“The flower shop man
dreams of happiness
for the flowers he sold.”
The poems of Taisho era writer Misuzu Kaneko (née Teru, 1903-1930) have become the subject of a new children’s book.
Are You An Echo? is the creation of author David Jacobson, together with co-translators Michiko Tsuboi and Sally Ito. It takes a look at the life of Kaneko, and for the first time makes available her poetry in English. This is all the more apt as the poet was very much a “children’s poet.”
Are You An Echo? was inspired by the title of one of Kaneko’s pieces, a poem which “took on extra meaning for survivors of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami,” as Tofugu recently reported. Indeed, the book’s afterword discusses this.
Tastefully illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri (with art reminiscent of Studio Ghibli, in muted colors), Are You An Echo? may essentially be a picture book, but the ideas it discusses are mature, put in such a way that it “helps children understand and reminds adults of lessons they’ve forgotten.” As Tofugu wrote:
“One of Kaneko’s greatest strengths is her use of the child’s perspective. She uses it to emphasize emotions and moral conundrums that get lost as we grow older.”
The question at the book’s heart is “Who was Misuzu Kaneko?” And this Jacobson has answered, the history of her life story interwoven with Kaneko’s own poetry, wherein her personality is poetically explained. Only rediscovered a decade ago, Quentin Crisp described her poetry so:
“Her cosmic view of nature has a new resonance in the 21st Century with the growing awareness of the importance of the environment beyond its immediate utility and of the interconnectedness of things.”
From “precocious bookworm” to “instantly-beloved children’s poet,” Kaneko was later unhappy in an arranged marriage, then became a divorced woman with no custodial rights to her daughter. Written at a fifth grade level, Are You An Echo? does deal with “hardships, loss, and death” – themes which children and adults can discuss together.
However, parents should know that this includes mention of “STDs and suicide” (the former from her philandering husband and the latter Kaneko feeling her only option when he came to take her child away; she was twenty-six years old).
“At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!
On the beach, it’s a like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold funerals
for the tens of thousands of dead.”
Are You An Echo?’s further appeal, though, lay in the inclusion of parallel texts in the second half of the book, the translated poems paired with the Japanese originals: perfect for those trying to learn the language, and a suitable exercise for advanced Japanese readers to attempt their own translations.
Are You An Echo? would make a wonderful Christmas gift: for poetry lovers, history buffs, language learners, and those who simply enjoy beautifully bound and illustrated books (the hardcover’s interior lined with textured blue cloth-paper, too).