• Takako Arai and Mary Besemeres

On Takako Arai, Caterpillar

I’m neither a poet nor a scientist: I’m a woman, and I translate poetry from Polish, not from Japanese, so I haven’t (alas) read the original poem by Takako Arai in Japanese. I find the English translation by Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford sinuous, vivid and startlingly idiomatic (‘once he’s sure’, ‘that was it’).

The poem is called ‘Caterpillar’. It’s about a caterpillar shedding its skin, forming a chrysalis, so it is about an eye-catching something; but it’s also about the caterpillar as agent, a kind of someone, not so very different from us, who observe it. The English translation conveys a sense of the caterpillar’s sustained, painstaking effort through a repeated use of gerunds: ‘gathering’, ‘swelling’, ‘peeling’, ‘hauling’, ‘heaving’. This slow and steady progress is interrupted by some rapid shifts, as when the caterpillar, gangster-like, ‘flicks out horns like knives’, or when the magician-like ‘black mask’ falls off ‘his face’ and he ‘sweeps off his cloak’. There is a slightly unnerving alienness in moments like the tearing between ‘thorax’ and ‘head’ or the caterpillar’s ability to ‘bubble’ its ‘flanks’, yet also an endearing familiarity, as when it ‘blows out’ its ‘cheeks’. In reading the poem we’re absorbed in watching something remarkable, a spectacle, but at the same time, drawn into imagining the movements of the caterpillar from within. The caterpillar’s transformation is both seen and felt, in Takako Arai’s poem.

Mary Besemeres




Translated by Jen Crawford and Rina Kikuchi


Have you ever seen a caterpillar shed its skin?
The black larva, having eaten up the young leaves of the yuzu
on that skin
is grown so fat that his own skin, which is green, looks translucent
He becomes still
but soon
shudders his flanks
Between his skin and his flesh
the air pops in, and once he’s sure
he begins to stretch himself
once more, stretches as much as he can
        once more
What tears is the connection between his thorax and head
   it shrinks
and the caterpillar, gathering his flesh, starts to surge
this time
tearing vertically
swelling and peeling
     swelling and peeling
From within the black cloak
the caterpillar reveals his green body
its yellow-brimmed-black-dot and sky-blue stripes
the line of white dots around his feet already painted—
they’re beautiful
when three-quarters of the shedding is done
what suddenly falls
is the black mask from his face
He blows out his cheeks
and sweeps off his cloak through to the end of his tail
Have you ever seen a caterpillar’s chrysalis?
Eating yuzu leaves non-stop & crapping mountains
the speckled green caterpillar
when one size larger than a woman’s pinky
leaves the branch
and starts creeping, scurrying
to the shade, where he’s protected from wind and rain
There, from his mouth
he spits out a sticky thread and glues himself down
pulls out one strong line and
ties it around his own body
then stops
sleeps where he stands
The stripes on his back
broaden as the skin dries
He shudders
shakes and bubbles his flanks again
pushing at the thread
hauling up his flesh
            careening on his lifeline
        he becomes a humpback
     flicks out
horns like knives
        hidden at the back of his neck
his own skin himself
swelling and peeling
swelling and peeling
transforms into pure green, hard, chrysalis
Becoming this chrysalis
 must be one of the phases of shedding

One of the phases of shedding
Have you seen it?


The real turning point
took less than ten minutes
That was it


Arai Takako