The Sealey Challenge: Transit Blues

a white hand with pale purple nail polish holds a black book with orange lettering: TRANSIT BLUES by Keijiro Suga. in the background is a pool of light between trees and a sea of yellow and green.
Transit Blues

Keijiro Suga’s Transit Blues, translated from the Japanese largely by the author himself, is a strange, often luminous little chapbook, a collection of poetry that explores space and time (and corvidae) with a deft, loving touch.

“Walking as a Prayer,” the first poem in the collection, sets the tone for the rest of the book: sometimes meditative, always elegant, loving and deft and tender. Suga writes of the land as sacred, saying: “In this way the land has become their altar. / Their walking becomes a form of prayer.” Transit Blues makes it clear that the land is sacred, whether we admit it or not, a message driven home with delicacy and tact but made exquisitely clear nonetheless.

In “Transit Blues,” the titular poem of the collection, Suga moves between different meanings of transit, from mass transit (“Sitting in a train that doesn’t even run”) to migration, from nature to poetry, tying them all together in the human and animal world of our planet.

The animals of Transit Blues, from birds of the corvidae family to a dog named Papyrus, are both playful and wise, guides and companions. Suga pays special attention to those corvids, from crows and ravens to magpies, all of them treated with love and with respect. He knows corvids, and he loves corvids, and here, in these pages, corvids get the opportunity not only to shine but to be heroic, birds of the highest order.

In “The Silent Raven,” Suga writes: “In the northern myth of another continent / The raven, cultural hero, brought light to this world / And was at once human and bird. / I go with the ravens and crows.” I don’t often come across poems celebrating corvids, to be honest, and I love them, and I was so happy to find them celebrated and honored here. (Also, I’m pretty sure Suga is referring to the Raven of Haida legend.)

Transit Blues often feels dreamlike, worlds in which humans and animals talk, and a Teddy Bear Santa Claus takes unwanted gifts away to liberate the giftee, and the land carries gods even if you’d rather it didn’t. In “On Migration,” Suga writes: “Thus were established gods, local specialties, and the hero of the / eco-system. / I, who don’t believe in any god, / Am disturbed by the real presence of this spooky goodness statue.”

The lyricism and exquisite word choices make a few choices particularly odd: a “chocolate-colored girl”1 in “On Migration,” and the “inevitable African taste / In a batik dress and a turban that becomes you” in the dream-like “The Origin of the Sleep Dance.” (I wasn’t really sure where that “inevitable African taste” came from, although the line later on about photos on an iPhone was gold.) If I were more familiar with Suga and his body of work, I might have been less startled, and it’s worth noting that both poems are quite lovely.

Transit Blues is an exquisite little book, an exploration of time and space and the ways in which our environment is also, always, sacred. It is beautiful and tender, poetry of this damaged, changing world, and I will certainly read it again.

1 N.K. Jemisin has some good articles mentioning chocolate and coffee as descriptors. This is part I, this part II, and this part III.

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