Contemporary Japanese Poets: Ryoko Sekiguchi

[This book review originally appeared in Jacket]

Ryoko Sekiguchi: Two Markets, Once Again, Translated from the French by Sarah Riggs, reviewed by Eric Selland
50pp. The Post-Apollo Press. US$14. 978-0-942996-65-4 paper
Available via Small Press Distribution at

By the same author: Heliotropes, La Presse, Iowa City, 2008

Ryoko Sekiguchi is also included in the Litmus Press anthology Four From Japan, edited by Sawako Nakayasu

This is the latest and possibly the culmination of the Post-Apollo pocketbook series which includes such luminaries as Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Claude Royet-Journoud. Deceptively small, this little book packs a wallop. Sekiguchi is a master of the experimental prose poetry sequence:

Pages the letters fling themselves against which
could have been traced directly by this firm
 hand, chapters unaware of changes in line or
 punctuation, the act of reading that engenders
space, that surrounds us.

A text which proves upon further reading to be highly dense and multilayered despite the relative lack of torque, which I suspect may be due to its having travelled first through its French version, translated here by Sarah Riggs, an American poet living in Paris (generally the distance between Japanese and English creates more resistance in translation and hence more difficult sentence structures… but more on translation later). And the lines continue:

                                                 The exceptional
intensity in pronouncing the time clause at that
very moment caused us to whiten immediately,
alerting us to the error in reading it, but too late,
this intensity creates here a market instantly, a
market that had always existed, where we had
always lived.

Ryoko Sekiguchi is perhaps one of the most engaging poets of that generation now approaching mid-career currently writing in Japan. Though she maintains a recognizable relationship to developments in Japan’s late Modernism, she has stretched the available avant-garde vocabulary in the Japanese language to include, as seen in one of her earlier books, Luminescent Diapositive, graphic elements reminding one of Charles Olson, or the playfulness of the Japanese Dadaist cutups of an earlier era, something which was rejected by Japan’s Modernists as they grew older and more stuffy. In her more recent work, Sekiguchi has managed to mold this foundation in the highly controlled formal experiments of her predecessors to more recent interests in Japanese women’s poetry, which tends to explore the textures and patterns of feminine speech and experience. Sekiguchi’s own version of these more recent developments in Japanese women’s writing is, however, more intellectually dense, more highly complex than most other writers.

Sekiguchi has lived in Paris since 1997, is fluent in French and apparently a number of other languages, and translates/rewrites her own work into French. This in itself is quite an interesting cultural development, as in the recent past, it would have been extremely difficult to find acceptance as a poet in Japan and be an expatriate at the same time. Until recently, the assumption would have been that in order to be completely Japanese and completely authentic as a poet, living for such long periods of time in a foreign country, and especially, actually attaining fluency in the language, would somehow dilute whatever it is one is looking for in a writer, and in a work of the caliber that might be considered for inclusion in a ‘national literature.’ Obviously this is no longer the case in the era of writers like Haruki Murakami and the era of the internet, where physical space and ‘culture’ in the traditional sense seem to have lost some of the more precisely defined boundaries they once had. And perhaps it is also this shift in modes, in the location of the poetic topology from the actual to the imagined, from physical to virtual, that in an odd way informs this text.

Two Markets Once Again is an especially satisfying example of recent developments in the writer’s work. It is a landscape which is at once the imagination, the actual world through which the author travels in a mixture of distance and awe, and the text itself – text as field, as the eroticism of language, and as a topology of markers and signs.

Sekiguchi makes her way deftly through this landscape, taking the reader on a tour as it were, through the labyrinth of language. Here, identity of author, reader, and text, a text which itself is also the labyrinth of the mind, become intermixed.

Sekiguchi weaves in and out of this textual and textural landscape, occasionally allowing surreal glimpses of the actual world she travels through (texts were produced on trips to Syria and Iran), which exudes the smells of coffee and coriander.

The ‘market’ is the open space in the text, the gap or dislocation in language through which the reader/writer slips, as well as the strange, unidentifiable sense of place the traveler finds in the unknown country.

It is also a journey through a language being learned – the language of classical Arabic, as well as all the visual and sensual experience of being in that new environment.

The voice of the poem fights against the text, but is finally always drawn back in. And yet the gap or dislocation as represented by the market is also the site of all possibility and experience, ‘for this market, the act of writing, in itself, is always possible.’

It is the dislocations in language that make writing/poetry possible – the chiasm is poetry itself. And yet it is also ‘The trace of negation or refusal’ –

In every part, in the debris or the remainder of
text, we recognize the trace of negation or

The text is interspersed with Arabic, Latin, Italian, and Provencal — She quotes a line from the Latin text of the Stabat Mater; she quotes the poetry of the troubadours and Dante’s Inferno (most likely from the narration of the encounter with the ghost of Francesca Di Rimini, a name mentioned elsewhere in the text). There are also allusions to Greek tragedy (most likely Euripides), the voice of Persephone speaking in one of the poems of Sappho, Homer, and other classical Greek texts.

The more one reads and rereads the text, and the more languages you know or are willing to google, the more numerous and intricately interwoven become the meanings and allusions. This is most certainly a book that can bear many readings. Despite the fairly small number of pages in this little book, it is a gigantic work and has a far reach beyond all the assumed cultural and linguistic boundaries.

As for the question of translation, it would be more appropriate to understand this text as a recreation or ‘multiplication of versions’ in the words of Sekiguchi, and Sarah Riggs not merely a translator, but a partner in the creation of a collaborative work which has already travelled from Japanese to French and now finds its third extension in the English of this text.

Sekiguchi, speaking of her self-translation into French, notes that, ‘The very idea of an original text subsisting through the displacement of one language into another is therefore put into question…’ [tr. Chet Weiner, in Four From Japan, Edited by Sawako Nakayasu, Litmus Press]

The text itself is nothing but a particular and infinite instance… It is therefore no longer a question of depth but of stretching the surface of the text: such is the aim of this effort at self-translation/multiplication of versions.

Sekiguchi is a must-read, not only because of the intricacy and delicacy of her writing, a writing which carries both the density and weight of a fine-tuned intellect and yet offers turns of a certain lightness, the tongue-in-cheek, and the simple enjoyment of language, but because the increasing availability of hers and other works of contemporary and Modernist avant-garde Japanese poetry in English means there is no longer an excuse for American readers having a complete lack of familiarity with this dynamic and ever-changing modern tradition.

                                                            we read
and are read, we call and are called, in reading,
sounding out, the text remaining silent, we
ourselves becoming texts


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