Archive for April, 2010

Hiraide Takashi: Excerpts from Portrait of a Young Osteopath, translated by Eric Selland

April 16, 2010

Opening Scene
Between the huge rocks where the water’s foam frothed upward to become irregular granules of fire and then fall, possessed by the shadow of a jellyfish just dead, one pair of gloves whirled round and round. The ten fingers, some broken off and others twisted, strained to reach out in every direction. But according to observation, only the stars of partial destruction existed on the tips of the various fingers. There I fixed my gaze still harder. Was it as much as fourteen seasons had passed; the burnt aroma of a beehive drifted out of the wide-mouthed cave half submerged nearby, and as if it were all signs, the corpse of one juvenescent piece of bark stood up out of the cave, pulling a bunch of sleep-disheveled hair along with it, up toward the indigo sky of early dawn. Pressing the palm of one hand against my pounding heart, I sensed a new way of thought welling up within myself. These rocks could be just mist congealing darkly in the moss. And the cave could be something like the hollow interior of an anatomical model of the human body which has begun to dissolve, a two-layered crucible as it were. Of course, the uncertainty about speculations such as these cannot be alleviated even with positive proof to the contrary. Then, just to add on for good measure, the following thing happened. The objects imagined to be stars up till that point, each scattered here and there in the branches of the expanding hair, suddenly spread wings of stone, and leisurely began to preen themselves. Later, pulling back so as to hide themselves, they let out a cry, and fell into the extremely shallow sea trench near the cave. It was because at this time the pair of gloves suddenly stopped spinning, and while the right hand flopped against the other churning up foam, the left snuggled up close as if to grasp a small gem, and though they were two, stood straight up from the surface of the water that I understood. It was this time the wind was a resin wind, a number of meters.
September 7, 1949, afternoon with sun beating down; I had fallen into the sleep of rotting isu trees on the shore near my birthplace. Sleep brought me sufficient material. I had found the stuff for a fine experiment which would allow me to perform a sort of osteopathy on all things living and dead, without simply leaving prosaic scratches.

Chest and Shoulder, or the Frantic Vortex
Moving the prism’s narrow roost up and down with a rustling sound as if he had been surprised made it look like a shadow play due to the slanting sunlight. Far, far away in what looked like the west, clouds were approaching at ease, so I kept on running lightly around in the manner of thread being wound around a spool, and occasionally stopping, made as if to peer into the middle from the mountain ridge stitch. For him it must be a terrible thing. The sun hazed. Behaving as if I were something with insect wings I became transparent like the bones of bony creatures laid out in the sun, and then in the shadows felt as if I were the clouds themselves which blurred myself and this tract of land. Upon which something giving way around the shoulders and something bubbling up around the vicinity of the chest showed signs of setting about the circulation of a boundless and ancient memory.
The sun shown, and my shadow also, vitreously in bold relief. By and by it sprung upward, and passing into two or three leaves again the sun came beating down. Now rest. As if I were a slender god playing with the movement and disappearance of my own black shadow.
November 14, 1949, 2:00 pm; I happened upon a certain method of criticism… am I my habits? If a vortex were to appear in the sky, holding my breath I would smash into its simplified network, what ought to be called its essence, the center of his absence, from below. He pulled the thread and then fell. He might be saved if there were a thicket below. The attack was a flash, the record posing extreme difficulty even for the observer. When the battle ended, I quickly fixed my makeup there on the sandy soil, and turning him over absorbed the liquid flowing from his mouth, also licking between the chest and hips. Occasionally I nibbled at the membranous base of the hip, but the purpose of this is obscure. At any rate, the children given birth from my poisonous characteristics, and who should be suspended in the empty sky, would no doubt leave his redolent glory behind in the earth in the form of one side of a huge jaw.
3:00 pm, the wind which collects resin, deeper now the sun hazed over. The fingers of the clouds which, lacking fingernails, could only raggedly part began to catch hold of me and my enemy despite our being two, and began to envelop us. He became sand from the shoulder on down and began to fall, while my chest began to flow out from itself. It was as if ascending above this purplish blue field now with one breath where generations had no doubt perished were mirrored in the eyes of someone hidden.

The Motif the Water Whispered
The leaves had already been cut out as if with a dressmaker’s pattern. I am the one who, feeling a slender bone in the intense sunlight which oozes out like waste matter, makes it into an artist’s tool and tries to paint several small hazy scenes taking place just before my birth and which grow increasingly hazy. Already the vascular strands of the leaves of the Isu trees had been severed.
The initial, excessively painful measures for the purpose of life’s bursting forth. It waits patiently for the leaves to droop limply over the others. When another man, shaking the tree’s trunk, awakens inside, it rolls up the leaves like lost letters in which his distressing future is endlessly wrapped, and cuts off the leaf with one last bite, sending it to the ground. It is a cradle unloosed, meant for my bone-writing soul.
Bones of boiling water, swamp bones, waterfall bones, bones of the beach. At the end of one of the ensuing precious moments which these things gradually enfold, a faucet rusts while continually shining, cut off facing the blue sky. I flowed out from there, faster than one could press one’s lips to it.
From February to March, 1950, the above was taught me by the whisper of the water all around.


Contemporary Japanese Poets: Hiraide Takashi

April 16, 2010

I’ve had the pleasure of following Hiraide Takashi’s poetry as well as translating his work since 1983, not long after he published his first book to attract broader critical attention – Kurumi no Sen-i no Tame ni. I was looking for some younger poets to include in a translation issue of a small English language magazine located in Paris and which I was co-editing. So Yoshimasu Gozo (a globe-trotting poet who seems to know virtually everyone) introduced us. A long association has sense ensued, which has included visits to countless unique and out-of-the-way night spots in Tokyo where Hiraide has demonstrated not only his fine sensibilities in food, drink and night life atmosphere, but a most notable ability to negotiate large amounts of liquid substances into his person. Perhaps Hiraide’s next book should be the handbook on unusual drinking establishments in Tokyo. After all, he’s already written the book on baseball. After a semester at the Iowa writer’s workshop in 1985 he made a very special pilgrimage to Cooperstown, the birthplace of baseball. How does he manage to do all this? Hiraide has stated in an essay that for him, poetry is a kind of baseball of sorts. I won’t attempt to explain this. But what I saw when I first attempted to translate some excerpts from the book mentioned above was surrealist prose poetry creating a strange atmosphere with images of subways and glowing lights. Over a glass of mizuwari Hiraide corrected me. In actual fact, these images were not surrealistic at all – they were extremely minute, almost scientific observations of his actual daily commute on the train between Shinjuku and Iidabashi where at the time he was working in book design for Kawade Shobo publishing. Hiraide’s work is not easy. He has now settled into a prose poetry style which is highly dense and complex. But it always retains a connection with the real, as can be seen in Wakai Seikotsu-shi no Shozo (Portrait of a Young Osteopath) – an imaginary naturalist’s notebook, and is also often filled with a kind of tongue-in-cheek sort of humor. One of Hiraide’s favorite American poets is John Ashberry, not surprisingly. I usually describe Hiraide’s poetry as having a certain focus on texture – there is the tendency to pull and stretch the Japanese syntax to see just how far it will go. This makes for very difficult translating. Both Hiraide and those close to him, with their critical awareness and interest in also writing theory and criticism, are probably the closest anyone in Japan comes to the type of avant garde tendencies seen in the U.S. in the eighties focusing on language. But I would call Hiraide’s poetry a kind of hyper-realism. Hiraide has become one of the most widely known and respected members of the younger avant garde set, those who emerged in the early eighties, now being included in the Shichosha collection of modern poets. He currently teaches literary and aesthetic theory at Tama Bijutsu Daigaku.
–Eric Selland
Note: Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Translated by Sawako Nakayasu, is available on New Directions

Kitasono Katue – Poems (trans. John Solt)

April 2, 2010

Night Mechanist (1924)

the café girl
is completely transparent
continuing her pink breathing
she makes her expensive finger shine
and hides mint-colored talk
in a lobelia leaf
while playing the table’s piano
dreamer of chairs and curtains
bohemian of a pitiful city.
from the shadow of curacao
and peppermint
she flashes a seven-colored heart
seducer with stunning matches
on stove chimneys
ties passion ribbons
and dissolves her lovers
into cash register buttons—
mechanist of splendid night

from Human Dismantled Poems (1926)


on the back of the face
insert a blue lens
and peep everyday


burn sulphur
and weird smoke fills it up
a triangular ornament
tinplate nose
twist it
stuff a brush inside
and drag that spiral out from the rear!

Legend of the Airship

Book Review: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) , by John Solt

April 2, 2010

Book Review: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning – The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) , by John Solt, Published by the Harvard University Asia Center and distributed by Harvard University Press, 1999, 395 pages, $49.50 cloth, ISBN 0-674-80733-2. (Available on
Occasionally a book arrives that changes everything. Less, perhaps, in presenting something totally new, than in revealing that which had remained hidden, or forgotten. John Solt’s biography and extended literary analysis of the life’s work of Kitasono Katue, a major practitioner of avant-garde poetic forms from the 1920s to the 1970s, does just that. First in offering up the newest in that short list of very rare full-length studies of a modern Japanese poet, and second in its having laid open a forgotten history of dynamic artistic and literary development, as well as cultural exchange. A history, moreover, which intersects with our own, as becomes evident in the lengthy chapter on Kitasono’s many years of correspondence with Ezra Pound.
Kitasono Katue (Solt uses the Francophile spelling preferred by Kitasono himself in his dealings with foreign poets) originally wanted to become a painter, but after a literary friendship and time spent in Tokyo, broiling with new ideas and a cosmopolitan lifestyle (Hirato Renkichi published his Japanese Futurist manifesto in 1921), Kitasono decided to become a poet. By 1924 he had become involved with a group of young poets publishing Japan’s first Dadaist magazine, Ge.Gjmgjgam.Prrr.Gjmgem , thus beginning his many years of involvement with iconoclastic new forms. The new magazine introduced sound poems, dadaist absurdities and work harkening the eventual development of Surrealism in Japan. One more very important characteristic of the magazine was the introduction of the usage of katakana words in poetry. Foreign words and images were used liberally, appearing both in katakana script and the alphabet. We tend to be non-plussed now about these graphical innovations due to the common use of foreign loan words and Romanized script in the Japanese of the present, but at that time it was revolutionary, and would even become dangerous by the late 1930’s with the rise of militarism.
Kitasono went on to write Surrealist poems, such as appear in his 1929 collection Shiro no Arubamu , and in the 1930’s became the main mover of the VOU club, an experimental group through which he introduced his own poetic theories such as “ideoplasty”. It was at this time the correspondence with Pound began, and Pound eagerly promoted Kitasono and VOU in Europe and the United States, connecting Kitasono’s ideoplasty with his own ideogrammatic theory in Guide to Kulchur (1938). The VOU poets were given an introduction by Pound and published in a London magazine in 1938. Kitasono provided his own translations of his work, a few lines of which appear below:
In leaden slippers I laugh at the fountain of night, and scorn a solitary swan.
A parasol of glass she spreads, and wanders along the lane the cosmos flowering.
Over the cypress tree I image, to myself, a hotel marked with two golf-clubs crossed;
And move my camera on the sand of night.
[Excerpt from “Glass Coil” as originally published in Townsman, Jan. 1, 1938]
Kitasono carried out intensive exchanges with Pound and other Western poets during this period, and remade contact with the West after the war in the form of contacts with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth and others. Robert Creeley even asked him to provide the cover drawings for the first few issues of the Black Mountain Review.
Rather than settling on one fixed form once found, as has been the case with many Japanese poets of the same period (including those who later lapsed into free-verse sentimentalism after an initial experimental phase), Kitasono went from one experiment to the next. After the war he introduced concrete poetry, then published a series of books each taking a further step toward the complete dislocation (or indeterminacy) of meaning, and finally attempted the leap beyond language itself in his production of what he called “plastic poems”, poems without words in which he utilized photography and design elements. Kitasono can almost be considered Japan’s first Post-Modernist in his willful ignoring of the boundaries between genres, levels of speech, and conventional meaning formation.
Solt explains in his introduction that his approach is a historical one, rather than one whose purpose is to advocate any particular literary theory, however, he does make use of the ideas of important theorists on the international 20th century avant-garde such as Marjorie Perloff, especially in his interpretations of Kitasono’s post-war work. More importantly, Solt’s study offers an exposition of Japanese avant-garde practice through much of this century which serves to tear away the imposition of Western generated Orientalist exoticisms often overlaid on the more immediate intellectual and social realities of Japan. The representation of Japanese literature in this country has often been effected by those more concerned with appropriating an overly idealized version of Zen and haiku for their own ideological purposes within a social and political milieu very different from Japan’s than in understanding the actual historical experience of a non-Western people in their coming to terms with the ideas and realities of their own times. Solt’s book gives us one of the rare looks at actual Japanese concerns within the poetic practice of the 20th century through the eyes of a Japanese poet, hence giving us a much needed breath of fresh air. The appendices, notes and bibliography give the serious reader important source information for further study. It is hoped that this will open the way to more research on the development of Japanese poetic practice, as well as other Japanese arts and intellectual trends of this century. It seems to me that there is much more creative potential for poets in this country in the consideration of the transformational processes involved in this period of intensive cultural cross-pollination, in the various acts of translation, literary readings and creative misreadings, than in the continued reliance on older, and often artificially exotic images invented by previous generations of Westerners with less of an opportunity to come into contact with the real thing.
Note: John Solt’s translations of Kitasono Katsue’s poetry are also available under the title Glass Beret, Morgan Press, 1995, 2979 S. 13th Street, Milwaukee, WI, 53215.