Four Poems by Yoko Isaka

translated by Eric Selland and Sawako Nakayasu




Night Sheep

Powdered Snow

Boxed Panthers





When I’ve been too much awash
In music
I need to rest my numb ears
A parakeet’s voice around my shoulder cries
Are you still alive

I hear your angry voice
And late at night someone whispers
I watch the color of the lawn rejuvenated by the rain
As if ashes moving

The spirit has long since escaped
From the grave of a parakeet
I accidentally killed long ago
When I look at or think of that grave
It all seems so futile
Vaguely I imagine a door
Separating inside from outside
And I place myself as a young girl there
The residue of rapture has yet to collect
Around my ears

I hold the yellow wingsand the red eyes
After a silence of over twenty years
And covered with dried earth
Somewhere around my shoulder
You cry, “are you still alive”


– Translated by Eric Selland



Night Sheep


When I shoutedgoodbye
You were already walking away
To an unfamiliar time
Murmuring and snuggling
With an armful of sheep
As if sinking into sleep
While I am left behind
In the land of yesterday
I shout once more
And I think
If only your lukewarm breath
Would come back to me
Just once more
And it would all be washed away
With the dark shadows
And the weight bruising my shoulders
But even so
You look back, wistfully


– translated by Eric Selland



Powdered Snow


Take your hands out of your pockets while you walk
It’s dangerousyou might fall
I was warned when I was in elementary school
And ever since
I have followed that advice faithfully
On a day when powdered snow began to fall like cake crumbs
On my coat and scarf
From a deep tear in the sky

I walk with my hands in my pockets
Befriended by the tapping sound of my shoes on the street
I’ve forgotten now who it was gave me such a warning
But I walk now, hands in pockets
Holding this little bit of wisdom
From someone, most likely a teacher,
Tightly in my clenched fists


– Translated by Eric Selland



Boxed Panthers


The hallway extends to either side
A patient headed for surgery passes by us on a stretcher
“I left it behind. I left one behind. Don’t know where it went. I went to the dentist”
The boy sitting on the couch leans on the old man
His small hands are wrapped tight around the small box on his lap
The old man sleeps
In this place, where even the light is bandaged
A woman single-mindedly eating a bag of candy, uninclined to talk
Is on the edge of the couch
- Is that me
A painting of women crossing from thicket to thicket
Becoming white veils and white trains
Hangs on the wall behind


I once went to go look at the gallows near the gates of the city  back when I was little they would hang peoplenow the gallows still remainbut only in form, to signal the city’s enforcement of the peace to foreigners who enterthat day I stayed there all nightthe sun shone brightly on the pedestalthe blue paint flying off  like the gray color seeping outthe colors of the earth well upfrom the lump of flesh, neither face nor bodyas the sun shone I continued to gaze up at the hung man as he slept   everyone but the man was vaguely aware of me sitting on the ground, waiting for him to come back to life
I become a tongueinner earskinin order to know the subjectand learn my position as measured by the subjectit is easy to think of myself as a long series of organstaking something in and out is accompanied by pleasurepain and emotiona spiritualityit is too easy to think of the man as a long drawn-out series of organs   rather the man is a hanging belland wishes to be struckthe man would resonate gently on the inside  boaubouarun  boaubouarun  and the colors of the earth well up   impeached by the light that saysAgitator!


The boy looks up this way with the expression of the old man

(What is inside the box)
Inside is a tunnelvery long
Solemnly creaking at the joints

(Is it impossible to exit)
A black panther had babies
The box is packed with them
Their eyes shining, lighting the way

(Is it possible to walk)
Yes, anywhere
Howeverthey get chewed apart
And just the bones remain laying around
The probably lose sight of which, among the many eyeballs,
Is the exit

“I’ve got teeth in here. My teeth”
The boy
Leans on the old man
The old man opens his eyes wide and says
“Any act originating from an innocent place is violent”
The woman with the candy gets up
And enters the painting on the wall
As a bell rings

A distant willseeps into the ears of the sleeping man
Live,it may have whispered

Another patient headed for surgery
Passes by us on a stretcher


– Translated by Sawako Nakayasu



Yoko Isaka was born in 1949 in Tokyo, and is the author of over fifteen books of poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism. Her major publications of poetry include Chourei (Morning Assembly), GIGI, which won the H-shi Award, and Chiky┼źga manbennaku akarunde (The earth lightens all over). Throughout the 1980s she was a strong figure for female poetry in Japan, and a collection of her poetry was published in the Shichosha Contemporary Poets Paperback series in 1988. In 2003 she published Hakoirihyou (Boxed Panthers), her first book of poetry in almost ten years.

Eric Selland is a poet and translator living just south of San Francisco. His translations of contemporary Japanese poets appear in a variety of anthologies, as well on the Internet. He has also published articles on Japanese Modernist poetry and translation theory. He is the author of The Condition of Music (Sink Press 2000), and has work in The Poem Behind the Poem, a Copper Canyon Press anthology of essays on translating Asian poetry (2004).

Sawako Nakayasu writes poetry, prose, and performance text, and translates from Japanese to English. Her first book, So we have been given time  Or, (Verse Press) was published in 2004. Other works include Clutch (Tinfish chapbook, 2002), Balconic (Duration e-book, 2003) and Nothing fictional but accuracy or arrangement (she (e-Faux, 2003). She edits Factorial Press and the translation section for HOW2.

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