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Translator's Note: Backside


Written mostly in the thirties and collected and published posthumously, the 289-page Collected Poems by the Japanese modernist Chika Sagawa (1911-1936), is the most definitive book by which her work is known. Though highly esteemed by poets in her day, Sagawa is a modernist poet who had previously been excluded from the Japanese literary canon. The fact that Sagawa was a woman, or that she died young, must have played a part in this omission, though the reasons are no doubt more complicated than that. Some speculate that it is because her poems did not espouse typically feminine topics, while others suggest that Sagawa's engagement with Western modernity did not serve the nationalistic agenda of literary historians in the forties and fifties, as they sought to mold a uniquely Japanese canon of literature.

Sagawa's sensibility was formed in the expansive yet extreme climes of her native Hokkaido (the northernmost island of Japan), while her move to Tokyo at the age of nineteen complicated this with her newfound tastes for the cosmopolitan feel of the city. In her poems, a tension between nature and artifice, or rural and urban settings, is explored with a subtle and often visceral violence, as with the opening line of the poem here: "Night eats color." This is followed by a criticism of artifice—"Flower bouquets lose their fake ornaments"—as if portraying nature's desire to free itself from the man-made.

Many of Sagawa's poems operate in a fashion similar to a tableau or montage, placing images one after the other in the reader's eye. That is all, and that is enough—there is no need for conclusions or epiphanies. Instead, the images reverberate against one another, held together by a slightly unconventional syntax. "Backside" is such a poem, with the addition of a surprising turn in the very last line: "And then the people move forward." This gives the poem a sudden sense of time and direction, as well as a clear human presence. For a poet whose poems are often tinged with loss, this final line is uncharacteristically optimistic, although ambiguously so: into what are the people "moving forward"?—SN


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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