‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara

Salad Days

Poetry – paperback; Pushkin Press; 141 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I don’t normally review poetry — and that’s for a very good reason: I very rarely read it. But when this delightful-looking collection popped through my letterbox unannounced late last year I couldn’t resist putting it on my bedside table to read when the mood struck me. Now seemed a good a time as any, especially as it tied in nicely with Tony Malone’s “January in Japan” J-Lit month.

Tanka poetry

Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 and within the first six months it had sold 2.5 million copies in Japan alone. According to the press release that came with this newly reprinted edition, it has now sold 9 million copies worldwide. How’s that for an impressive figure?

And I can see why it’s so popular: these poems (there’s 15 in total) slip down like hot chocolate. They’re all rather sweet and easy to read, brimming with life, energy and wit, yet there’s something rather soothing about them, too. That’s probably because of the way they are structured, for these poems are technically called “Tanka”, an ancient Japanese form of poetry in which each poem traditionally comprises 31 syllables arranged over five lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (You can read more about this genre of poetry on Wikipedia and see an easy example here.)

However, in the Afterword, the translator explains that not all of the poems follow the strict 5-7-5-7-7 format and that they are almost always written in a single line in Japanese. In this English translation most of the poems are structured over three lines and read more like Haiku (17 syllables over three lines following a 5-7-5 pattern). But this is all by the by: you don’t read this collection to quibble over syllable counts and the number of lines; you read it to be transported into another world.

An ordinary world told in an extraordinary way

And what a world Tawara creates. There are many recurring themes, often revolving around romantic love, cooking, travel and the weather, but the main overriding theme is the ordinariness in our day-to-day lives. The irony is that she writes about it in a far from ordinary way.

Ordinary conversations, ordinary smiles—
the ordinariness of home
is what I like best
[From the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self”]

And

“Be an ordinary girl”
Listening, I munch
on spicy-hot snacks
[From the poem “So, Good Luck”]

The language throughout feels fresh and contemporary, despite the fact the poems are almost 30 years old now. Perhaps it helps that the poet was just 26 when she wrote them — she has a young mindset and her thoughts continually turn to what it must be like to be in love and to find someone to share your life with. (At the time of writing, the translator tell us, Tawara was single.)

There’s also an all-pervasisve feeling of a young woman torn between discovering the world, leading her own life and yet not wanting to leave her comfortable upbringing. She captures the bittersweet nature of this in the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self” oh-so perfectly:

The day I left home, Dad muttering
not “So you’re off”
but “So you’re leaving us”
The day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years
of separation ahead

Fukui Station, where I left Mother
with a light “See you, then”—
as if going shopping

But my favourite poem in the collection is “Summertime Ship” which evokes all the joy and other-worldliness of travelling by ship to China, where she wanders the “lively, glittering Shanghai streets / crammed with bicycles and men at work”.  On her journey she drinks Tsing Tao beer, cruises the “milk caramel” Yangtze River, buys souvenirs in Luoyang and goes to Xi’an to see:

Hundred upon hundreds of figures
in the terracotta army—
their thoughts sleep standing

Hypnotic sequences

If you haven’t already guessed, I really enjoyed my exploration of an unfamiliar art form. Even if you are not a poetry fan — and I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as one — it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Tawara’s way of seeing and depicting the world. I loved reading these tanka poems over the space of a fortnight — one a night before turning out the light — and felt the cares of the day being washed away by their hypnotic rhythm and gorgeous language.

Salad Anniversary won the Association of Modern Poets’ top prize in 1987, and the book’s opening poem, “August Morning”, won the coveted Kadokawa Tanka Prize.

Finally, the book would make a gorgeous gift. It’s smaller than your normal-sized novel (it measures 12cm x 16.5cm), has French flaps and the cover paper stock has a textural feel to it and is printed with ink that captures the light so it sparkles. The artwork is by Mio Matsumoto, a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, who is an illustrator based in Tokyo. Her official website is here.

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7 thoughts on “‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara

  1. I was fortunate enough to be about 20 or so when I first read this collection – it was perfect for that age. But I’ve really enjoyed rereading them more recently. She single-handedly modernised tankas and made a nearly dying art form popular once more. I wrote an article about her a while ago, because I was wondering if she was just a one-hit wonder or if she ever wrote anything after that.
    https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/whatever-happened-to-tawara-machi/

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  2. Poems that “slip down like hot chocolate” – what more could you ask for? For someone who doesn’t read much poetry you’ve certainly moved this reader to search out this volume. I particularly love “their thoughts sleep standing” – so much to consider in four words!

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    • The Chinese poem resonated with me so much, Glenda, as I went to China in 2010 (when I was made redundant) and the tour in the poem sounds almost identical to the one I went on.

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  3. I was living in Japan when this was first published and remember what a huge impact it had on popular culture. It’s still incredible to think that a book of poetry could have caused such a boom amongst young people – it doesn’t happen enough.

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    • I agree: it is incredible that a book of poetry could sell so many copies. It obviously arrived at the right time and place and I suspect she was very “media-friendly” which helped market the book so well.

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  4. Pingback: ‘Physical’ by Andrew McMillan | Reading Matters

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