Family Room by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto
Vagabond Press, 2009
Watashi by Shuntaro Tanikawa
Vagabond Press, 2010
At the outset I will say that, though my own latest book Apocrypha was published by Vagabond Press, I hold no financial interest in the press nor any motivation to promote these two books other than the merits I find in them. The first collection under review, Yotsumoto’s Family Room, masterfully transcends the opposition between tradition and experiment; and Watashi, Tanikawa’s 20th collection to be published in English translation, certainly confirms this reviewer’s impression of being in the presence of a major poet.
Born in 1959, Yasuhiro Yotsumoto has published eight collections of poetry in Japanese, each like Family Room (his first collection to appear in English translation) grouped around a single theme. Family Room is divided into five sections: ‘Kids’; ‘Dad’; ‘Mom’; ‘Wife’ and ‘Husband’; and ‘Family’. This grouping provides a sense of a single human experience looked at from different perspectives, an objectivity that gives each side of the family unit an equal voice. The different generations, the different genders feel equally written from the inside – neither party stereotyped or sentimentalized, spared humour or withheld from access to mystery. Each voice has its quirks, its depths, its vulnerability.
Perhaps most of all, read together, the poems make it clear that, in the midst of crowded responsibilities, none of us is spared loneliness and separation. Part 2 of ‘Piano’, for example, closes with this image of the mother:
As she took her very last breath in the hospital bed,
my mother, with her hair lost and her face puffed up,
was neither a housewife nor a mother.
She was just a woman
who had never played the piano in her life.
The strange feel of Family Room and its originality, quite unlike the autobiographic poetry familiar to me in contemporary English language poetry, can be seen in ‘Meeting in the Shadow’ from the section ‘Wife and Husband’:
It was either before I fell asleep
or just after I woke up that my wife said matter of factly
she had met my mother.
I only said “yes” but sure I knew
that my mother, dead for a quarter century,
had not come from her end.
My wife had
walking across the field of dreams, climbing down the valley of death.
Her boldness, hidden under apparent timidity, has not changed
at all since we first met – a quarter century ago.
She still jumps at the bang of a door,
yet is lured so easily by the sun and the wind, and
can dance without music.
But, when the wind stops, it’s so deadly quiet here.
Over the hilltop of a closed eyelid,
I see my wife walking back.
Her face smeared with dirt, her bare foot bleeding,
she holds to her chest silence
which looks like a strange animal.
What is so arresting here is the casual everydayness that welcomes strangeness as the most matter of fact part of reality. Typical of the book’s achievement, the poem feels as much in the wife’s voice as the husband’s. There is nothing forced or artificial going on. The poem is universal without being in any way universalising; the voice speaking trusts the power of what one sees and feels to carry the poem. Yotsumoto’s achievement appears in the ease with which the everyday, the earthy, the dream-like, and the bizarrely imagined all glide into each other, are there with a careful equality. The calm of the poem, the tone of everyday realism with no craving for effect, makes the image of the last two lines so startling: “silence” this “strange animal” brought so lovingly back from the grave.
Part of what is so attractive in Yotsumoto’s poetry is that it bypasses the supposed dichotomy between experimental and traditional poetry, or (the same idea posed more accurately) the false choice of much contemporary North American and Australian poetry between an abstract/cerebral poetry that flees sentimentality by avoiding engagement with the world (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry at its extreme) and poetry as an all too prosaic description of the outside world, often in the form of tedious autobiographic recount. Yotsumoto’s poetry (and Tanikawa’s even more powerfully) demonstrate how surprise, innovation and true poetic experimentation serve to bring us closer to the everyday world – not to flee from it. Or, looked at the other way, these two poets engage with ordinary life and tell stories of a sort, but far more interesting and profound stories, as their starting point is not the self’s desire to immortalise its history but rather the extinguishing of the self before life’s humour and mystery.
Many of the poems in Family Room are marked by a quirky sense of humour. One group of poems humorously explores the parents’ difficulty in letting go of their grown children. In ‘Phantom of my father’ the spirit of the father who is still alive keeps slipping into the son’s body, his “profile reflected in the glass of a kitchen cabinet”. In another the family wake one morning to find Dad “transformed into a rock, on his futon mattress.” In ‘I’m Leaving’ we hear the voice of the father whose son “left for kindergarten in the morning” but “came home at night as a 35 year old man” to inform his alarmed mom and dad that he “has been married for three years, working as a space engineer”. In one of the most disturbing poems in the collection, ‘The Abduction and Murder of a Xmas Tree’, a police investigator drily recounts the story of “a Douglas fir commonly known as Xmas Tree . . . abducted in the Gunma mountains by a local retailer.” The tree’s imprisonment and mutilation in turn lead to a rescue attempt by “a coniferous forest, usually known as woods” that enter the dreaming consciousness of the family members. The poem concludes with this chilling commentary:
The body was abandoned at the designated spot for flammable garbage
on the main street, and
the following week the victim ascended from an incinerator on Tokyo Bay
forming a large spiral, into the wintry sky.
One can only hope that more of Yotsumoto’s work will become available in English.
Suntaro Tanikawa belongs to an older generation than Yotsumoto. Born in 1936, Tanikawa is generally regarded as Japan’s outstanding poet. A sampling of his work across the web demonstrates the extraordinary versatility, imaginative reach and intense seriousness (often combined with humour) to be found in his poetry.
Watashi (or I) is a highly philosophic but down to earth and very human collection that bears no resemblance to autobiographic reminiscence. Across a variety of poems and in a variety of forms Tanikawa explores the connections between the self and words, that treacherous medium that promises to mirror or even explain reality but instead is one more layer of the puzzle needing explanation. Nothing in this book is simple. Unlikely things are placed together and each of them forces us to open further doors. In this process the poet or the I is not the one with knowledge or answers but merely the one leading us and himself into further self-questioning.
A good example of how this process unfolds is the book’s second poem ‘A River’:
Just as the train crossed the river the young woman beside me yawned.
Something welled up from the dark depths of her throat
and I suddenly realised that my brain is dumber than my body.
Worrying that the physical part of me now being jostled by the train
is mostly made up of water,
the cerebral part of me is supporting myself with words.
Some time long ago, somewhere far away,
the volume of words was far less than it is now,
but the power with which they were linked to Hades was probably far
Water, changing shape into sea, clouds, rain and ice,
remains on this planet.
Words, too, changing shape into speech, poetry, contracts and treaties,
cling to this planet.
So do I.
The simplicity and clarity with which this poem lays out the intersecting mysteries of life is breathtaking. Sallow water, the torrent of words and the frail almost vanishing “I” are all seen as clinging on in this interconnected world.
The following poem ‘Meeting Me’ takes the meditation one step further as the narrator drives onto narrower and narrower roads to reach the cul-de-sac where his family house stands. A brief description of the “shabby house” and his perfunctory greeting leads to the reflection “I was given birth by my mother; / I by a language. / Which would be the real I?” A fit of crying overcomes the narrator at the sight of his senile mother and the feeling that his hometown has reached a “dead-end”. Then the poem shifts just as mysteriously into its last lines:
But as I look in silence at the daytime moon
I gradually come to understand that
both the beginning and the end are far more distant.
The day ended.
Listening to frogs croaking,
futons side by side, I fell asleep
and then both I and I became “shining particles of dust in the universe.”
Poems are written in words yet Tanikawa insists in so many poems on their failure before reality. In ‘Scene’ he suggests that maybe “a silent smile directed at a new-born puppy” is far closer to truth than anything sayable or in ‘It’s Morning’, after exploring the idea of the self as a tiny power plant, the narrator drinks his carrot juice, turns on the computer, then “unexpected words emerge, / like this, like bubbles.” Tanikawa was, among many other roles in his working life, the Japanese translator of the Peanuts comic strip and the experience in media other than words springs to mind with this last image. His engagement with language and its nature has nothing doctrinaire about it but rather serves to bring him closer to life.
There are several sequences of poems in the book: ‘Eleven Variations on ‘Late Afternoon’’, twelve poems each with a subtitle suggesting it is about or is spoken by a different boy, and three final poems under the joint heading ‘Immortality’. Questions of time, childhood, whether there is a continuous self and if so what to make of it, how any self might fit into the universe, are the subject matter of these poems and Tanikawa writes with a fine grace and clarity, unafraid of assuming a child’s voice or of incorporating science or any other form of knowledge available. The following is from the last of the poems in the voice of various boys. The wisdom and the twist in the last line are, I believe, breathtaking:
Having parted with the evening glow
I meet with night.
But the crimson clouds go nowhere
and just hide in darkness.
I don’t say goodnight to the stars
for they always hide in daylight.
The baby I once was yet remains
in the centre of my growth rings.
‘Goodbye’ is a temporary word.
There is something that binds us together
far more deeply than remembrance and memory.
If you believe that, you needn’t look for it.
The immense seriousness of this poetry, locating its search for reality outside the quest for accidental memories, with no hint of any desperate desire to assert a truth as my truth, with no ego getting in the way, enables Tanikawa to achieve the purity and strength of poetry at its finest. His poems have no formula. They aren’t dredged up by swallowing a memory pill or by decorating a pre-given content with word-play and metaphor. Without being sentimental, they are fearless of risking that accusation. Equally they don’t proceed from any rigid avoidance of meaning, familiar sentence structure, or even a cliché if the cliché is true or necessary at that point in the poem. Unconcerned about academia or fashion, Tanikawa’s poems, based in a genuine reverence before the world, have the simplicity and complexity of a very human voice.
Watashi’s final poem ‘Immortality’ consists of three sections. The middle one, ‘With a rabbit’, at first apparently familiar in tone and content but then stepping off into some unpredictable new terrain, with its turn away from language itself, seems a suitable ending for this review:
He thinks of
putting the rabbit on the soft grass.
Gently, so it won’t be frightened,
he places the rabbit
on the soft grass of spring.
The world won’t yet end,
but as nothing is certain
at least he’ll hold the rabbit
in his own hands,
and walk up the hill
away from the aimless city.
There still remain things
not written in books.
Dwelling in that blank space
with the rabbit,
he hears a song,
which sounds like a prophecy getting outdated,
blended in with the wind.