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  • Writer's pictureRichard Meier


Updated: Mar 16, 2021


I’ve slowly been working my way through an anthology of mid-20th century Japanese poetry called Like Underground Water.

By and large, the editors have given each poet three poems. Much better for the poets than had they been given just the one: the reader gets three goes to weigh up what they think of this poet. Of this person.

Reading an anthology is a bit like speed-dating, isn’t it? I did that twice, in the late 90s. Three minutes per date, I recall. Not much. Though sometimes plenty. And in the way that art imitates life, I would say that the experience of reading this particular anthology chimes with my experience as a lost and lonely 20-something year old. That is, most people are okay, but that’s as far as it goes. One or two are really annoying. And a couple or three pique your interest.

One of whom being Ishigaki Rin:

An island

I stand in the large full-length mirror,

a tiny island

quite alone,

isolated from everyone else.

I know

the history of the island,

its size,

its waist, bust, and hips,

its dress for each of the four seasons,

its warbling birds,

its hidden fountain,

and the scents of its flowers.

I live

on my island,

plowing and building,

but I cannot know everything

about this island,

nor can I live permanently here.

In the mirror I stare at myself -

A distant island.

The bio in the anthology says that Ishigaki Rin worked in the same bank for 41 years. Which for me puts her in the Stevie Smith bracket somehow, though perhaps such steadfastness is not so unusual in Japanese society. But perhaps it’s the lonely pain here that puts me mind of that particular poet.

Also, Sugawara Katsumi, another loner judging by one of his poems in the anthology, which begins: “In a room where no other person is around / my suit hangs all alone”. Here is one of his other entries in the book, Supper:

As I am having salted salmon and tea

for supper all by myself,

a yellow moon floats up

above the roof on the other side of the alley.

A snatch of the song “A Tree in the Pot” is heard, as usual, from next door,

and the smell of daphnes drifts in from somewhere.

as I eat my meager supper,

such rich friends as these come visiting casually.

Since I am without electric lights from tonight on,

I light a paper lantern, reaching up,

and my shadow expands, filling the whole room.

I wonder if Ishigaki Rin and Sugawara Katsumi ever met? Who knows, they may have got on.

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