Rob Mackenzie alerted me to this new collection of poems by Nancy Gaffield, and I’m very glad he did. I read it on North Uist, with the remembrance of Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi in the background of my thoughts (see previous posting).
The Tokaido is the southerly route between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto (then the equivalent of Japan’s capital). It was a road taken (on foot and sometimes horseback) by traders, entertainers, pilgrims, travellers, and those required to make the annual trip to show allegiance to the shogun. A number of ‘stations’ broke up the journey, some being inns and places of refreshment, others being official customs barriers between one region and another. There was also a northerly route, the Kisokaido, slightly more mountainous. Both routes were the subjects of many woodblock prints by Japan’s ukiyo-e artists. The best known, and to my mind the finest Japanese landscape artist, was Hiroshige, whose print series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road was published between 1831 and 1834. (He also produced a series on the Kisokaido). I’ve travelled on some sections of the Tokaido, but I haven’t got the familiarity with it which Nancy Gaffield clearly has, having lived in Japan for many years.
Her poems are part personal, part descriptive, part narrative, part emotional responses to the places, the prints and their contents. Some are of Hiroshige’s period, others fully in the present. Some of her characters run as threads through the book, others come and go as necessary to explore her inner thoughts. This is a fascinating and beautifully written collection which stimulated me and kept my interest all the way along the road. It’s a very fine example of how a poet’s response to one art form can produce its own art, an art distinct from the original although clearly inspired by it.
The book was a Poetry Book Society recommendation, and it’s available through them, or from the admirable publisher, CB Editions.