Nakahara Chuya: Six Poems Newly Englished, Plus a Single Transcreation

Translations from Japanese by Jerome Rothenberg & Yasuhiro Yotsumoto

NOTE. Over a short lifetime, Nakahara Chuya (1907-1937) was a major innovator along lines originally shaped by Dada and other, earlier forms of European, largely French, experimental poetry. In 1997, as part of an annual poetry festival in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi, I came to his grave along with a group of Japanese poet-companions, to celebrate the 60th year of his death and the 90th of his birth. The poem marking that time, “At the Grave of Nakahara Chuya,” appeared a few years later in A Paradise of Poets and included a fake “translation” (a “transcreation” perhaps, as Harold de Campos might have had it) in what I took to be his style, or one of them, that brought some of his work into the domain of popular Japanese music. The six poems presented below are the latest results from a more recent attempt at actual translation, but a part of my earlier poem-song can also appear here as a further homage:

As sportscoats are to toothpaste
as the boa is to scales
as black teeth are to playful ghosts
as seasons are to smiles

As telephones are to toasters
as angels are to air
as wagon wheels are to ups & downs
as horses are to fire

As Buddha is to Buddha
as a toenail is to glass
as the way we make love is tight like that
as ascensions are to cash

As harbors are to hairpins
as napoleons are to joy
as bicycles are to icicles
bones are to a dada boy



Look at this, it’s my bone,

a tip of bone torn from its flesh,

filthy, filled up with woes,

it’s the days of our lives

sticking out, a blunt bone

bleached by the rain.


There’s no shine to it,

innocent, stupidly white, 

absorbing the rain,

blown back by the wind,

just barely

reflecting the sky.


Funny imagining, seeing

this bone on a chair

in a restaurant

packed to the gills, & eating

mitsuba leafy & boiled,

a bone but alive.


Look at this, it’s my bone,

& is that me staring

& wondering: Strange,

was my soul left behind

& has it come back

where its bone is,

daring to look?


On the half dead grass

on the bank of a brook

in my home town, standing

& looking – who’s there?

Is it me?  A bone

sticking out

a bone stupidly white

& high as a billboard.



sound of a brook

comes down

the mountain:

spring light

like a stone:

the water running

from a spout

split open:

more a grey-haired

crone, her story

pouring out


mica mouth

I sing through:

falling backward


drying up

my heart

lies wrinkled:

tightrope walker

in between

old stones


o unknown fire
bursting in air! 

o rain of echoes
wet & crowned! 


clap my hands clapping

this way & that



hills retreat from me

arms crossed over chest

& sunsets colored golden

mercy colored


grasses in fields

sing oldtime songs

on mountains    trees

old hearts remote & still


here in this time & place

I’ve been     meat of a clam

a babe’s foot stamps on


here in this time & place

surrender     stubborn     intimate

arms crossed walking off



the tin roof eats the rice crackers

spring now the evening’s at peace

ashes thrown underhand soon turning  pale

spring now the evening’s at rest


ah! it’s a scarecrow – is it or is it?

& a  horse neighing? – nothing I hear

only the moon shining slimes itself up

& an evening in spring limps behind


a temple out in a field dripping red

& the wheels on my cart lose their grease

the historical present was all I know

the sky & mountains mock me & mock me


a tile has just peeled loose from the roof

now & forever it’s spring

the evening is moving forward & wordless

where it finds its way into a vein




The field until yesterday

was burning   now

it stretches under clouds

& sky   unmindful.

And they say the rain

each time it comes

brings sutumn that much

closer   even more so

autumn borne cicadas

sing out everywhere,

nesting sometimes in a tree

awash in grass.


I smoke a cigarette,

smoke spiraling

through stale air,

I try & try

to stare

at the horizon.

Can’t be done,

The ghosts of heat

& haze

stand up or flop down.

And I find myself alone there,



A cloudy sky

dark golden light

plays off    now

as it always was,

so high I can’t help

looking down.

I tell you that I live

resigned to ennui,

drawing from my cigarette

three different tastes.

Death may no longer be

so far away.



“He did, he said so long & then

he walked away, he walked out from that door,

the weird smile that he wore, shiny like brass,

his smile that didn’t look like someone living.


His eyes like water in a pond the color when it clears,

or something. He talked like someone somewhere else.

Would cut his speech up into little pieces.

He used to think of little things that didn’t matter.”


Yes, just like that.  I wonder if he knew that he was dying.

He would laugh and tell you that the stars became him
when he stared at them. And that was just a while ago.
A while ago.  Swore that the clogs that he was wearing weren’t his.” 


The grass was absolutely still,
and over it a butterfly was flying.
He took it all in from the veranda,
stood there dressed in his yukata.
And I, you know, would watch him
from this angle.  Staring after it,
that yellow butterfly.  I can remember now
the whistles of the tofu vendors
back and forth, the telephone pole
clear against the evening sky.
Then he turned back to me and said “I ...
yesterday, I flipped a stone over that weighed
maybe a hundred pounds.” And so I asked
“how come? and where was that?”
Then you know what?  He kept on staring at me,
straight into my eyes, like he was getting mad,
or something … That’s when I got scared. 

How strange we are before we die …         



World’s end, the sunlight that fell down to earth was warm, a warm wind blowing through the flowers.


On a wooden bridge, the dust that morning silent, a mailbox red & shining all day long, a solitary baby carriage on the street, a lonely pinwheel.


No one around who lived there, not a soul, no children playing there, & I with no one near or dear to me, no obligation but to watch the color of the sky above a weathervane. 


Not that I was bored.  The taste of honey in the air, nothing substantial but enough to eat & live from.


I was smoking cigarettes, but only to enjoy their fragrance.  And weirdly I could only smoke them out of doors.


For now my worldly goods consisted of a single towel.  I didn’t own a pillow, much less a futon mattress.  True I still had a tooth brush, but the only book I owned had nothing but blank pages.  Still I enjoyed the heft of it when I would hold it in my hands from time to time.


Women were lovely objects but not once did I try to go with one.  It was enough to dream about them.


Something unspeakable would urge me on, & then my heart, although my life was purposeless, started pounding with a kind of hope.




In the woods was a very strange park, where women, children & men would stroll by smiling wildly.  They spoke a language I didn’t understand & showed emotions I couldn’t unravel.


Looking up at the sky, I saw a spider web, silver & shining.