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Review: Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets by Makoto Ooka

A new edition of selected poems by Makoto Ooka, translated by Janine Beichman and entitled Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets, is a treasure chest for lovers of Japanese poetry and poetry in general. Ooka was one of the most revered poets and critics in Japan, and Beichman, is a masterful translator of Ooka’s work. This is the third anthology of Ooka’s poetry she has translated. Beichman captures the stark simplicity of Ooka’s language as well as the Western influences on his work. Ooka himself approved her translations, and he knew English poetry well. He even reciprocated by translating one of her Noh plays.

The anthology contains poems from nine collections of Makoto Ooka’s poetry published between 1972 and 1989. Many pieces are heartbreakingly beautiful in their simplicity and power. The poem “Life Story” is one brief example:

The cry of a single bird fills up

:the universe

The silence of two birds overflows

These are the kinds of images poets and readers live for. Other pieces are longer and far more complex. The prose poems “A Perspective Diagram of Summer” and Her Fragrant Flesh, or How I Met a Madwoman” might have become ordinary prose in the hands of a less-sensitive translator, but Beichman makes each line sing.

This edition is especially important because it contains material not included in the earlier edition: a few changes made by Ooka himself, including a line added during translation and not in the original Japanese edition; intimate photographs of Ooka; examples of his calligraphy; pages from his notebooks that show his revisions; and the original text of the poems in Japanese. These additions make it invaluable for all students of his work.

Photo courtesy of the publisher.

About the author

Laura Head received her PhD in English Literature and her MBA in Marketing from Indiana University. She has served on the faculty in English or Business at several universities, most recently in the English Department at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She is currently an MFA student in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University.

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