Books: Japanese for Daydreamers
Japanese for Daydreamers
By Judy Halebsky
Reviewed by Joanne G. Yoshida
In her chapbook, Japanese for Daydreamers, Judy Halebsky lets words from Japanese glide into her verses, slide into her syntax, and expand her existing vocabulary. She discovers their meaning by taking them apart and putting them back together. She brings haiku into her poems - translating them, and inventing others - seemingly in front of our eyes. She pulls a line out of her day and puts it into a poem to meet with her encounters of both language and reflection.
Japanese for Daydreamers, the title of this collection, is noted in the acknowledgements as a response to the well-known textbook series, Japanese for Busy People. You may remember that series if you used it to begin your study of Japanese (as I did). And if you've never studied Japanese, you may smile already at the image the title conjures up when one word slides in for another -
Slide "daydreamers" over "busy people" and you have already found a place to enter the poem making of Judy Halebsky.
When a person is surrounded by the sounds of a new language, words are sometimes seen as a language barrier. When she is a poet surrounded by the sounds of a new language, they become a place to enter.
"New" words (those she encounters in Japanese like tsuuka and beika ) and "old" words (those familiar or nostalgic to her like stack, blueberries and Cool Whip) combine to form poems that make all vocabulary into a language of her own, neither old nor new but existing in the poetic "now".
Three words placed next to each other tell a story (from the poem entitled "26 th Street"), in a space defined by senses:
chopsticks cilantro lime
Lines of verse in "Gravity" are a prelude for equations, which mix kanji and concepts:
doctor Caya furrows her brow and goes over the shadows again
trying to measure things she can't see
The poem titles in this insightful, inspiring and lyrically playful collection include "Pigs in a Blanket", "Cicadas", "My Father Remembers Blue Zebras", and "Zen Monks Talking Big". The poet's father and the poet Basho make appearances in the poems, as well as Aunt Nina, an ocean woman, three women, and a rain woman (the latter three appear as original kanji in "Woman Under Trees").
The freedom of expression allowed in a chapbook variation of a textbook can be seen in a line like:
I believe in throwing all my dresses off the roof
There are poignant moments in her poems as well.
In a visual/verbal pulling together of memory and language that only a well-versed poet can accomplish, Judy brings the word o-kagesama de to "Stanley Park with my Father, 2006". Rather than translate the word, she beautifully demonstrates it, like in a performance.
Look at one of her lines from another poem entitled
"Butter Melts in Summer":
I should have left right then
If you heard this line in daily conversation, it may have passed you by. And maybe you will pass it by here too, but this line stops me and I see the "left right" as another sliding pair of intriguing contrasts. Pull apart the two words and see in between the opposites, to the poet who is centered in her craft. The universe of language shifts when opened up by the artist-poet's eye (whose discussion of word-use in other languages like French and Portuguese also hint at her multi-lingual interest).
In "Folksong (translation)", 'boxes' bring to mind grids that Japanese characters are written in, and the shape of the Japanese character for field. You can give the poet a sheet of gridded paper, but you can't make her stay in the grid:
I try to imagine farming in those little boxes
with no openings for a plow
no doorways, no spaces for coming or going
he's writing us in 500 word news clips
he's typing us in squares across the field
Judy leaves space between lines and often reminds us that we are still in the daydreamers version of the book, where translations are poetry, and poetry is transformation.
In the first poem of the book there is a soft red chair and a beautiful contemplation of what we can or can't bring to a new language. It is a great place to sit and start to get comfortable with the poems of Judy Halebsky. Put aside your textbooks for the moment and savor the creamy pages of Japanese for Daydreamers.
Judy Halebsky grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As a graduate student in Performance Studies at the University of California, Davis, she was researching Japanese literature at Hosei University in Tokyo on a MEXT scholarship in 2008, the year this book was published. She has since become a 2009 prize winning poet (New Issues Poetry Prize) for her most recent book, Sky=Empty.
By Judy Halebsky
Published by Finishing Line Press
Interview with Judy Halebsky in Yomimono 14
Text by Joanne G. Yoshida