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Long, Long Autumn Nights: Selected Poems of Oguma Hideo, 1901–1940

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Translated with Introduction by David G. Goodman

X + 124 PAGES

book cover for long long autumn nightsDuring one of the darker periods of Japanese history—the 1920s and 1930s—Oguma Hideo wrote poetry that illuminated the politics of his day. In Long, Long Autumn Nights, the first English sampling of this avant-garde poet, the reader will find powerfully humane writing that reflects the age’s imperialism, and  in a sense redeems it. Translated by David G. Goodman, Long, Long Autumn Nights also serves to reveal the significance of Japan’s demographic diversity in what is often thought of as a homogenous country. Readers of this volume will be able to expand their knowledge not only of Japanese poetry but of the Japanese nation.

Goodman tells us that Oguma grew up in Hokkaido and Sakhaline, colonies in Japan’s northernmost region, and that his formal education ended when he completed the equivalent of eighth grade. Before establishing himself as a left-wing, non-Communist intellectual, Oguma took on a variety of odd jobs within the fringes of colonial society, and before the end of his brief lifetime, worked as a reporter and free-lance editor.

This excellent volume divides Oguma’s poetry into four time periods within the two decades: (1) From Sakhalin to Tokyo, 1920–1930; (2) The Proletarian Poet, 1928–1933; (3) Post-Tenko Poems, 1934–1935; (4) A Voice Discovered: Epic Poetry Circa 1935. Goodman’s introduction analyzes each time period, setting each within modern history and literature; a selection of twenty-three poems are then presented chronologically.

For Oguma, writing was a matter of identifying positive modes of being, of affirming humanity. In “Singing on Horseback” (Bajo no uta), the poet fancies himself a Robin Hood-like balladeer. His “task as master thief/ Is to compose poetry on horseback, . . ./ To be a forerunner./To be in the vanguard,/ To manifest courage.”

The lengthier narrative poems, published in 1935, contrast with the core tradition of Japanese poetry dominated by the short forms of Tanka and Haiku. The “Flying Sled” (Tobu sori), an epic based on the theme of the vanishing Ainu minority, is highly dramatic and unparalleled:

These winter preparations were carried out
With the characteristic aplomb of north folk
Those with money used it;
Those without made do.
. . .
As if someone had them by the throat,
The villagers held their breath.
They pricked up their ears and listened to
the silence.

The title poem, “Long, Long Autumn Nights” (Changjang Ch’uya) derived from Oguma’s experiences in Sakhalin and Hokkaido, lays bare the fundamental inhumanity of Japanese cultural policies in Korea, displaying a sensitivity to people living under colonial rule:

Weep not, Korea!
Old women weep not!
Weep not, sweet maidens!
The laundry block will laugh at you!
Tok-tack, tok-tack-tok-tack.
What is that sound?

Goodman states: “[I]t is Oguma’s ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, to imagine and articulate the complexities of their situation, that makes him a poet of moral as well as literary stature” (p. 18).

Due to the fine translation—the author is a winner of the 1990 Award of the Translation Center of Columbia University—Long, Long Autumn Nights should prove of great value as a teaching tool to educators. The book is certain to be appreciated as an enrichment of both Japanese literature and Japanese history. A caution is that poems such as “The Tumbleweed Company” (Pulamubago chutai) on the theme of dehumanizing war experience, may be too mature for younger students, so that teachers using the volume should be selective in their choices.

Unique drawings by the poet that are integrated into the text provide an added touch that enhances the reader’s understanding of Oguma’s lyric writing.