Machi Tawara was only twenty-six when Salad Anniversary was published. It was an instant bestseller in Japan, and eventually became one of the bestselling books in the country’s history. It was also critically acclaimed, and one of the poem sequences in the book, “August Morning”, won the prestigious Kadokawa Tanka Prize. So there’s an interesting story and a lot of history behind this book, all of which was hovering in my mind as I read it.
The poems in Salad Anniversary are tanka–an ancient form of Japanese poetry, short poems comprised of 31 syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. Part of what made Tawara’s work so popular was the way she revitalized an ancient form with a modern sensibility. Her themes are ordinary, accessible, light. She writes about pop music and cooking, meandering through the city, street vendors, baseball, breakups, sharing meals, train rides. These poems are not lofty–they’re about the ups and downs of relationships and the mundane things that comprise daily life. There’s self-reflection and a certain seriousness in her tone, but she’s also playful, joyful, and sometimes silly.
The tanka are grouped in several longer sequences. The themes in some were easy to pick out–meeting a new lover, heartbreak, visiting a childhood home. In other sequences, the overall meaning felt a bit more abstract.
I loved so many of these poems–short bursts of beauty, a few lines that perfectly capture a moment or a feeling. But I also felt as if they passed through me and didn’t leave much of a mark. The whole book felt ephemeral. I read only a few poems each day, wanting to let them sink in, but I found that each time I picked up the book, I couldn’t remember what I had read the day before. Even when an image or an idea particularly moved me, it didn’t stay with me.
While none of these poems hit me deep in the gut, perhaps they weren’t meant to. I can only interperate Tawara’s intentions though her words, which, of course, I’m reading through the lens of a translator–but there was a freshness to these poems that didn’t invite deep analysis or long contemplation. They felt more like little bursts–some brighter than others–meant to be savored in the moment and then released.
A few of my favorites:
Cherries, cherries, cherries–
they blossom and disappear
and the park goes on, unaffected
Your left hand,
exploring my fingers one by one–
maybe this is love
On a Sunday morning
fragrant with navel oranges,
I boil two eggs to perfection
Skeptical of promises
you don’t even bother
to build your castle away from the waves
“Writing more love poems?”
that each tiny islet from my porthole
should have a name
“Oh yeah?!” the new catchphrase–
in the classroom, student conversations
get by on just “Oh yeah?” “Oh yeah!”
I boil three chestnuts
to make an autumn for one–
remembering the far-off sea, and you
Passing in the street,
hey, that was my corner grocer
Wanting to be loved with abandon,
June, sandals, hydrangea
Flipping back through this book to select the above poems, I was reminded of just how much I liked them. It wasn’t an earth-shattering book for me, but it did have a lot of heart–a truly lovely blend of fun and beauty.