Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko

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Title: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Poems: Kaneko Misuzu (金子 みすゞ)
Illustrations: Hajiri Toshikado (羽尻 利門)
Text and Translation: David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 64

This guest review is written by Holly Thompson (@hatbooks on Twitter).

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, published by Seattle-based Chin Music Press, is an unusual picture book — bold and broad in concept and scope. This is a multifaceted book, containing a history of the rediscovery of the writings of Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930), a biography of Kaneko’s short life, current context for her work, and a selection of 25 of her poems.

With a foreword by Setsuo Yazaki, the Japanese children’s author and poet whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of her writings in 1982 and subsequent publication of all 512 of her poems in six volumes plus his own complete biography of Misuzu Kaneko, the reader is offered context: “Misuzu Kaneko’s poems are part of every child’s curriculum at Japanese elementary schools.” Of the intense fondness readers feel for Kaneko’s poems, Yazaki points out that her words “possess a deep kindness toward all things whether they are alive or inanimate.”

The story opens with a question — “Who was Misuzu Kaneko?” — then chronicles Yazaki’s quest to learn more about this insightful poet. From Yazaki’s encounter of Kaneko’s poem “Big Catch” about a huge sardine catch, which led to his desire to learn more about the poet and his ultimate discovery of her pocket diaries full of her poems, the narrative shifts to Kaneko’s life story and her childhood in the town of Senzaki (now part of Nagato City) in Yamaguchi Prefecture near the western tip of Honshu where her family ran a bookstore. Raised among books, Kaneko began writing poems, and at the age of twenty, after several of her poems were published in Japanese magazines, she became a well-known children’s poet. Kaneko’s poems appear interspersed with the book’s narrative — poems that focus on ordinary local topics, imbued with a sense of awe and curiosity. The poems “Benten Island,” “Wonder,” “Beautiful Town,” “Fish,” “Snow Pile,” and “Flower Shop Man” provide a solid introduction to the deceptively simple poetics of Misuzu Kaneko.

Kaneko’s life unfortunately took a tragically dark turn after her marriage to a man who was, as explained in the story, “a bad, unfaithful husband.” She gave birth to their child who she adored, but she “caught a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” What’s more, he forbade her to write. Kaneko divorced him, but he demanded custody of their daughter. The book does not shy away from the truth that Kaneko, in her illness and despair, made the decision to end her life after writing a letter to her husband imploring that he leave their child in the care of her mother.

This is admittedly dark material, but picture books are not only intended for the youngest readers. Are You An Echo? is a picture book for all ages and is especially well suited to the middle grades. Kaneko’s poems resonate in part because she wrote while suffering and longing. Her poems, so simple at first glance, reach straight to the heart, lift the spirit and stay with you. To write a story about Misuzu Kaneko without broaching her death by suicide would have constituted a huge omission.

Thus, after a spread illustrated in gray tones that includes Kaneko’s poem “Cocoon and Grave” containing a metaphor of a butterfly as an angel, a subsequent warm double-page spread offers hope, depicting Kaneko’s mother and her daughter by the sea remembering Kaneko’s “kind and gentle soul.” The narrative then shifts once again, this time to more recent history — the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, in northern Japan. Kaneko’s poem “Are You An Echo?” was featured in a public service announcement televised after the disaster, and survivors in Tohoku, and people all around Japan struggling to cope after such profound and enormous loss, found comfort and hope in her words.

Following the story is “A Selection of Misuzu’s Poems,” with fifteen illustrated double-spread pages of Kaneko’s poems, impressively presented side by side in both the original Japanese and in English translation. Counting the poems that appear in English within the narrative, as well as the fifteen selected poems presented bilingually, Are You An Echo? offers 25 of Kaneko’s tender poems that reveal her extraordinary heart and boundless empathy. The titles of poems like “Stars and Dandilions,” “Telephone Pole,” “White Hat,” “Waves,” and “Dirt” reveal Kaneko’s unique ability to imbue ordinary items with sensibility and love.

What a feat to contain all of this material — history, biography, poetry collection — in a single picture book, including an informative author’s note by David Jacobson and a Translators’ Note by co-translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Expansive watercolor illustrations by Tokushima-based Toshikado Hajiri capture early 1900s provincial Japan and provide sweetly detailed and poignant accompaniment to the story and various poems.

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko is a beautifully packaged, substantial picture book to treasure — a book to give poetry lovers of all ages, in all corners of the world.

Visit the Chin Music Press website for the book, Misuzu Kaneko, for information, backstory and further resources.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press.

* * * * *

Holly Thompson (www.hatbooks.com) is a longtime resident of Japan and author of the novel Ash and three verse novels for young people: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, The Language Inside, and Orchards, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. She compiled and edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction — An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and she teaches writing in Japan, the U.S. and places in between.

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