‘Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets’ by Makoto Ōoka (Review)

Like the proverbial buses, when you’re waiting for a rerelease from Japanese, two turn up at the same time.  After my look at a collection of short stories earlier this week, today sees another book given a second life, with Kurodahan Press, a champion of slightly less famous Japanese literature, publishing a new edition of an old work.  This post also represents a bit of a step outside my usual fare.  You see, while I’m usually rather prosaic, this book takes us into more poetic realms.  Let’s see if I can keep my bearings in unfamiliar territory 🙂

Makoto Ōoka’s Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems 1972-1989 (translated by Janine Beichman, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of poems from the Japanese poet’s career.  Originally published by Katydid Press in 1995, the book has an extra poignancy now, given that Ōoka passed away in 2017, making this a retrospective of sorts.

This new Kurodahan Press version has the added feature of providing the original text in a bilingual edition.  However, rather than using the usual format of having the languages on facing pages, the book has the English (read from left to right) at the front, with the Japanese (read from top to bottom and right to left) at the back.  This avoids distracting the reader from the poems while still allowing them to check the translation against the original for features such as the use of spacing, as noted by Beichman in her introduction.

As you’d expect from a collection spanning two decades, the poems in Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets show a wide variety of influences and styles.  Several of the early pieces included are lengthy, surreal and dreamlike, almost like short pieces of fiction without a plot:

I screamed out,
“Listen to me! Tell me your name!”
The human wall burst into laughter and crumbled away.  The woman whispered in my ear.
“Some people call me poetry.  But that was in very ancient times.  The moderns call me by various exaggerated names.  But no one has ever made me a woman.”
From ‘Her Fragrant Flesh, or How I Met a Madwoman’, p.12 (Kurodahan Press, 2018)

This one, running to more than six pages, concerns the poet’s encounter with a personification of poetry and sees the poet/narrator roaming a rather unusual world in the company of an even more unusual woman.  I’d have to say that it’s not really what I was expecting…

After these early pieces, the poems become slightly less abstract, but more melancholy, and these shorter pieces are probably more to my taste.  Several are devoted to his old hometown, with the poet returning and reflecting on the changes both in the town and in himself.  Others are almost haiku-like in their brevity and simplicity:

Like birds in flight to the clouds,
coupling and uncoupling
on the path through the sky
‘Two Eyes’, p.46

In this phase, even the longer poems are clear and thought-provoking.  For example, ‘To Art Museums’ provides a description of a first childish visit to a gallery and the realisation that ‘To see is to be seen‘ (p.49), which is a sentiment that comes across nicely.

One of the themes running throughout the collection is poetry itself, and there are several inclusions on the topic from a 1985 book, What is Poetry?Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets includes several short poems attempting to answer the question, my favourite of which is probably the following piece:

It is not
child’s play
but     the poet
is a child
‘What is Poetry? #2’, p.56

There’s a nice example here of the spacing Beichman talked about in her introduction, representing an unusual break in the original, and the brevity of the poem belies the depth of the statement.  Other poems, however, take a rather less innocent approach:

All young creators over the centuries
have been ascetics, the best of their kind
And also worshippers of fornication
smeared with sparkling honey
From ‘The Principles of Poetry’, p.45

I’ll leave it to you to decide between the poet child and the worshippers of fornication…

The musings on poetry occasionally give way to poems with a more political edge.  As with many Japanese writers, especially of his generation, Ōoka was concerned with the reality of war, and while the theme isn’t overdone, some pieces do address the issue.  A good example is an early poem with obvious Hiroshima allusions:

One summer all of a sudden
a light 50,000 times brighter than the sun
flashed in the sky and
everyone without exception     in an instant
                moved to this town
From ‘Speak Please     I Beg You’, p.19

It’s not just his early work that shows the poet worrying about the world, though, as can be seen in a well-known later piece about the (real-life) sinking of an American nuclear submarine.  Despite the sexual connotations (‘damp‘, ‘wetness‘, ‘glans‘, ‘a male in heat‘), the poem is less an erotic piece than a warning of the dangers of nuclear weaponry.  Written well before Fukushima, the poem shows that Japan has a rather fraught relationship with nuclear energy.

Poetry, as you can see from what I’ve written, isn’t really my comfort zone, but I still found plenty to like in Ōoka’s collection.  I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the original text, which allowed me, despite my limited Japanese, to compare both the language and the format.  I suspect that readers with more of a preference for poetry (or a slightly better grasp of Japanese) would appreciate it even more, so thanks are due to Kurodahan for allowing more readers the chance to encounter Ōoka’s work.  I hope that after reading my comments on the book, a few of you will decide to give it a go 🙂

3 thoughts on “‘Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets’ by Makoto Ōoka (Review)

  1. That’s a pretty great review for someone who considers poetry out of your comfort zone! I appreciate your taking the trouble to post quite a few lines.

    I hadn’t thought until this evening about reading some Japanese poetry as part of my participation in the JLC. Then I read some haiku by Soseki and now I’m branching out in that direction…


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