A Sprig of Thyme

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 5:1, March 2004, pages 7–8.

A Sprig of Thyme by Reiko Nakagawa, translated by William I. Elliott. Yume Kōbō, 2003. 120 pages, ¥1,000. ISBN 4-946513085-X. Available from the publisher, Yume Kōbō, at 200-49 Higashi-tahara, Hadano, Kanagawa, Japan.

Shima Satō, director of the “Hodō” tanka group in Japan, prefaces this collection of 100 tanka by Reiko Nakagawa, appearing in Japanese and English translation, by saying that her tanka “reflect her generous character itself, which is without artificiality or pretension.” The poems, translated by William I. Elliot of Kantō Gakuin University, are presented in two sections. The first features 30 poems from the Tanka Journal, mostly about travels to North America.

A woman approached

the poetry corner

in the library,

a single maple leaf

clinging to her sole.

There’s something endlessly poetic about a fallen leaf! Despite the past tense, this poem feels haiku-like for its objective imagery, though most of the book’s poems have a more subjective approach, disarming in their simple directness.

Both women

sitting in front of me—

one young,

one much older—

are looking at their watches.

Here we feel the press of time, but how different we intuitively know time’s passing is for these two women. The preceding poem is from the book’s second section, which presents 70 “miscellaneous” tanka. Many of these poems are grouped into sequences, though only one poem appears per page, emphasizing the fact that even sequenced tanka should still be able to work individually, as in this one from a three-poem sequence titled “A Postman”:

A yellow butterfly


under the tree

The postman

picks out your letter.

The preceding poem also feels haiku-like, yet most of this book’s other tanka feel less like haiku (the last three of the following are all from a single sequence):

I was thinking

of writing a poem of love,

and suddenly

I met the eyes of a student

who was writing an exam.

The coffin my mom is in

is terribly confining.

I folded my hands

in bed one morning

when I awoke.

Tell me the name

of the book you read

to get rid of


and I will go out and get one.

The body of a sparrow

lies on its side

in the rain.

My mom’s body

is brought home.

I find the past tense distracting in some of this book’s translations (the poems could so easily be more immediate in present tense), and the frequent use of place names (in poems not quoted) may momentarily alienate some readers who are unfamiliar with them or their connotations. But ultimately, I agree with Tanka Journal editor Hatsue Kawamura, who writes an afterword, that there is something appealing about Nakagawa’s poems written about her daily life. The appeal, at least in the English versions, partly comes from saying things like “mom” rather than “mother.” Indeed, as Kawamura points out, much of the appeal is because her language is “more colloquial than literary.” Reiko Nakagawa’s is a disarming and engaging tanka voice, and this ably translated book makes for much pleasing reading.

A faint scent


from a sprig of thyme.

I lie atop a hill

amidst history.