In Search of the Authentic Other:
The Poetry of Araki Yasusada
Published in Boston Review, 22, no. 2 (April/May 1997): 26-33.
The July/August 1996 issue of American Poetry Review featured a special supplement called “Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada.” Translations of this Japanese poet had already appeared in such leading periodicals as Grand Street, Conjunctions, Aerial, First Intensity, and Jon Silkin’s British poetry journal Stand. According to Yasusada’s three translators–Tosa Motokiyu, Okura Kyojin, and Ojiu Norinaga–all three, like the poet, from Hiroshima–Yasusada’s notebooks were discovered by his son in 1980, eight years following the poet’s death. These fourteen notebooks contained dozens of poems, drafts, English class assignments, diary entries, drawings, letters, and recordings of Zen dokusan encounters. None of this material, it seems, had been published during Yasusada’s lifetime. The following biographical note, prepared by the translators, appears, with slight variation in each of the periodicals cited above:
Yasusada was born in 1907 in the city of Kyoto, where he lived until 1921, when his family moved to Hiroshima. He attended Hiroshima University sporadically between 1925 and 1928, with the intent of receiving a degree in Western Literature. Due, however, to his father’s illness, he was forced, in the interests of the family, to undertake full-time employment with the postal service and withdraw from his formal studies.
In 1930 he married his only wife Nomura, with whom he had two daughters and a son. In 1936, Yasusada was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army and worked as a clerk in the Hiroshima division of the Military Postal Service. His wife and youngest daughter Chieko, died instantly in the atomic blast on August 6. His daughter Akiko survived, yet perished less than four years later from radiation sickness. His son, Yasunari, an infant at the time, was with relatives outside the city.
We are further told that Yasusada was active in avant-garde groups of the pre-War period like Soun [Layered Clouds] and the experimental renga circle Kai [Oars] and that in the sixties he “discovered” Jack Spicer and Roland Barthes (APR 23). A 1967 letter to his renga collaborator Akutagawa Fusei, included in the APR selection, talks enthusiastically of Barthes’s Empire of Signs (24), and the translators further comment that there are undated haiku that “unmistakably bear the stamp of the famous poet, and Holocaust survivor, Paul Celan,” whose work “was read by the Layered Clouds group and critically discussed by them” (26).
The poems–of which more in a moment–have aroused great interest and enthusiasm. In response to the Conjunctions portfolio, the poet Ron Silliman told his friends and fellow poets on the Buffalo Poetics List that the journal had introduced “a poet whose work simply takes my breath away.” Citing the short “Telescope with Urn,” which begins with the line “The image of the galaxies spreads out like a cloud of sperm,” Silliman remarks, “There’s an elevation of tone in these poems that reminds me more of Michael Palmer than Spicer, perhaps because the translators are all Hiroshima poets (one of whom seems to spend half of each year in Sebastapol [CA], although I don’t know if he’s known to [David] Bromige or to Cydney Chadwick). These works kept me up last night and probably will again for another night or three. I recommend them highly.”
Yet even as the Yasusada poems were prompting this sort of response, the word was leaking out that there was no Yasusada, that indeed the whole Yasusada publication was an elaborate hoax, perpetrated, most probably, by one Kent Johnson, a young poet-professor at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois. Johnson, the co-editor, with Stephen M. Ashby, of an anthology of New Russian poetry called The Third Wave (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), and, with Craig Paulenich, of an anthology of contemporary American Buddhist poetry called Beneath a Single Moon (Boston and London: Shambhala, 1991), still doesn’t admit to inventing Yasusada; he now declares that the “real” author is the Yasusada translator Tosa Motokiyu (a pseudonym, in its turn, of yet another unknown poet who is safely dead). But when American Poetry Review and Stand recently demanded the return of their author’s payment, it was to Kent Johnson they addressed their letters. And since he is at the very least the middleman and facilitator of the “hoax,” as a matter of convenience, I shall refer to him here as its author.
According to Lingua Franca, which ran an article on “The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax” in its November 1996 issue, Arthur Vogelsang, one of the three editors of American Poetry Review, went so far as to call Johnson’s deception a “criminal act.” Wesleyan University Press, which had contemplated publishing a volume of Yasusada poems, immediately dropped the project: an anonymous reader, whose report was made available to me by Kent Johnson, expressed great admiration for the poems but felt queasy at the suggestion that the manuscript might be a hoax, it being out of bounds, in the reader’s estimation, for anyone to impersonate a figure as ipso facto tragic as a Hiroshima survivor.
While these editors and publishers have taken issue with what they perceive as the immorality of the hoax, scholars have objected to its inaccuracy. “This is just Japanized crap,” John Solt, a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College, told Lingua Franca’s Emily Nussbaum. “It plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture–Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic–and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony” (LF 83). Yet this estimate may also be a simplification. For Solt, like APR’s Vogelsang and the anonymous reader for Wesleyan, are assuming that Kent Johnson (or whoever the “real” Yasusada turns out to be) produced as accurate a simulation as possible, whereas the fact is that the author has put in, surely not unintentionally, any number of clues that raise questions as to Yasusada’s authenticity. Consider the following:
1) The name Araki Yasusada means, in Japanese usage, that Araki is the family name, Yasusada the first name. Araki is indeed a common family name in Japanese. Yet the “translators” regularly refer to the poet as Yasusada, which would be equivalent to referring to Roland Barthes as Roland. By the same token, the poet’s wife’s name, Nomura, is in fact a family name, not a first name, so the reference given would be like Robert Lowell referring to his wife as Hardwick. Again, “Motokiyu” is a mispelling for “Motokiyo” and “Ojiu” should be “Ogyu.” So the author is, at the very least, playing fast and loose with Japanese names.
2) It is hard to accept the explanation that Yasusada, who was supposedly active in avant-garde groups in the 1920s and 30s, never tried to publish any of his postwar poems and that they were entirely unknown in his native Japan, where he seems to have had the liveliest of correspondences with his fellow poets.
3) Yasusada, we are told, “attended Hiroshima University sporadically between 1925 and 1928, with the intent of receiving a degree in Western Literature.” His attendance must have been sporadic indeed since Hiroshima University was not founded until 1949. As for studying Western Literature, there would have been no such subject. English Literature, French Literature–these were and are academic subjects, but the idea of Yasusada studying “Western” literature looks like an American representation of what a Japanese might do.
4) Yasusada ostensibly came under the influence of Jack Spicer in the mid-60s, which is to say when Yasusada was in his late fifties. This is implausible on a number of counts. First, Jack Spicer was an unknown coterie poet at the time; indeed, he is still largely an unknown coterie poet, whose work does not appear in any of the major anthologies. It is, of course, conceivable that the poet’s friend Natsume Kuribayashi brought the book After Lorca (1957) back to Hiroshima from a visit to San Francisco. But if so, Yasusada must have been the only poet in Japan who took an interest in Spicer.
5) Roland Barthes is listed as a second major influence. But The Empire of Signs, which Yasusada supposedly pored over in 1967, wasn’t even published in French until 1970. The U.S. edition dates from 1982. There is thus no way Yasusada could have read this book, and Barthes’ earlier works were, like Spicer’s, only very little known outside France.
6) Paul Celan, ostensibly read and studied by the Soun group before World War II, did not start publishing–and then in German–until 1952. So the notion that he was closely studied in the Japan of the thirties is totally absurd.
7) Finally, there is a wonderful clinamen in the November 7 1967 letter to the poet’s collaborator, Fusei. “Besides Spicer,” writes Yasusada, “there are interesting new books here waiting for you by poets named Gary Snyder, Bob Kaufman, Kenneth Rexroth, Howard McCord, Robert Creeley, Helen Adams [sic], and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kuribayashi tells me that they were strongly recommended to him by McCord, the owner of City Lights Bookstore, a popular bookseller in San Francisco.” (APR 26). Now we can, with a stretch of the imagination, accept the fact that the sixty-year old Hiroshima survivor, whose poetic habits would most probably have been formed much earlier, would interest himself in the newest Beat poets from the U.S. But the give-away in the list is Howard McCord, not a Bay Area poet at all but a poet-professor from Bowling Green University who was Kent Johnson’s college mentor. Hence the sly footnote provided by Yasusada’s translators: “Yasusada is confused here, as the real owner of the City Lights Bookstore is Lawrence Ferlinghetti” (APR 26).
Clearly, if the inventor of the Yasusada persona had wanted to cover his tracks, he need never have mentioned Howard McCord or the influence of Celan on Yasusada, much less the Japanese poet’s reading of Barthes’s Empire of Signs. We can only conclude that the “real” author wanted his readers to find something perplexing in the Yasusada archive, that he purposely set the stage for suspicion. The very first poem in the APR Supplement, for example, is represented as a “modest gathering of haiku” sent to Yasusada’s friend, the haiku master Ogiwara Seisensui. The poem is dated March 30, 1925 and goes like this:
iris moon sheaths
scubadivers chrysanthemums also
deer inlets dream
oars this earth
geese lined bowl
shard so horizon
cod dried dawn
bones sky written
lichened space rock
fossils celebrating investors
crematorium shared persimmon
hyacinth clustered strangers
cranes three words (APR 24)
This looks rather like a page of ideogram transcriptions from the Ernest Fenollosa notebooks that Ezra Pound used when composing his Cathay:
gathering gathering fixed clouds
pattering pattering temporary rain
eight surface same dark
But what are those “scubadivers” doing between the crysanthemums and the iris? The technology of scubadiving was not invented until World War II, which also gave “Yasusada” the word “crematorium.” As for “investors” in line 10, this reference to capitalist activity does not exactly belong to the haiku discourse radius of hyacinths and persimmons, cranes and lichen. The perspective is rather like Pound’s in the Homage to Sextus Propertius (1917), where the lines “My cellar does not date from Numa Pompilius, / Nor bristle with wine jars,” is followed by the startling, “Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent.” What such overlays do is to take the material in question out of its temporal and spatial frame, problematizing its representation and tone. And this, for Johnson-Yasusada, as for Pound-Propertius, is clearly intentional.
Why, then, given such obvious clues as “scubadivers” and “crematorium,” have editors and readers so quickly assumed that they are dealing with an “authentic” Hiroshima poet? We cannot just dismiss these disseminators as ignorant, for they include editors and writers as varied as they are talented. Bradford Morrow, for one, came to Conjunctions as an Ezra Pound scholar and editor; he published, for example, the excellent facsimile editions of the Pound-Wyndham Lewis Vorticist magazine Blast. Rod Smith’s Aerial has played a central role in the introduction of radical new poetries: the issue that includes Yasusada’s works also contains a preview of Joan Retallack’s Musicage as well as Cage’s own piece “Art Is Either A Complaint Or Do Something Else” and Jackson Mac Low’s Merzgedicht for Kurt Schwitters. And there are few contemporary poets more widely read, engaged, and intellectually lively than the poet-editor-critic Ron Silliman, who declared that Yasusada’s memorable phrases kept him awake at night.
To understand why Silliman and Morrow, Jean Stein of Grand Street, and Jon Silkin, the longtime editor of the British radical quarterly Stand were “taken in” by the Yasusada manuscripts, we must look at the larger issues of multicultural and cross-cultural reception on the current poetry scene. The Yasusada case, I shall argue here, can be understood as a reaction formation experienced by a literary community that no longer trusts the individual talent to rise above mass culture and hence must find a poetry worthy of its attention in increasingly remote and improbable locations. “Excellence,” now largely dismissed as an essentialist concept, is subordinated to issues of agency and positionality, the master text here no doubt still being Michel Foucault’s famous 1969 essay, “What Is an Author?”
Foucault’s central position, which has come to be de rigueur in the academy, is that it is the culture that constructs or writes the author, not vice-versa: “the essential basis of . . . writing is not the exalted emotions related to the act of composition or the insertion of a subject into language. Rather, it is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.” Disappears because, far from being “free” to write whatever he or she wishes, the writing subject can only work within the limits of the dominant discourse and hence is no more than a function of the discourse within which it circulates. No longer then do we ask “What has [the author] revealed of his most profound self in his language”? The question is rather, “Where does [this discourse] come from; how is it circulated; who controls it? What placements are determined for possible subjects?” (MF 138). Who, in other words, is empowered to speak and from what position? And, once these questions become central, emphasis falls on those who have, thus far, not been empowered to speak– in earlier centuries, women and lower-class writers; in our own moment, the victims of oppression of whatever stamp: Colonialist, racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on.
In practice, of course, these questions of positionality and empowerment have become very complicated. In the case of Yasusada, it would be a simplification to suggest that the editors and readers who responded so warmly to the work did so only–or even primarily–because the poet was that rare thing, a previously unknown Hiroshima survivor, a witness to the events of August 6, 1945. But certainly the Hiroshima witnessing is a central factor in the equation. Let me explain.
From the fifties to the late eighties when the Cold War came to an end, and with it, the urgency of world-wide protests against the production and testing of nuclear weapons, an appreciable number of Japanese poetry books and anthologies appeared on the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A recent such anthology is Jiro Nakano’s Outcry from the Inferno: Atomb Bomb Tanka Anthology. The preface is by the leading tanka poet Seishi Toyota, a Hiroshima survivor who suffered from radiation poisoning and declared that “writing and reading atombic bomb tanka are my karma and life-long work” (p. xiii). The typical tanka in the anthology goes like this:
Like a demon or ghost
a man runs away
with both hands
hung loosely in front of him. (Ayako Etsuchi, OI 2)
A crowd of ten thousand
are standing in despair
with skins hanging
from red sores–
the scorched land of Hiroshima. (Hatsuko Miyamae, OI 51)
Or, occasionally more polemically:
Mothers, wives, sisters
remember your losses,
Stand up and fill those prisons.
Defy the draft! (Momoyo Ishii, OI 18)
These tanka are obviously more notable for their subject matter than for their poetic quality. A more sophisticated version of Japanese atomic bomb literature is found in Richard Minear’s Hiroshima: Three Witnesses. Minear’s three are the fabulist Hara Tamiki, the novelist Ota Yoko, and the poet Toge Sankichi. Toge is probably the key figure in Hiroshima literature: his Poems of the Atomic Bomb, written in 1951 when he was already dying from a radiation-related illness, has gone through more than forty printings. Instead of the haiku and tanka he had used in his pre-war poetry, Toge here uses free verse, with much rhetorical variation: onomatopoeia, repetition, elaborate sound play. Here is the opening of “Dying” (in Minear’s translation), a poem that Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris have chosen for inclusion in the second volume of their Poems for the Millenium:
Loud in my ear: screams.
Soundlessly welling up,
pouncing on me:
space, all upside-down
Hanging, fluttering clouds of dust
smelling of smoke,
and, running madly about, figures.
Scattering fragments of brick,
I spring to my feet;
on fire. . . . (HTW 308)
And the poem concludes with a passage in which extinction is represented not only verbally but metrically, four one-word lines culminating in the silence of the final line, which contains no more than a single question mark:
by the side of the road
cut off, dear, from you;
? (HTW 310)
Toge is probably the most noted realist chronicler of the Hiroshima tragedy: over and over again, he records the chaos and suffering of ordinary people in the fire storms of August. A short poem of his called “Give the People Back” appeared in a 1985 American Poetry Review porfolio on Hiroshima poets, in which Suneko Yoshikawa presents four poems (one of them her own), translated by a Canadian poet Steven Forth. Here a full page of background information is followed by two short pages of poetry. These poems are again straightforward and often polemic monologues, as in the case of Hara Tamiki’s “Water Please,” with its lines like “Help me help me / Water / Water/ Somewhere / Someone.”
But although the testimonials of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) continue to play a central role in Japanese culture, and although there has been a definite market for Hiroshima-witness poems, especially in the West, the fact is–and this will shed light on Yasusada’s position–that contemporary Japanese poets have been reluctant to write about Hiroshima or, for that matter, about the culture of nuclear weapons. No doubt, memories of a war that the then wholly nationalist, autocratic, and bellicose Imperial Japanese government had initiated are too painful; for those born after 1945, moreover, these memories no longer seem directly relevant. “It is difficult,” the young poet-scholar Nagahata Akitoshi remarked in a letter to me (January 15, 1997), “for us to talk about Hiroshima / Nagasaki, because to do so would always make us question our subjectivity. We are sons and daughters of the people who were bombed, but at the same time of the oppressors. We could blame our fate on the politicians at the time (i.e., militarists) or on the war in the abstract. But I think this is an evasion.”
Nagahata’s observations are confirmed by the literature. Open any volume like Leith Morton’s Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Poetry and you will find an extraordinarily colloquial, often casual, postmodern poetry that deals with every aspect of sexuality, with themes of longing and frustration, memories of childhood, contemplation of urban congestion and natural beauty, with self-interrogation and remorse, the relation of private to public, individual identity to culture and to the natural world–in short, pretty much all the themes that would characterize our own poetry. Six of the sixteen poets in Morton’s anthology are women–and very emanicipated women at that. The performance poet Shiraishi Kazuko (b. 1931), for example, has a poem written for her friend Sumiko’s birthday that is called “Penis” (Dankon) and begins:
God is not here but he exists
Also he is funny so
He’s like a certain type of person
Bringing a gigantic penis above
The horizon of my dream
He came for a picnic
By the way
I didn’t give anything to Sumiko for her birthday
The seed of the penis that God brought if only that
I want to send into
The delicate small sweet voice of
Sumiko on the end of the line (LM 197)
Shiraishi had worked closely with Kenneth Rexroth: her mode is a ribald version of Beat or San Francisco Renaissance poems, going back, perhaps, to the bitter-sweet erotic free verse poems of Apollinaire. Another free-verse poem, this time by a younger woman poet, Ito Hiromi (.b. 1955), is called “Don’t Squash Them,” and begins:
I make some dumplings out of rice-flour and bring
Them to my man
Boil sugar and make a syrup
Immerse the cooked dumplings in it
Pack them into an air-tight container
And bring them along
The dumplings stick to the bottom of the container
The skin of the dumplings remain stuck
Shape is distorted
He scoops them out with a spoon
Scoop them up
Without squashing them! (LM 367)
And the rest of the poem wittily relates the dumpling-eating incident to their subsequent love making. Throughout, the poet’s tone is one of detached bemusement, a tone we find most fully developed in the work of the celebrated postwar poet Tanikawa Shuntaro who has a predilection for short riddling lyrics or fables like “The Poet”:
If there is a mirror the poet will always look into it
He makes certain whether or not he is a poet
Even if he reads poetry he doesn’t know whether or not he’s a poet
He firmly believes that if he looks at his face he can tell with a single glance
The poet is dreaming that one day
His face will be put on a stamp
He says he wants if possible to have his face on a really cheap stamp
Then he can have lots of people lick him
While his wife is frying some noodles
She has a sour puss (LM 358).
Tanikawa, Ito, Shiraishi–these are hardly well-known poets in the U.S. Indeed, the very American Poetry Review that published Yasusada and then called the submission of the manuscript a “criminal act,” has, in the past fifteen years, published no other translations of contemporary Japanese poetry with the exception of the Hiroshima portfolio I cited above. Bengali women poets, underground Chinese, Polish and Rumanian, Nicaraguan, and South African poets–all these appear in the pages of APR as does a feature on two medieval Japanese women court poets, as translated by Jane Hirschfield and Mariko Aratani, and a special supplement on the Zen Master Muso (Muso Sosei,1275-1351) translated by W. S. Merwin with the help of Soiku Shigematsu. But the new Japanese poets, whose brilliance and variousness are extremely impressive, are not sought out. And I have noticed the same trend in the other periodicals under consideration.
Why this neglect of contemporary Japanese poetry? Why the equation of “Japanese” with the courtly or Zen tradition of the distant past? Perhaps because modern, or rather postmodern Japan is too close to our own advanced capitalist world, too similar in its First World obsession with technology, urban and ecological problems, and so on. To put it another way, Japanese poetry–most of it in free verse and, like the poems above, in colloquial, up-to-date idiom–will not allow itself to be patronized; it is neither a poetry of victims nor of the oppressed, and it defines itself as a poetry very much of the present rather than of the historical imagination.
How Japanese, then, is Yasusada’s lyric? And how does that lyric relate to our own late twentieth-century paradigms? Let me begin with the poem that so impressed Ron Silliman, “Telscope with Urn” from Conjunctions:
The image of the galaxies spreads out like a cloud of sperm.
Expanding said the observatory guide, and at such and such velocity.
It is like the idea of the flowers, opening within the idea of the flowers.
I like to think of that, said the monk, arranging them with his papery fingers.
Tiny were you, and squatted over a sky-colored bowl to make water.
What a big girl! cried we, tossing you in the general direction of the stars.
Intently, then, in the dream, I folded up the great telescope on Mount Horai.
In the form of this crane, it is small enough for the urn. (CON 69)
Compared to the Japanese poems I cited a moment ago, “Telescope with Urn” is elliptical and fragmentary. Each line, set off from the next by double spacing, is a separate sentence, and the sentences, while straightforward syntactically, tend not to connect. Reference, moreover, is often unclear as in “I like to think of that, said the monk, arranging them with his papery fingers,” where we know neither what “that” is nor what “them” the monk is arranging. The poem’s ellipsis is coupled with syntactic inversion, as in “Tiny were you” and “What a big girl! cried we,” with the Zen-like repetition of such phrases as “It is like the idea of the flowers, opening within the idea of the flowers,” and with the circomlocution of “squatted over a sky-colored bowl to make water.”
The effect of such devices is that the poem has a reassuringly “archaic,” “oriental” feel; its reticence, dignity, and elusiveness, its references to Mount Horai, flowers, and stars, bring to mind the ritual and stylization of Noh and Bunraku. At the same time, the “Japanese” nature imagery is eroticized in a distinctly modern way, and the “scientific” reference to the “velocity” of the expansion of the galaxies reminds us that this is an up-to-date lyric. And not just any up-to-date lyric but one about Hiroshima: “Telescope with Urn” refers to the death of the poet’s young daughter in the nuclear raid. The urn with the crane on it is hers, and the poem contrasts the enormity of the macrocosm (the galaxies) with the terrifying microcosm of the life reduced to ashes inside the small urn.
Kent Johnson has thus found a perfect recipe for a new Orientalism, conceived in the best American tradition of Emerson’s doctrine of “natural” hieroglyphic language, Pound’s Cathay, and, most recently, Kenneth Rexroth’s Love Poems of Marichiko (1978), presented by the poet as translations of the erotic lyrics of an actual Japanese woman although Rexroth later admitted he had made them up entirely himself. The Love Poems of Marichiko, which Johnson surely knew, provided him with a blueprint for the fusion of concrete sexual imagery and “Buddhist” reticence.
But in the wake of the disjunctive poetry of the eighties and nineties, the demand is for greater obliquity, fragmentation, dislocation. For these, Johnson evidently turned to one of Rexroth’s contemporaries, the Jack Spicer who produced the exotic After Lorca. Here is a sample:
In the middle of my mirror
A girl is drowning
The voice of a single girl.
She holds cold fire like a glass
Each thing she watches
Has become double.
Cold fire is
Cold fire is.
In the middle of my mirror
A girl is drowning
The voice of a single girl.
Spicer’s poem is not as fragmented as Yasusada’s but it has the same simple declarative sentences, the concrete imagery, the direct, naive tone, the delicate obliquity and ellipsis, as in “Cold fire is / Cold fire is.” Like Spicer, Yasusada is obsessed by images of death, but, as Johnson has understood, in the post-Cold War era, there is little calling for the realistic descriptions of dismemberment favored by, say, Toge Sankichi. At the same time, Western guilt about the dropping of the bomb is such that the reader is programmed to find Yasusada’s muted references to the Hiroshima “tragedy” moving, especially when these references are matter-of-fact and stoic.
“Telescope and Urn” thus satisfies our longing for a Japan, rather like that of Barthes’s Empire of Signs, an imaginary Japan that is gentler and more dignified than the brash West, a world of graceritual, and transience, of elegant calligraphy and Zen gardens, a world in which the wrapping of packages is an art and chopsticks delicately separate bits of food, unlike those Western knives and forks which brutally cut up slices of meat. “It is like the idea of the flowers, opening within the idea of the flowers.” Those delicate flowers, perhaps, that emerge from little paper balls dropped into a glass of water.
Consider another Yasusada poem, this one published in the little magazine First Intensity under the title “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang” and subtitled “December 25, 1945*”, the mock footnote explaining that “In the aftermath of the bombing, many survivors moved into the hills, surrounding Hiroshima. This was the case with Yasusada and his daughter. –eds.”
Walking in thevegetable patch
late at night, Iwas startled to find
the severed head of my
mad daughter lying on the ground.
Her eyes were upturned, gazing at me, ecstatic-like . . .
(From a distance it had appeared
to be a stone, haloed with light,
as if cast there by the Big-Bang.)
What on earth are you doing, I said,
you look ridiculous.
Some boys buried me here,
she said sullenly.
Her dark hair, comet-like, trailed behind . . .
Squatting, I pulled the
turnip up by the root.
Here the reference is again to the death of the poet’s daughter in the Hiroshima raid. But the technique is somewhat different: for the elliptical and dislocated sentences of “Telescope and Urn,” Johnson here substitutes narrative–a kind of “magic realist” narrative in which events are displaced and transformed. The hallucinatory presence of the dead child, transformed into a “mad daughter,” the speech of the “severed head,” the Maenad-like image of “dark hair, comet-like, trail[ing] behind,” and the title’s ironic allusion to “Big-Bang” theories–these give the poem the semblance of a dream, or rather a nightmare. At the same time, the daughter’s “sullen” explanation that “Some boys buried me,” is literally quite true if we take the “boys” to be the U.S. military. Again, in the poem’s conclusion, the surreal image of “Squatting, I pulled the turnip up by the root,” is accurate enough if we read it as a reference to the easy removal of the charred and rotten corpse from the ground in which the live body was “rooted.” Such images play into the residual guilt of contemporary American readers, even as the poem’s multiple ironies temper that guilt, allowing us to concentrate on the effectiveness of Johnson’s fiction, especially the immediacy of the terse dialogue between father and daughter.
One would be hard put to find actual Hiroshima witness poems (or even later Japanese re-enactments of Hiroshima poems) that are characterized by such irony and restraint, such self-consciously surreal, oblique images. Rather, the matter-of-factness of the disconnected sentences, both here and elsewhere in the Yasusada manuscript, recalls such long prose poems as Ron Silliman’s Tjanting. A Yasusada poem in Grand Street #53 (1995), for example, begins with the line “The sake shop hisses with its pleasures, all boiled up,” and continues with such sentences as “Here is a black-haired man with a black-haired man,” or “There are two sticks and a cup in Spring.” The relationship of these present-tense, simple declarative sentences to those that compose Japanese renga is taken up in a piece which was evidently Yasusada’s American debut, the “tape-essay” called “Renga and the New Sentence,” conducted in Madison, Wisconsin, December 1989, by Tosa Motokiyu, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin–the three familiar Yasusada translators-editors–and published in Aerial. The dialogue takes up the issue of what Ron Silliman, in a well-known essay by that name, defined as “The New Sentence, ” a “sentence” that is the building block of the new “poetic” prose, even as the line is the basic unit of the conventional poem. Tosa Motokiyu and his collaborators cite Silliman’s definition (see NS 91) verbatim:
1. The paragraph organizes the sentences;
2. The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
3. Sentence length is a unit of measure;
4. Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy / ambiguity;
5. Syllogistic movement is (a) limited; (b) controlled. . . . (AER 54)
Silliman, they note, claimed that the only precursor of the “New Sentence” was the William Carlos Williams of Kora in Hell, but, as they demonstrate, the “New Sentence” has a more significant source in “the Japanese haiku renga–forms that anticipate by more than four centuries a number of the principles underlying ‘new sentence’ approaches to composition” (AER 52). As Motokiyu explains it, renga, like the “new sentence,” is animated by “the faith that non-syllogistic movement may open onto alternate forms of perception” (AER 52). In twentieth-century experimental renga, moreover, “the stanzas shatter their prosodic constraints and move brazenly into prose,” forcing “the written into new conceptual territory” (AER 52). And Kyojin cites Earl Miner’s definition of renga in Japanese Linked Verse:
(T)he renga is no single thing. It has been practiced
in short versions of two stanzas and in long versions
up to ten thousand. . . (T)he art of linked poetry involves adding
stanzas in such a fashion as to keep something but to change
the meaning of what might be called the stanza itself and the
stanza in connection with its predecessor. In such fashion the
sequence is truly sequential and a sustained plot is
impossible. (AER 52, ellipses are he author’s).
Modes of linking, according to the translators, include “flat linking,” “mosaic linking,” “linking through paragram,” “linking through assonances,” and so on, all these devices “generating a prismatic and collective textuality” (AER 53). And they cite a traditional renga written by Matsuo Basho and Shita Yaba, which begins:
(MB) At a fragrance of plums, a blob, the sun, appears on a mountain path.
(SY) here and there a pheasant call rises
(SY) he begins repairing his house while there’s nothing to do in spring
(MB) news from Kansai raises the price of rice (AER 53)
(MB) in the evening there was some pattering–now the moon among clouds
(SY) talking with a bush in between–the autumn, the loneliness
The American Language poets now get a slight slap on the wrist because “they have not begun, really, to seriously move outside the ideologically constructed parameters of single-author composition”; indeed, with rare exceptions like “Legend” (written by Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray Di Palma, Steve McCaffery and Ron Silliman), they have insisted on “self attribution” and “personal ownership” of texts” (AER 55). They should, according to our Japanese discussants, experiment more fully with depersonalized Buddhist sensibilities, should eschew ownership of their verse. And now we are introduced to a renga by three Hiroshima poets: Araki Yasusada, Ozaki Kusatao and Akutagawa Fusei.
This renga, ostensibly of the1930s is introduced by a defensive letter of June 1937 from Yasusada to Ogiwara Seisensui, the head of the Soun avant-garde group. Yasusada defends the “impure” linking used in their renga and argues that “dissonance” is its “deep measure.” A footnote on the part of the translators tells us that this letter is “Among the over 100 carbon copies of Yasusada’s letters in our possession. It is interesting that Yasusada and his friends were very influenced by the American poet Jack Spicer; indeed, a few of their renga are dedicated to him” (AER 59). And they insert another letter, this one to Fusei, dated November 17, 1965, in which Yasusada describes his enthusiasm for the “new” California poets whose books his friend Natsume Kuribayashi has brought to Hiroshima: Robert Duncan, Alex [sic] Ginsberg, John Wieners, Brother Antoninus, Philip Lamantia, and especially Jack Spicer, whose Billy the Kid, and Heads of the Town Up to the Aether are declared to be kindred works.
There are a number of incongruous details here. Why, to begin with, would such “experts” as Tosa Motokiyu and his friends rely on the American scholar Earl Miner’s definition of renga? And how could the footnote to the 1937 letter refer to the Spicer influence, Spicer then being twelve years old! Neither the editor of Aerial nor the journal’s readers seem to have been bothered by these lacunae, evidently because the affiliation of the “new” Language poetry with the “old” renga seemed so appealing, giving Silliman’s own poems a new authority. Here are the first nine lines of the renga itself:
Happening to notice the willow leaves in the garden, a braille page of words
The voices of the sorority girls sing of fucking in a plaintive way
Dressing their frail bodies in armor are the young widows of the prefecture of
It was there we saw the trace ruins of an ancient dog-shooting range
So running after me was the young child whose name is Manifold
A screen of moonflowers and creeping gourds, with a thicket of cockscomb and goosefoot, evoking cocks and cunts
She told me that the master of the house had left for a certain location in town and that I had better look for him there pronto, if I desired to speak to him
Everybody was fucking overjoyed to see him, as if he had returned from the dead
Terrified by these words he walked straight into the province of Kaga (AER 57-58)
The translator Okura Kyojin comments: “Similarities with ‘new sentence’ writing seem compelling. The hokku unit is now extended out into pure prose utterance. As Fusei says elsewhere: “no easy messages, no intention to share self-emotion; no lyrical intensity–percussive soundings within patterns of harmonic and dissonant chords. Utterance as autonomous fact and its saturation in context. This tension. Gaps now as intrinsic to such grammar. . .’” (AER 58, ellipses’ the author’s).
What could sound more contemporary, more late twentieth-century American than the frank sexual references to the “sorority girls” who “sing of fucking,” and to “cocks and cunts” as well as to the slang of “Everybody was fucking overjoyed” or “I had better look for him there pronto.” And yet all the Japanese properties are here: the “willow leaves in the garden,” the “screen of moonflowers and creeping gourds,” the “master of the house,” the young girls’ “frail bodies” the “province of Kaga.” The layering of language registers reminds me of nothing so much as Pound’s Electra, where the poet brings Sophocles’ great tragedy into his own post-World war II orbit (the play was written with Rudd Flemming while Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s) by juxtaposing lines of the original Greek (especially in Electra’s speeches) to the Western twang of Orestes’ revenge speech:
This is what we’re agoin’ to do,
listen sharp and check up if
I miss any bullseyes . . .
you nip into this building, find out everything that’s
being done there, and keep us wise to the lot of it. Snap.
or the flat vulgarities of Clytemnestra, here presented as a vindictive shrew:
In thus deconstructing the expected linguistic registers, Pound found a way of relating Electra’s ancient tragedy to his own situation as a condemned war traitor.
In inventing a Japan to satisfy contemporary American fantasies as to a less complicated, more orderly society—a society at once highly refined and yet quite frank about sexuality — Johnson uses one other form of layering that deserves mention. In all the Yasusada portfolios published to date, the poems are embedded in a larger archive, that consists of letters, English assignments (see APR 25), commentaries, and elaborate footnotes. The model would be the palimpsestic notebooks of George Oppen, where drafts of poems are surrounded by extracts from Heidegger and other philosophers, by letters, autobiographical notes, source material, and so on. Clearly, contemporary readers have a predilection for this sort of documentary material. Yasusada, telling Kusatao in April 1965 that he has been in the hospital for a “couple stays” (would any Japanese translator use this slang expression?), informs his friend that “The difficulty, as you know, is the sickness after treatment.” “Luckily,” Yasusada adds, “the hospital wing they have me in looks out on the pine-covered hills of Mount Asano” (APR 25). How authentic! How vivid! What a reminder of the Hiroshima tragedy! And Yasusada has an English teacher, Mr. Rogers, who advises him to study the writer James Joyce, “who is famous for a form of writing called ‘streams [sic] of consciousness” (APR 25). Again, how quaint and charmingly incorrect, at least when we don’t probe too carefully into the conundrum that Yasusada might not know Joyce although he does know Spicer.
Kent Johnson has, I think, done a brilliant job in inventing a world at once ritualized and yet startlingly modern, timeless yet documentary, archaicized yet au courant– a poetic world that satisfies our hunger for the authentic, even though that authentic is itself a perfect simulacrum. To call his Yasusada impersonation a hoax, much less a “criminal act” is of course absurd: the pseudonym is a time-honored device in literature, and from James McPherson’s Ossian to the present, writers have invented fictional personae and passed them off as the real thing.
Still, there is something deeply troubling about the uncritical reception of these “Japanese” poems and prose pieces, with their brash distortions of literary and political history and their questionable conjunctions of jarring verbal registers. Why is it, one wonders, that none of Yasusada’s editors sought out the guidance of bona fide Japanese poets, scholars, or translators? That they didn’t read these “newly found” and never before published works against the well-known brilliant poetries of, say, Tanikawa Shuntaro? And that, once exposed as having been “taken in” by the hoax, they have put the blame on everyone but themselves? Let me try to summarize the reasons why the “hoax” has worked so well, and why, so I believe, similar inventions will occur with increasing frequency as we move toward the millenium.
First, most academics today (and most poets and editors, after all, now hold academic posts) pay lip service to the Foucaultian notion of cultural construction, of discourse networks that discipline the individual talent. Hence the search for novel and interesting cultural positioning, as in the case of Araki Yasusada, that rare Hiroshima survivor to have turned up so conveniently so late in the day, with such a fascinating cache of never-before-published poems and documents. Never mind Araki Yasusada the individual: it is his identitarian self that matters, his occupation of the position of avant-gardist who is also victim, disseminator of Jack Spicer, Roland Barthes, and the Language poets, who is also a traditional renga and haiku poet, purveyor of dissonant chords and gaps in grammar who also has something centrally important to say about atomic warfare, and quintessential neglected genius who is also a communitarian, believing that there is no such thing as “ownership” of one’s writings.
Yasusada thus satisfies, as fully as possible, the current disciplinary demand. Yet, despite the continuing predilection for viewing individual poetry as the fruit of such cultural construction, there is another demand, this one deep-seated and instinctive, for individual authenticity, for uniqueness, for the Benjaminian aura that comes only in the presence of the Real Thing, not its copies. Look at that letter written from the Hiroshima hospital in 1965! Look at the elegiac lines written to a particular wife and daughter! Look at the correspondence with his very own English teacher and the mistakes that Yasusada makes in his assignments, mispelling words like “him” (“Hime”), “sky” (“skye”) and “patrolling” (“patroleling”) in ways, so my Japanese sources tell me, no Japanese student of English who was as far along as Yasusada, would possibly make These ancillary documents, in any case, humanize the situation; they give Yasusada a particular habitation and a name and make his work more accessible for the readers of American Poetry Review or Grand Street.
Accessibility, in this case, has much to do with the paradox that even as Yasusada’s poetry satisfies an American reader’s demand, his work makes no demand on us. We can empathize with the “tragedy” in which Yasusada was caught up in the prime of his life (he was thirty-eight at the time of the nuclear attack), without having to think through the ethical issues involved in any serious way. The Yasusada archive puts forward no choice we would have to make, triggers no moral or psychological debate we might engage in. Rather, the work’s mode is, as I remarked earlier, Orientalism, “that Western style,” in Edward Said’s words, “for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient– an Orient represented since antiquity as “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” And the great irony of the current situation in American letters is that the New Multiculturalism, far from countering the Orientalism Said decried as long as twenty years ago, has turned out to be its inadvertent promoter.
How did we get ourselves into this bind? Partly, no doubt, because our current skepticism, indeed cynicism, as to the power and efficacy of government (that is, our government) is generally coupled with an uncritical–or at least unquestioning– attitude toward the governments of other nations. The Cold War, as it is currently represented in the literary and visual arts, is almost invariably our Cold War, the bombing of Hiroshima, our infamy. The complexities and contradictions of geopolitics thus take a back seat to moral outrage on the one hand, fictional construction on the other.
As I was completing this essay, I happened to come across a front-page article in The New York Times (January 22, 1997) titled “A Japanese Generation Haunted by Its Past,” the first of a series of articles on “Main Street, Japan: Wounds of War.” The reporter, Nicholas D. Kristof, interviewed a group of old men in the small farm town of Omiya, 200 miles southwest of Tokyo. The men he spoke to are haunted by memories of fifteen years of brutal warfare, from the invasion of Northern China in 1931 through World War II. They recall thrusting bayonets through the chests of Chinese infants, committing acts of torture, massacring civilians, raping young girls almost everywhere they went–and even committing cannibalism. As a young soldier, Shinzaburo Horie recalls, he ate the flesh of a 16-year old Chinese boy. “It was only one time,” he says, “and not so much meat, but after 60 years I can’t put it behind me”:
Mr. Horie and his buddies had eaten some rare fresh meat that had suddenly become availavable in the local market in northeastern China one day in 1939, he recalled. Then the kenpeitai, the Japanese secrete police, came around asking whether anyone had bought that meat in the market.
“Some Japanese soldiers who were hungry had killed the boy and eaten some of his meat and sold the rest to the Chinese merchant, and we bought it from that merchant,” Mr. Horie said. He added that he had heard that the Japanese soldiers had been punished for the killing and the cannibalism. (A6).
The paradox, as Kristof puts it, is that men like Shinzaburo Horie are now “unfailingly courteous, gentle and honest. They are deeply respected in their communities, and everyone knows they would never think of cheating anybody or losing their tempers. Yet they collectively killed 20 million or 30 million people” (A 6).
You won’t find such paradoxes in the gentle, elegiac lyric of Araki Yasusada, any more than you will in the angry anti-war poems of Toge Sankichi. The war memories are too painful and, for the young, too remote. The Times article reports that many teenage students, expert at algebra and biology, cannot answer the question, “What country dropped the atomic bomb on Japan?” “Hmmmmm,” muttered Naruki Orita, “a 13-year old boy who is known as a good student in Omiya Junior High School,” “I’m not really sure. I don’t know.” “Naruki,” writes Kristof, “said he knew that his grandfather had died in the war, but he did not know where” (A6).
Kristof’s is not, of course, the last word on this subject, and it may be that the attitudes of young Japanese students to World War II and Hiroshima are much more complex and varied than he allows. But, whatever the validity of the newspaper account, the questions Kristof raises are suspended in Yasusada’s poetry, dealing as it does with personal memory and rather than with the harder questions about responsibility and guilt. The work thus responds to the Romantic tenet that the poet (and by extension the poet’s audience) is committed to feeling rather than knowing, to perception and intuition rather than philosophy and history. Indeed, the common prejudice that poets, as well as their readers, are exempt from the pursuit of complex ideas, dies hard: witness the division, still standard in American universities, between the departments of “English Literature” and “Creative Writing,” the names implying that scholarship and critical theory are not “creative,” even as “creative writing” does not need to be informed by theory or scholarship.
In forcing us to think about these questions, Kent Johnson has, whether intentionally or not, performed an invaluable service. His Yasusada manuscript challenges many dubious notions: for example, that the “new sentence,” as conceived by Ron Silliman and his friends, has no precedent in poetry, that certain “tragic” events cannot be the “subject” of surreal or parodic treatment, and that literary influence (Spicer and Barthes on Yasusada) exists if and when the influenced author claims it does. Like Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, the Yasusada notebooks force us to go back to the “originals,” so as to see what they really were and how they have been transformed. One can argue, of course, that Pound did write Propertius in his own name; he did not, as Johnson does, pose as someone else. But the fact is that Pound was already famous when he wrote his Latin “translation” and so he could afford to be Ezra Pound, whereas the unknown Kent Johnson, writing in what is an increasingly glutted and cut-throat poetry market, had no such alternative. Johnson took, in other words, the Ossian route rather than the route of Pound or of the Goethe of the West-Oestlicher Divan. But just as McPherson’s Ossian brought on a valuable reconsideration of the medieval, so “Yasusada” may prompt us to familiarize outselves with the actual Hiroshima memoirs of the fifties and sixties, as well as with Japanese postwar poetry in its specific articulations. What we need are not more “authentic” and “sensitive” witnesses to what we take to be exotic cultural and ethnic practices, but a willingness, on the part of poet as well as reader, to look searchingly and critically at what is always already there.
“Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada,” translated by Tosa Motokiyu, Okura Kyojin, and Ojiu Norinaga: A Special Supplement,” American Poetry Review 25, no. 4 (July / August 1996): 23-26, p. 23. Subsequent references in the text cited as APR.
Emily Nussbaum, “Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax,” Lingua Franca, November 1996): 82. Subsequently cited in the text as LF. In the September/October issue of American Poetry Review, the editors published a recension of the Yasusada “Special Supplement,” and apologized to their readership for the fraud.
Michael Foucault, “What Is an Author?” (1969), in Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-38, see p. 116. Subsequently cited as MF.
Jiro Nakano (ed. and trans.), Outcry from the Inferno: Atomic Bomb Tanka Anthology, Special Double issue of Bamboo Ridge, The Hawaii Writers Quarterly, issues #67 and #68 (Honolulu, Summer/Fall 1995). Subsequently cited as OI.
According to Earl Miner, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993),p. 1265: “Tanka is a Japanese form originating in the 7th century which consists of 31 morae (conventionally construed syllables) in lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7. Hypersyllabic but not hyposyllabic lines are allowed.” “It is,” says Miner, “the definitive literary form in Japanese poetry.”
For an American version of the poetry of the Hiroshima experience, see Marc Kaminsky, Road from Hiroshima (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984). Kaminsky’s lyrics are based on testimony of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the author calls them “collages in which the actual and the imaginary freely mix” (p. 111). A typical poem, “The Shopkeeper’s Assistant,” begins:
It happened something like an electric short
a bluish-white light
blanked out everything. . . . (p. 41)
See “Four Poems from Hiroshima: selected and with an introduction by Tsuneko Yoshikawa, trans. Steven Forth,” American Poetry Review (July/August 1985): 8-10. An interesting recent Hiroshima memoir is Hideko Tamura Snider’s One Sunny Day: A Child’s Memories of Hiroshima, foreword by Studs Terkel (Chicago and LaSalle: Open Court, 1996). Tamura Snider was ten years old the day of the attack and her account of the devastation is very vivid and moving. But for her and her characteristically apolitical family (a family living at a time when the government ruled by decree and there were no opposition parties), Hiroshima essentially meant the loss of one’s nearest and dearest (Hideko Tamura lost her mother), and how the populace coped with that loss. The issues are not construed as “political.”
Leith Morton (ed. and trans.), An Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Poetry (New York and London: Garland, 1993). Subsequently cited in the text as LM. Another excellent anthology is Modern Japanese Poetry, trans. James Kirkup, ed. A. R. Davis (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1978). Kirkup’s range is wider than Morton’s– he includes eighty-three poets as compared to Morton’s sixteen–but thematically, tonally, and prosodically, the poems are quite similar. Here, for example, is “My Body” by Takahashi Shinkichi (b. 1901):
I have been broken into pieces:
those green leaves thick on the persimmon tree
are my hands and feet rustling in the wind.
That bright-coloured butterfly fluttering by
has my eyes in those spots on her wings.
The future is surrounded by
a moving wall of earth.
A dog is pregnant with the earth,
the gods sucking its pointed nipples.
Each nipple is as big as the point on a red pencil.
I have been swimming in fire and water.
A plane has flown between my straddled legs.
The sky is my body. (p. 84)
See Robert Kern’s excellent Orientalism, Modernism, and the American Poem (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). The Love Poems of Marichiko will be found in Rexroth’s The Morning Star (New York: New Directions, 1979), pp. 47-82.
The classic discussion of orientalism as a Western discourse is, of course, Edward Said’s in Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978).
Sophocles, Electra, a Version by Ezra Pound and Rudd Fleming, with an Introduction and Production Notes by Carey Perloff (new York: New Directions, 1990), pp. 4, 23. See Carey Perloff’s commentary on the complexities of language, pp. ix-xxv.
On the “palimsestic” text as quintessentially postmodern, see Michael Davidson, “Palimtexts: Postmodern Poetry and the Material Text,” in Postmodern Genres, ed. Marjorie Perloff (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp. 75-95.