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Nagase Kiyoko
by Patricia Callan

lthough she believed she wasn't a professional writer, Nagase Kiyoko published twelve books of poetry and was able to support her large family. Born in 1906 in Okayama, she lived a long and productive life, passing away at the age of 89. She began writing as a child, becoming a woman who, despite cultural obstacles, found her own strong voice. Her school principal, for example, advised her father against giving his daughter further education [very strange advice from an educator]. Certainly they must have recognized how bright she was. Still, her parents encouraged her poetry and when she married at age 18, her husband promised her parents he would allow her to write poetry. He kept his promise but only minimally. Her poems reveal guilt, conflict and regret over the constraints in her life.

In high school Nagase had a teacher who told her about the proverbs of William Blake. Nagase admits, "I found Blake's proverbs more interesting than his poetry. They directed me towards thinking, and, how to live: Improvement makes straight roads, but crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of genius and Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead. (Lento)

Nagase also states "…these [proverbs] forcefully urged me on." She went on to write her own Aphorisms:

A poet must be more honest than anyone else.
In order to speak more honestly than anyone else
about the soul of mankind, about one's own being.
A poet must master lying.

At eighteen, she sent her poems to Sonosuke Sato, who became her poetry teacher, and influenced her profoundly. In her essay "Unforgettable Words" she comments, "It was 1924 when I first thought I would become a poet. It was the year I read poems of Bin Ueda [a polyglot translator] and it was also the year I first sent my own poem for a comment to Sonosuke Sato, my poetry teacher…, Mister Sato said to me: 'Forget all old poetic dictions of the past. Observe with your own eyes.'" (Lento)

In 1930 she published her first book of poetry Grendel's Mother (Grendel no haha). The title poem is based on the monster in Beowulf, which Nagase had read in English in high school. Taking the very startling viewpoint of monster-as-mother, she's obviously heeded Sato's advice "observe with your own eyes":

Her ancient monster's eyes
stare at the entrance like a spider
her powerful motherhood
like a helmet
gives them sanctuary
Her children will become monsters of the North in due time
(or they will grow up to be
ones who lap up the tears of the multitudes in silence)
(Lento Lento)

Nagase's husband never interfered with her claim to be a poet, but neither was she relieved of any duties. Rising after midnight to write at the kitchen table in the predawn hours, she reveals her wishes for more marital support in her poem, "Deceive me Please, with Gentle Words":

Ah, I grew up in too much of a wasteland [Japan]
My starved heart wants only one thing:
the delight of thinking
that you're delighted by me…

I'll be deceived, deceived and I'll be rich.
Ah, lead me, please with gentle clapping
as you might do a blindfolded tag player
(Sato 313)

As in the Japanese autobiographical novels, one reads the truth of the arranged marriage in her writing. In the poem, "Prayer," one sees masochism revealed by the speaker who fails "to observe with her own eyes":

When he is about to strike me,
let me be more accepting.
Sorrowed by his regrets,
I always stay under his whip.

Absolve my heart of its long forbearance and pain.
Revive me with very simple joy.
Ah, I choose burdens too often.
(Sato 314)

In the 1940's the average Japanese citizen suffered under the colonization and military ambitions of the country; during this time Nagase had to become a farmer in order to support her family, but she never seemed to complain in her writings about duties toward her children. The "Mother" in Grendel's Mother is bitter, fierce and vengeful, contrasting with the poem "On a Day with a Gentle Breeze," written on the birth of one of her children:

All of a sudden…inside me
rose up the roar of a lioness
"I will endure anything for you!"

Back to Modern Japanese Poets

Kiyoko Nagase
Years: 1906-1995
Birthplace: Japan
Language(s): Japanese
Entry By: Patricia Callan
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