Original Title: みだれ髪 (Midaregami)
Author: Akiko Yosano (與謝野 晶子, Yosano Akiko)
Translator: Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda
Genres: Literature, Poetry, Tanka
Rating: ✮✮✮ +½
O my feelings
In this gathering darkness of spring
And against my koto
My tangled, tangled hair.
I cannot verify how good I am at reviewing poetry. I can’t critique poetry the same way that I can books; I can only generate my personal opinion, not the quality of it. There were some that I didn’t like or understand, but Tangled Hair was a beautiful collection over all.
Tanka is syllabic, and it follows a structure of 5-7-5-7-7. Similar to the haiku, it also contains themes of nature. There’s a lengthy introduction that delves into the history of the tanka and also its evolution, leading up to where Akiko Yosano plays a roll in it. It rambles on and quite a bit of it is unnecessary – there’s a lot about Tekkan, Akiko’s husband, and all of his past lovers that was pretty boring – and in the end, it entails what can be easily understood by reading the poetry itself: it’s feminine, it’s erotic, and it’s sensual, just like Akiko herself.
Soft murmurs of love,
His hand on the back of my neck,
O powerless to detain him,
My lover of one night!
What makes Akiko’s poetry so shocking is not just the eroticism, but what it symbolized. The traditional tanka relates strictly to nature’s beauty; Akiko crushed the “Old School” style and turned the tanka, which had been dying across the nation as an art form, into something completely her own. There’s a lot of themes in her poetry that become repetitive – the color red, pink blossoms, a koto, priests and temples – but sometimes she still twisted it and wrote something new. This one is my personal favorite:
The clear spring inside me
Became muddy –
A child of sin you are
And so am I.
The best part about Tangled Hair is that it’s bilingual. Because it’s so difficult to translate Japanese exactly into English, trying to replicate it to the letter is an impossible job, especially since tanka is based on syllables. To give you an idea, hanashimasu means “speaks/will speak” in Japanese – four syllables versus one or two, depending on the context. It’s unbalanced. Instead of trying to cram the English translation into the same structure, the translators let the poems run free, and included the poems in the original Japanese – both in kanji and romaji – to keep its authenticity. There’s also notes that explain the poems’ meanings, though personally, I think trying to dissect poetry ruins its beauty.
Tangled Hair is feminist poetry. Though there were some that I didn’t get, I love the themes that are depicted in this collection: sexuality, beauty, desire, and throughout, that undertone of naturalness that the original tanka prescribes.