Soul Dance: Selected Poems

By Takako Arai

Translated by Jeffrey Angles, with Sawako Nakayasu and You Nakai
Mi’Te Press, 2008, 64 pages, ISBN: 978-4-9904416-0-9

Review by Adam House

Born in Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture, Takako Arai grew up in a family closely connected to the local textile industry, a traditional craft in danger of facing extinction. The city’s skyline is famed for its sawtooth-roofed mills,in the the Nara Period. The city’s textiles were presented to the Imperial family, along with those from Kyoto. A phrase from the Edo period “For the West, it is Nishijin, for the East, it is Kiryu” is an indication of the prominence that textiles from Kiryu were held. Many of the poems included in “Soul Dance”are situated within this industry. Takako Arai’s first collection of poems Haobekki was published in 1997 and Tamashii Dance, (Soul Dance), her second collection published in 2007 won the 41st Oguma Hideo Prize, published in English translation in 2008 by Mi’Te Press, a poetry journal where Arai is editor.

In her introduction Arai laments the effects that the recent economical downturns have had on textile factories of her hometown, standing amongst the vacant lots where the factories once stood, these lots now sadly sold off at auction prices.  Arai has chosen poetry and language as a means of showing resistance to these closures that are turning her hometown into a desolate place. In New York and Belgrade Arai saw vacant lots similar to the ones that the factories had occupied in her hometown, shadowless places that had been created by violence. She saw in them a profound message of what the present means to us. Soul Dance is a collection in two parts that infuses the physical and the spiritual, through them we are given a glimpse of life lived in proximity to a living industry. The poems are full of movement both in word and concept, in “For Amenouzume-san,” which appears in both Japanese and English, a natural rhythm builds within the poem, Ame-no-uzume, the mythical Goddess who coaxed out the Sun Goddess Amaterasu who had hidden in a cave, plunging the world into darkness, by using song and dance. “Mohei’s Fire” a prose poem starting in a Tokyo suburb under redevelopment, and a meeting with the elderly Takejiro-san who recalls when the area was a farming village, harvested vegetables were washed in the Yata river. Whilst recalling these slower days, Takejiro-san remembers Grandpa Mohei’s encounter with a fox, in a poem that is like a fable from folklore brought up to date, when a candle seen in the present merges with one mentioned in the reminiscence. In the last poem “Shadow’,” amongst the rubble of a flattened factory, an object found left there before the bulldozers moved in, initiates a salvage into memory and attachement, a poem that at its root also turns to an inquiry on value.  

Soul Dance is translated by Jeffrey Angles, assistant professor of Japanese literature and director of the Japanese program at Western Michigan University, whose award winning translation of “Forest of Eyes” is forthcoming from California University Press. Additional translators are Sawako Nakayasu, whose book “Texture Notes” is forthcoming from Letter Machine, and You Nakai, a member of no collective.

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