Book Review: Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese

Written on the Sky: Poems from the JapaneseWritten on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese
Translated by Kenneth Rexroth
New Directions, 2009
90 pages (paperback)


What art form distills images more succinctly and sweeps them away more devastatingly than poetry? Japanese poetry, especially the haiku form, is especially renowned for capturing the essence of a moment in just a handful of words. And Kenneth Rexroth’s translations are widely considered among the best.

Rexroth was a Midwesterner who started publishing in his teenage years while getting himself kicked out of high school. He took to the road, traveling across the country and in Europe, and teaching himself languages, philosophy and world religions. He became a significant poet and translator, was a vocal advocate for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and his attention to a number of young poets eventually resulted in their national recognition.

So I was intrigued to discover this curated collection of his translations republished as Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese. Among the gems that wink from the depths of this tiny book are these:

In a gust of wind the white dew
On the Autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace.
(by Bunya No Asayasu)

– – –

We are, you and me,
Like two pine needles
Which will dry and fall
But never separate.

– – –

In the Autumn mountains
The colored leaves are falling
If I could hold them back,
I could still see her.
(by Kakinomoto No Nitomaro)

Not only are the translations simple in their beauty, but the presentation is as well. The metallic embossed covers bring to mind Japanese engravings. One poem per page encourages space for reflection. And an index of authors elegantly but unobtrusively points out the women poets.

This gorgeous little paperback makes a lovely gift for a poetry lover or an easy introduction for the poetry novice, with or without its companion volume, Songs of Love, Moon, & Wind: Poems from the Chinese, also translated by Rexroth.

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