“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” Eleni Cay (Eyewear) – poetry review

A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese WordsEleni Cay is a Slovakian-born poet living in the UK. Her first collection, “A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age,” was written in Slovak and translated into English. Her subsequent two collections were written in English and this is her third English collection.

Having worked on the Journeys in Translation project, the challenge of translating is something I’m interested in. In prose, there’s space for an explanatory translation. Poems don’t offer that luxury.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” takes 23 Japanese words considered untranslatable, although there is a line of English explanation for each word presented as an epigram to each poem which explores the concept behind each word. It begins with “Aiki (合気)” defined as ‘blending/harmonising opposing forces within oneself”. The narrator commands time to

“numb the deeply entrenched,
and yet, elusive, memory of you.

I would make love colourless, remove
all signs and symbols that denote the
pulsing space between two people.

But, alas, until the glory of Time departs,
we will set, we will rise,
like a phoenix from the ashes
of its counterparts.”

It captures the competing desires to forget a former love and move on whilst remembering how good it made you feel and whatever it was that attracted you in the first place (even if you can no longer see it). The long vowels in the opening part of the quote keep the rhythm slow underlining the poem’s sense of pondering around its subject until the final stanza where the rush of “s” sounds, “a” assonance and rhyme of “departs/counterparts” rightly feels like an intrusion as attempts to bury a memory fail and it refuses to become dormant.

“Ikigai 生き甲斐” is defined as ‘a reason for being; the sense that it is worthwhile to continue living.’

“Every night I present my body in soft Egyptian cotton,
together with the wild tangos I no longer dance.

Assuming a defenceless posture, I lay open my soul,
let the Moon, for a whimsical while, take me to the stars.

In the morning, when all the magic is returned to the sky,
I put on a clean shirt to protect me from having to relive

the sacrifice. With no time to grieve,
I accept that dreams promise more than life can give.”

The poem feels more like a resigned acceptance than a sense that shifting from the nightly world of dreams into daily living is a worthwhile thing. I confess I was distracted by the “wild tangos I no longer dance” because the poem leaves me having to speculate as to why and the question isn’t answered. I do like the echos in “relive/grieve/give” but it doesn’t really convey a sense of importance. More successful is “Seijaku 静寂” defined as ‘Literally quiet (sei) tranquility (jaku), silence, calm, serenity (especially in the midst of activity or chaos)’.

“The dawn surrenders to the sun,
personifying what we become
when we fuse into me.

A Maltese cat
folded in the windowsill
breathes heavily
like a new-born child.”

A cat is perfect here: when not asleep, they are watchers, a patch of stillness amidst movement. Their natural independence and self-sufficiency creates a sense of aloofness and separation from what’s happening around them.

Over a book-length collection, the concept would grow weary, each poem becoming less of a surprise. But, constrained by being a pamphlet, the length is right. There are still surprises. It can also be read by dipping in and out at random. While the odd poem, e.g. “Ikigai” feels a little underdeveloped, there are far more successes.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” is available from Eyewear.


“Elsewhere” Jack Little (Eyewear) – poetry review

Jack Little Elsewhere book coverJack Little left England in 2010 to live in Mexico City. He arrived speaking little Spanish and little knowledge of the country he is now a citizen of, having made it his home. His Spanish is now fluent. “Elsewhere” explores some of that transition from England to Mexico: the title poem starts “Searching his pockets/ he left and learnt new languages/ in a city with a name he could/ not pronounce” and ends,

“and when purple night sank her boats
and the lights went out with rain,
he withdrew himself from the magic of elsewhere
and rejoined the boys of home –
the language of his father crisp and warm,

but of another time.”

It captures that limbo state of still being an outsider in his new home, but still having links to family in England with regular Skyped conversations. The shortened vowels in the first three lines give way to the longer vowels in the last three with “elsewhere” effectively acting as a pivot, signaling the change in rhythm. “Magic” suggests enchantment and a sense of welcome in this new land whilst “of another time” suggests a loosening of family ties which could be as much to do with growing up as geographical distance. “Night Sky” explores his associations with his new land, rooted his desire to travel and explore in childhood,

“my mind awaits them all, the visits of feather capped
gods of heavy ancientness, the smell of other
worlds that cling to my bedclothes: the heat of night
and journeys to far away temples of unknown sun people….

.                I await Bogotá
.                I await Lima
.                Barranquilla, Brasilia, Managua, Burcaramanga….

Asunción… and on and on – all memories learnt
from news stories, a crack of light breaking the sky
and reminding me of the classroom globes of childhood.”

Not all the poems are about an Englishman abroad. “Russian Doll Falling” (complete poem),

A Russian doll is an easy metaphor,
.             in its death dance
spinning on cold wooden edges
.             ’til tipping point

Until you break, until you crack in twos, fours…
.             smooth and lipstick red, matryoshka doll:
coffee cool wooden carvings on the inside
.             a chrysalis, a surprise of nesting air.”

The cool, carefully kept exterior breaks into emptiness underneath. In “The Last Train to London” two people are waiting on the platform and indulging in the English custom of avoiding eye contact,

“I am an extra in the movie of his life, a biopic of one
of the greats, and I play ‘man on platform’.

I count grey floor tiles to make up seconds
until the final scene when the fat fall moon
will reflect from the gentleman’s lenses
and he will glance at me before checking his watch

and I will be validated.”

The final poem, “Swimming Lessons” looks at the contrasts of England and Mexico and ends,

“and what if the rooftop was not not keep
rain out? But to be bathed on, sum bathed
washed in light, watch the ants float by
I swear this is an ocean and I am learning to swim.”

The different purposes of rooftops might have been a more interesting title but would miss the key point of the poem, that “learning to swim”. Swimming isn’t just about the coordination of limbs and the mechanics of strokes, but also being able to read the water and trust that the water will support the swimming. It’s an apt metaphor. You can live in a country by learning its language, but to really immerse yourself in it enough to want to make it a home, you have to learn its cultures, customs and routines. Jack Little’s immersion in Mexico has strengthened his poems.

“Elsewhere” is available from Eyewear.

Jazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthday