanings, allusions to Japanese and Chinese literature, and common sayings and maxims of the time of the poem.

For example, the word wakana, he explains, means both "young herb" and "my name".

let us start picking --
don't drop herbs from your basket
or anything else!

Den Sutejo

Because of Ueda's footnotes, we learn that this is an allusion to an 8th century poem where the poet is asking a maid who is picking herbs for her name.

At other times the translator shares with us the occasion of the poem and explains its significance. For instance:

a bamboo bud
breaking out of its layered sheath
a warrior in arms!

Kawai Chigetsu

Ueda tells us this was composed on the 7th anniversary of the death of Chigetsu's husband, and that this is a significant anniversary in buddhist tradition.

The poets whose work are included give us a wide and varied background culturally and historically. There were women of privilege, such as Den Sutejo, and friends of Basho, such as Kawai Chigetsu and Shiba Sonome. There were women who became nuns after the death of their husbands, such as Chiyojo and Enomoto Seifu, and Tagami Kikusha, who renounced feminity and became a nun at the age of 27, travelling Japan like Basho, and writing poems rich in allusion and place references.

one step outside
the temple gate, it's Japan --
a tea-picker's song

Tagami Kikusha

Ueda's notes tell us that this was composed at Manpuku Temple in Uji, which is built using Ming-style architecture and gives the impression of being in China. Uji is famous for producing green tea.

Many of the women selected wrote about and from their status in life. Sugita Hisajo wrote openly of motherhood and her minority Christian status, while Takeshita Shuizunojo writes just as openly of her oppressions as a woman.

sewing in the lamplight
I teach spelling to my child --
autumn rain

Sugita Hisajo
the more callouses
the more brightly
my ring sparkles

Takeshita Shizunojo
The World War II years in Japan are represented by numerous poets, including Hashimoto Takako, Mitsuhashi Takajo, Ishibashi Hideno. Katsura Nobuko, the editor of Josei Haiku (Women's haiku), ran back into her burning house barefooted to rescue the haiku manuscripts during the bombing of Osaka.

chapped hands
and no rice -- I weep
with a monkey's face

Ishibashi Hideno (1947)
the woman at high noon
untiringly watches
a distant fire

Katsura Nobuko
The modern poets selected for this work show the great diversity of the schools of haiku in Japan, from the Avant Garde poetry of Mitsuhashi Takajo:

climb this tree
and you'll be a she-devil
red leaves in the sunset glow

up on a hydro pole
the electrician turns
into a cicada

to the more feminine voice of Katsura Nobuko, the editor of an all-women's haiku magazine:

on the skin of a woman
who has never conceived
hot autumn sun

on the scale
my bathed and steaming body
this night of snow

Ueda has also included current haiku poets who take a traditional approach to haiku, such as Inahata Teiko, who says "To sing of flowers and birds and copy things objectively is the way of traditional haiku. I have assiduously tried not to stray from that path." Teiko is the founder and director of the Japan Association for Traditional Haiku. Yet even with such a strong statement, we find poems that might challenge the misconceptions of English-language "traditionalists".

the dead grass--
life lies dormant
on the face of the earth

losing my way
is part of the journey --
poppy flower

Even more provacative to our understanding of haiku may be poems from the highly honored modern day poet Yoshino Yoshiko, who lives in Matsuyama:

as if mending
socks, I repair my mind
and live on

like a ninja
a crow on the paddy
always alone

As Ueda follows the development of haiku in Japan from the earliest days when men were poets and women the serving girls at their poetry gatherings, we find haiku groups, anthologies, and magazines only for women. Uda Kiyoko published a collection recently, Joryu haiku shusei, of 12,000 haiku by women! We also see the relationship between the east and west reversing itself. Mayuzumi Madoka, born in 1965, is the editor of Gekkan Heppuban, a haiku magazine for women who aspire to live as freely as an Audrey Hepburn movie character.

a scrap of iron--
without fail, menfolk
stop to look

Uda Kiyoko
a shooting star --
in love with someone, not knowing
where it will lead me

Mayuzumi Madoka

This reviewer hopes that both Makoto Ueda, and the Columbia University series "Translations from the Asian Classics", will bring us more books that reveal both the history and the modern practice of Japanese haiku to the English speaking poet.

Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women, by Makoto Ueda, 2003. 272 pages including bibliography. Dimensions (in inches): 0.65 x 9.00 x 5.05.
ISBN 0-231-12863-0.


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Far Beyond the Field Far Beyond the Field
by Makoto Ueda