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Chika Sagawa
by Patricia Callan

nly recently (2015), has an English translation of Sagawa's work been available. She was born in 1911 in Yoichi, Hokkaido, the most Northern part of Japan. Never healthy, she passed away too early, in 1936 at the age of 24. Many of her poems are dark, filled with subtle portents of death:

Murky dark air permeates the room—
The books, ink and rusty knife seem to be gradually stealing
The life out of me.

While everything sneered,
Night was already in my hands.
(CPCS 4)

The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa includes her diary entries as translated by Sawako Nakayasu. Of Chika Sagawa's work, the poet Kitasano Katue said, "The best poets often have their own complete identity from their first poem. Sagawa was such a poet… In the realm of poetry she wrote boldly and freely… neither beauty nor death would pilfer nor even distort this freedom of hers." (Qtd in Sagawa iv)

Chika Sagawa, like Fumiko Hayashi and Nagase Kyoko, had to struggle for her education. Despite family objections, she studied at an all-girls high school with the goal of obtaining a license to be an instructor of English. Sagawa had dreams beyond education and poetry; in her writing about her friend, Ema Shoko, she noted, "Once, we have some money, Ema Shoko and I want to set up shops in Ginza—she'll have a hat shop and photography shop, I'd like to own a bookshop like Sylvia Beach's."

In 1928 Chika's half-brother, Noboru Kawasaki, to whom she was close, was already established in Tokyo literary circles. Despite the familiar family protests, once again, she joined Noboru. Poets like those in Noburu's group were much influenced, even obsessed, by European poetry, translations, and contemporary trends: Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Symbolism:

All the keys have left the piano
I shall drown my joys into the pitch black wilderness.
Exposed chords of the air that obstruct
The naked parade of afternoon shall be severed.
(CPCS 94)

Substituting the expected with its opposite (a Dadaism) here, the usual "drown one's sorrows" becomes the startling and intentional "drown my joys." The poet's idea, that musical chords could stop the passsage of an afternoon metaphorically compared to a parade of naked people, is both witty and absurdist. Edward Hirsch writes, "The Dadaists' favorite word was nothing …." In Sagawa's case though, she's not afraid to use concrete images. What can be more tactile than piano keys or as obvious to the imagination as a "naked parade?" The talented Sagawa knew how to use judiciously what she gleaned from her colleagues who espoused Dada.

She didn't hesitate to write poems in English as well as translate French and English poets. Being drawn especially to the works of Dame Edith Sitwell, whom several critics deemed "eccentric," Sitwell herself said, "It's just that I am more alive than most people." It is not at all surprising that a young woman with precarious health and a limited lifespan would be drawn to the rebellious Sitwell.

Sagawa translated Sitwell's Bucolic Comedies and described her own thoughts on them. "…I feel in these poems, not a sentimental sweetness but instead a kind of [voluminousness] … it is possible to hear in it a duet between the brightness of nature borne from the sun, and the undulations of the human heart." (CPCS 119)

The poem "The Mad House," crammed with all the detail of a Dali painting, raises assonance to the level of cacophony, illustrating Sagawa's accomplished English:

Soldiers of the red army, curly-haired artists, pale-skinned
Ryazan women, the spiral staircase of the cabaret.
The piano makes tinny sounds.
People standing on a mere footprint's worth of dirt are sharpened
Crystals. One wrong step leads to death.
The infinite propagation of the sun.
(CPCS 30)

Her poetry group, Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics) included poets who wrote essays, translated, reviewed the arts, and scholars of in-depth studies of the current intellectual movements. Sagawa herself translated James Joyce's Chamber Music, works of Virginia Woolf, Charles Reznikoff, and Mina Loy among others. Woolf, according to Nakayasu, was another influence. This contributor theorizes that, for Sagawa, poems were her own rooms. (The bi-lingual poet Rhina P. Espaillat espouses the poem as "room.") Sagawa in her poetic "room" observes from windows, rearranges words like furniture, overcrowds rooms, looks in a mirror and sees her frustrations and feelings reflected.

Shi to Shiron was enthralled with all things French and the group considered themselves esprit nouveau. In the foreword to the Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, Nakayasu makes a case that supports the French relationship to the Japanese characters for the name Sagawa. The translator indicates that the characters which mean "left" and "river," and are very probably allusions to the left bank of the Seine. Unlike other modern age Japanese literary groups, Shi to Shiron did not seem to discriminate against women writers; Sagawa's talent was recognized by her peers of both genders.

In a brief commentary, Sagawa gives a gentle rebuke to the esprit nouveau, "I wonder if the sun in May isn't a little too bright for Japanese poets of today. They speak only of dreams and illusions, failing to harmonize with this all-too-French air….They lose themselves only when imitating others, and when that figure has been chipped away at, are quite tired." (CPCS 124)

Chika Sagawa's poetry and essays demonstrate a penetrating observation of nature and the human condition, including her own. In a series of diary entries the poetic mind responds to the body in decline:

October 16
Early morning, I open the window and see a hearse exiting the hospital gates. When I see the black shape make its way through the smoky rain, I feel my heart stop&hellip.I feel sick all day from the image of that black shape in the morning.

In the entry of October 22 small things delight her, "At noon the calligraphy teacher, Mrs. Aoyama's sister, brings beautiful pomegranates. My mother is delighted saying, she has never seen a pomegranate before." Despite Sagawa's confining hospital world, her poetic vision is still acute. On October 25, as she makes her way to the X-ray department, "…the nurses bustling about energetically at work seem strangely dazzling to me. Watching the cars go down the streets makes me want to break into a run."

The poignant diary entries are glimpses into the limitations of medical treatments in the 1930's. Still, there are bright moments that her young nephew provides: "Kei tells me he has learned three words in English. Dog, Cat, Peanuts. Today I feel quite good which makes me happy. Kei sits on my bed and shows me how he can draw dolls and streamlined shapes." (CPCS 133,134)

Unfortunately, the constraints of medical knowledge in that era permitted pain to be relieved but most cancers not cured. In January 1936 Sagawa passed away from stomach cancer, leaving behind beautiful poetry and prose. One feels that her early death has left the world bereft of her remarkable gifts.

Back to Modern Japanese Poets

Chika Sagawa
Years: 1911-1936
Birthplace: Japan
Language(s): Japanese
Entry By: Patricia Callan
32 Poems
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