Breast Clouds

by Noriko Tanaka

Translated by Saeko Ogi and Amelia Fielden

A Review by Robert D. Wilson


having dropped my breast

into the hands of the gods,

I can only

accustom myself to this body

and a slight depression


“When a young girl starts to grow breasts, she’s becoming a woman. Along with other changes indigenous to puberty, it’s this outward sign the world notices first.”

When Noriko Tanaka was stricken with breast cancer, she underwent a masectomy, an operation where one or both breasts are removed. It saved her life but the loss of one breast affected her deeply. She had to say goodbye to an important part of her. When my wife underwent a modified radical masectomy to remove her right breast, she told me that she felt like half a woman. The night before the operation, I kissed her right breast goodbye. After the operation, I told her that she was no less a woman, and made sure she knew it. It’s a moment in my life that I will never forget. It was hard for her, looking at a part of her body that no longer existed although she could feel its presence.

Tanaka’s final words in her book’s foreword: “The breast I lost to cancer surgery, was not large, but . . . “

Reading Noriko Tanaka’s Breast Cancer brought back many memories and, because of what I’d gone through with my late wife, I was deeply moved by Tanaka’s sensitivity and the depth in which she deals with a disease that attacks both psyche and the body.

Her tanka is touching not because it deals with cancer, per se, as anyone can write tanka about cancer, and many have, but the ethereal, transference of feeling with nature and zoo animals coupled with powerful wording, contrasts that don’t appear to contrast, and her understanding of the intuitive value of the unsaid and where to use it, makes for tanka that’s impossible to forget, weaving their way into the reader’s subconscious mind to form interpretations indigenous to their own life experiences and memories.


Little by little

the rinoceros’ horns

keep on growing –

to live is to be

without awareness


Almost every day, after her operation and recuperation, Tanaka found solace in visiting a nearby zoo.  Mourning, coming to grips with an important part of her inner and outer self, she’d look at the animals locked up in cages and experience a connection between them and the breast she’d lost, existentially, exploring the is of who she was, now that a part of her identity was missing physically; a land of limbo where what was, wasn’t, yet psychologically there in ways that are not easy to describe and not there as well. She was, to use a segment of a paragraph not attributed to one person, regarding existentialism, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, dealing with the tension between the individual and the ‘public’; an emphasis on the worldly or ‘situated’ character of human thought and reason; a fascination with liminal experiences of anxiety, death, the ‘nothing’ and nihilism; the rejection of science (and above all, causal explanation) as an adequate framework for understanding human being; and the introduction of ‘authenticity’ as the norm of self-identity, tied to the project of self-definition through freedom, choice, and commitment.”  


Little by little

the rhinoceros’ horns

keep on growing –


In this tanka, Tanaka writes about a rhinoceros she was observing in a caged world far removed from the creature’s natural environs, an existence without privacy, surrounded by a thousand eyes. The rhinoceros had its horns, giving it the dignity of outer identification she now missed, but what good were the horns when this sad creature had no use for them? Tanaka connected with the rhinoceros. In her mind, she felt that those aware of  her surgery pitied her and saw her as many visitors to the zoo did of the rhinoceros, a beaten creature reduced visually to a ghost of its former existence, forced “to live” a life “without awareness.”


the black shadows

of fish, motionless

at the water bottom –

what I want to say

I can’t say


Tanaka stares into a pool of water at the zoo;  it’s apparently early morning or late afternoon judging by the mention of shadows, and sees the shadows of fish in a state of suspended stillness (this is how they sleep). She’s still coming to grasps with the loss of her breast, something it could take a lifetime to do, but for now, her loss is fresh, a spirit stuck between earth and the afterwards, not ready to let go, like the shadows she’s looking at:  unclear, a tanka whispering words into a heart and mind tightly merged, beyond the WHY, sad yet angry, unsure of the who and what . . . an existential look at feelings that, in time, will surface, giving her clarity.


What I want to say

I can’t say


Noriko Tanaka’s book, is, in actuality, twelve collections of tanka:

Breast Clouds, Ducks and Peaches, The Aquarium, The Silent Trees, Ash Moon, A Rough Moon, A Window Which Invites The Sun, Snow Feathers  (My Aunt),The Spiral Staircase (My Elder Brother), The Young Moon, The Summer Kingdom, and The Black Frog, combined to form one book, much like the poems she writes; complex, joining together opposites to form an entirely different entity, using the skills she’s learned as an ardent student of Inomata Shizuya (an Araragi Society poet who studied under the one of Japan’s finest tanka poets, Tsuchiya Bunmei), while earning a Master of Arts degree in Japanese Classical Literature from Nara Women’s University, and working on a Ph.D until a year ago, under the guidance of the now retired, Sakamoto Nobuyuki, when she aborted her studies to invest her life entirely to the one love of her life that has never left her, the composition of tanka.



is a night when

I want to smash

everything around me,

with a bat in my hand


Tanaka hasn’t led an easy life, suffering from the loss of one breast from cancer (and the pathos, pain, sense of loss, and chemotherapy that goes with this battle); the death of her father and mother, selling the house she’d inherited from her parents, as well as the cruelty and rejection that comes from a divorce. The twelve sections of her book form a diary of, as Nobuyuki notes in his introduction, titled, To The Book, Breast Clouds, “a trickling of grief born of the sacrifices demanded of this poet.”

Tanaka’s book, however, doesn’t stand out as an oracle of self pity and grief, although she covers these feelings eloquently, but as the fresh voice of a talented, well studied poet who knows the value of pillow words, the unsaid, imagery, and juxtaposition, and can express a body of feelings with a gutsy truth not often seen today, regardless of the technique she uses or the subject matter.

There are the ups:


What a happy faces,

That Indian elephant


On green grass

Beside a stream


The hopes:


Beneath the sun

Spilling its grittiness

Down on me,

A single path

To reform my life


The fears:


The morning earth

Shudders, and then

Goes back to sleep again –

I am so afraid

My cancer will come back


The downs:


To the very top

Of the blue-skyed slope,

I can hear

The pathetic calls

Of wild beast


The coming to an understanding:


The milk I’ve heated

For my brother

Is also

Going cold – a thin skin

Is forming over it


And yet:


Though again and again

I peel that dark skin

From the milk,

My elder brother

Still doesn’t come back


In essence, Noriko Tanaka is her own tanka poem, a voice not to be taken lightly or be forgotten, one which will continue to mature in the coming years, illuminating for others, the truth and lyricism good tanka embodies.

We are fortunate also, as members of the English language Japanese short form community, to be privy to this great poet’s voice and writing style, thanks to the translation of Tanaka’s book into the English language by Saeko Ogi and Amelia Fielden, in a way that makes sense to the reader, as Japanese and English are very different languages, with very different rules and irregularities, which if translated poorly, would turn Breast Clouds into just another book gathering dust in a rarely visited dark corner of a library. Translation is an art form onto itself that cannot be done with a dictionary and a keyboard. The success of a translation comes with understanding, study, intercommunication, and much work.

Breast Clouds according to Tanaka, “are ominous clouds which bring foreboding of storms.” Their name, she states, emanates “from their shape as they concentrate in the sky, hanging there long and swollen.”


The breast I lost to cancer surgery, was not that large, but . . .


Breast Clouds

Noriko Tanaka

Translated by Saeko Ogi and Amelia Fielden


ISBN 978-4-86272-175-4

The book is available from Noriko Tanaka at korinokanata2@yahoo.co.jp