‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara (Review)

IMG_5286Today’s Women In Translation Month book is one that might seem an obvious choice in some ways, but not at all in one.  Few would be surprised at my selecting a book from Japan, and I’ve also read my fair share of Pushkin Press’ works over the past few years.   While I read more books by men than by women, I do read my fair share by women in translation (as shown in an earlier post).  So, what’s different about today’s post?  Well, this time I’m looking at some poetry, and around these parts, that’s very rare indeed…

Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, review copy courtesy of the publisher) was a phenomenon on its publication in 1987.  It’s a prize winner and immensely popular, having sold over 2.5 million copies to date.  That’s incredible for any writer, for an unknown young woman even more so.  And when you consider that’s it’s a collection of tanka poems…

Tanka, like the shorter haiku, are poems with a fixed syllabic form (57577), and as Winters Carpenter points out in her afterword, it’s an ancient art form, one frequently regarded as slightly stuffy and outdated.  Tawara’s work, then, focusing on modern life and everyday themes, was seen as a breath of fresh air, a short book containing several poem ‘stories’, each composed of a series of connected tanka poems.

The lead-off collection, ‘August Morning’, is the prize winner of the bunch, a story chronicling the development of a relationship, from a sunny start:

Is there anything more?
More to believe, more to want?
Sprawled side by side on sand

‘August Morning’, p.10 (Pushkin Press, 2014)

to its sad end:

Unanswered ring tells me you’re still out
Where have you gone drinking?
Who’s getting drunk with you?

‘August Morning’, p.18

The light, fluffy mood gradually darkens over the course of the piece, leaving the poet (and reader) to ponder what went wrong.

Another interesting ‘story’ is ‘My Bisymmetrical Self’, in which Tawara describes life away from home.  Here, a young woman moves to the big city while still retaining her connection to her hometown.  The short poems present images of someone caught between two worlds, coming to terms with a new life and the way her old life is altered by the inevitable distance between the two.

While I enjoyed some of these poems, I’d have to say, though, that after a while they blended into each other – many follow the path of love to loss, with frequent repetition of ideas.  Winters Carpenter mentions Tawara’s use of traditional ‘pillow words’, an integral part of tanka; the frequent repetition of ‘baseball’, ‘beach’, ‘telephone call’, ‘toothpaste’, ‘Shinjuku Station’ and ‘Southern All Stars’ (a popular Japanese band) suggests that the poet has also come up with modern pillow words of her own 😉

I was also a little unsure of the effectiveness of the length of the collections.  While ‘August Morning’ and ‘My Bisymmetrical Self’ use the format well, others can outstay their welcome.  One example of this is ‘Summertime Ship’, where Tawara  describes a trip she takes to China.  Although some of the scenes are compelling, I found the charm was lost in repetition by the end of the story.

In fact, some of my favourite collections were the shorter pieces, just a couple of pages each, containing fewer poems.  One of the best was ‘Morning Necktie’, composed of just ten tanka spread over three pages, ending with:

He wipes his face with a hot towel
and sighs contentedly –
looking at him now I see an ordinary man

Moving away from the telephone
he sips his tea as if to say
“I’m not listening”

their inability to express tenderness –
men of my father’s generation
‘Morning Necktie’, p.39

It’s a loving, nostalgic ode to a father, and it feels just the right length, expressing an idea without labouring it.

The book itself is another beautiful piece of work from the Pushkin Classics series – the colour, WITMonth15size and layout are all excellent.  As regards the translation, it all flows nicely, but while I’m loath to second guess an experienced translator like Winters Carpenter, I have my doubts as to whether the experience we’re getting here approaches that of the original.  I hate the expression lost in translation for the most part, but I can’t help wondering if (for once) it’s rather apt.  I’m sure much of the charm of Salad Anniversary lies in the sound and the rhythm (which I suspect may be lost at times here…).  Also, among the poems, there were a few here and there which I found a little clumsy:

Junk mail it may be
but still this postcard cheers me –
autumn morning
‘I am the Wind’, p.49

I’m not sure about you, but I’m not a big fan of this one – to me, it sounds like a bad haiku…

What this book reminds me of, funnily enough, is the debut work of another mega-popular Japanese writer of the same era, Banana Yoshimoto (Kitchen was released around the same time as Salad Anniversary).  I can see both of these appealing to the Japanese ‘Office Ladies’, twenty-something women working as secretaries and moving in their relationships from one dull salaryman to the next.  The two books might say a lot to young Japanese women about their lives.  Me?  Not so much…

And I think that’s probably the main reason why I didn’t really get much from this – a jaded middle-aged novel lover, I’m certainly not the target audience.  This is for those who like their poetry cute and whimsical (think Hello Kitty on a sad day), with just the merest tinge of melancholy.  Here’s hoping that if you get the chance to read this, you’ll enjoy it more than I did 🙂

6 thoughts on “‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara (Review)

  1. Well, I read this when it soon after it came out (and yes, together with Yoshimoto Banana and also Norwegian Wood), so it really reminds me of that period, just starting out at university… When I reread it a couple of years ago, I liked it less – obviously, I’d moved on, but there are still some very apt and powerful images. And I like the ‘tanka adapted to the modern day’ idea. Besides, don’t you think the Heian court ladies would have written perhaps something like that if they were living in 1980s Japan?


    1. Marina Sofia – Oh, I really hope not – I can’t imagine Murasaki Shikibu watching baseball and crying over her deadbeat boyfriend while listening to the Southern All Stars 😦


  2. I saw this on NetGalley ages when I first signed up about 6 months ago and I was in two minds as to whether I would request it. I didn’t in the end, and after reading your post I really regret it. It sounds lovely.


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