Itō Hiromi: Cooking, Writing Poetry

Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles

Itō Hiromi (center) with Jeffrey Angles & Jerome Rothenberg
Itō Hiromi (center) with Jeffrey Angles & Jerome Rothenberg

[On March 11, 2011, northeastern Japan suffered a massive earthquake that left nearly 16,000 people dead or missing and many others injured. Soon afterward, the editors of Gendai shi techo (Japan's foremost magazine of contemporary poetry) and the Asahi Shinbun (one of Japan's largest newspapers) collaborated to commission and publish a series of works about the disaster, all written by Japan's foremost poets. The following poem was Hiromi Itō 's contribution to the project. This translation first appeared in Poetry Kanto, vol. 28 (2012). (J.A.)]

A huge earthquake, a huge tsunami
People die and just moments later
There’s the nuclear meltdown
Drawn-out fear assaults us
Each time I go to Tokyo
It is darker
Hot and humid there
It stings
In Tokyo
Everyone was afraid
Everybody was angry
Neko has been my close friend for thirty years
Cooking is her profession
I had a dream, she said
We were coming home after going to see the giant sequoias
I was driving
She was nodding off next to me but then suddenly woke
And began saying, when I was young
I had a dream
I had a baby
The baby was with me
But I couldn’t breastfeed it
The baby was dying right before my eyes
But I couldn’t breastfeed it
That was how the dream went
Maybe
That was from a past life
And that karma
Is the reason I now cook
Morning and night like this
Feeding the children
Of other people
Now she is doing something
She calls the “Nicomaru Cookie” project
First she called the young women in Tokyo
In Tokyo all alone
All alone and anxious
And unable to stand it any longer
All of them in Tokyo
All of them made cookies
And sold them
And sent the proceeds to the disaster zone
And then she changed gears and brought to Tokyo
The food the people in the disaster zone had made
And sold it in the city
She worked her fingers to the bone
And hired some staff
And went to the disaster zone
And cooked
She went into town
And started collecting signatures for an anti-nuclear petition
She made dozens of dishes each day
Even though she had her parents to care for
Even though she was working
Her fingers to the bone
She moves around, in the crisis
The only thing she knew to do
Was to cook like that
The only thing she could do
She couldn’t help but cook
And work her fingers to the bone
And I watched her do it
Powerless, useless
There is an expression
Take the dirt from under someone’s nails
Boil it and make it into tea
It means to admire someone so much
You would do those things
I asked her for some and she gave it to me
When I made it into tea
It was sour and sweet
Poets wrote poetry
The thoughts rained down continuously
Drenching us to the bone
So many poems were written
Like Kaneko Misuzu
Even easier to understand than Kaneko Misuzu
Unsightly poems
Boring poems
But still they were read
They say people read them and wept
I heard lots of stories like that
Don’t cry
Don’t write
Don’t miss out
From that perspective
They cannot say no
The poets
Who can do nothing but write
Cannot say no to writing
They cannot relate except
Through writing
They must not
Say no
They must not
Fail to be read
Yesterday Jeffrey
Asked me to help him with a translation
Some American poet had written a poem about the disaster
I tried reading it, but it was a complete cliché
That guy
Had not even been to Japan
He wrote the poem looking at pictures
Complete cliché
But that guy had seen pictures of the disaster
He saw them
And his heart was moved
So he had no choice but write
The clichés he tried to convey
In a clichéd way ended up clichés
But still it was a good poem
I could not write
After all, the places I live
Are in California and Kumamoto
There was no shaking
The radioactivity didn’t reach us
I didn’t want to write
I couldn’t write
A clichéd poem
Like that guy in America
I could not do a thing
The only thing I did
Was to translate and read out loud the second part of
An Account of My Ten-Square Foot Hut
I took that old text that depicted so vividly
The earthquakes
The tsunamis
Nine hundred years ago
Put it into my own voice
And sent out my voice like this
              Around the same time, we suffered another terrible
earthquake
              Unparalleled in its force
              The mountains collapsed, the rivers were buried
              The sea crashed in, inundating the land
              The earth broke, water bubbled up
              The boulders split and tumbled into the valleys
              The boats plying the water were tossed by the
waves
              The horses traveling the roads were unable to keep
their footing
              In one area of the capital, no place, no building
              Escaped unscathed, they collapsed or leaned to the
side
              Dust and ashes and smoke billowed up
              Both the sound of the moving earth and the
collapsing houses
              Were just like peals of thunder
              Those who were inside were crushed on the spot
              Those who ran were swallowed up by the cracks in
the earth …
              The worst of the shaking continued for a while
then stopped
              The aftershocks continued for some time
              Everyday, twenty, thirty times a day
              There were aftershocks large enough to terrify us
ordinarily
              Ten days went by, twenty days went by, receeding
into the past
              There were four or five aftershocks per day,
then two or three
              Then every other day, then two or three days in
between
              The aftershocks continued for three months
This way
The earthquake
The tsunami
Crept into my body (just a little)
And then I read the Buddhist classics
For instance, the Lotus Sutra, I am always
Asking myself, how can I
Share the truth with living beings
Share the Buddha’s teachings
Or the Amida Sutra, All who want
To be born in the land of happiness
Or all who will one day request that
Or who are requesting that right now
They will all awake to the truth, they will not return
To the confusion
Or the Nirvana Sutra, Each and every living being
Has the heart of the Buddha
That’s right, it was Mahayana Buddhism
That said so clearly to the Buddhists of the time
During an era when they were reading for all they were
worth
Not sure if they understood or not
But obsessed with grasping the truth
You are wrong
Entirely wrong
First you help people
That is what it is to be a bodhisattva
All I’ve experienced is an earthquake and tsunami nine
hundred years ago
But if I were to put into my own words
And deliver a message to
This wounded
Damaged
Frightened
Trembling society
That’s no doubt what it would be
That would be best
Or
So I hope
If not then
I would not even know
Which direction to turn

NOTE. Over the last three decades Hiromi Itō has emerged as one of the most important & highly regarded poets in Japan. Since her sensational debut in the late 1970s as “a free-spirited and intelligent female poet with shamanistic qualities” (Yasuhiro Yotsumoto), she has been “consistently expanding her creative spheres … : from the relationship between the sexes, motherhood, the oral traditions of Native Americans, and pop songs from the 1960’s, to the lifecycles of plants, just to name a few.” As the critic Nobuaki Tochigi points out, “she is an omnivorous poet who can transmit and transform a variety of literary legacies”. From the early 1990s on, she has divided her time between Japan and her second home as our neighbor & close friend in Encinitas, California. The poem & account of the aftermath to the 2011 earthquake & tsunami in Japan is accordingly an important testament to the horrific event & the responses to it – a remarkable & necessary act of witness.

Itō’s first book of poems in English, Killing Kanoko, is still in print from Action Books, & a number of postings from other works, also translated by Jeffrey Angles, have appeared several times on Poems and Poetics.