Archive for June, 2014

Contemporary Japanese Poets: Kiwao Nomura

June 15, 2014

Kiwao Nomura (1951 – ) is the leading experimental voice in contemporary Japanese poetry. He is also a major critic and theorist. Along with Shuri Kido, he has been responsible for providing a whole new interpretation of Japan’s postwar period in literature, and has also written on French poets, including an analysis of Rimbaud seen through the concepts of Deleuze and Guattari.


Nomura’s work dissolves conventional meaning relationships while disrupting many of the formal mechanisms which traditionally have made poetry recognizable as poetry. Chief amongst these, and one which would immediately catch the Japanese reader with a more traditional literary education off guard, is the use of plain speech rather than a more formal poetic language (i.e. poetry as a privileged or heightened language). This dismantling of the frame which, in visual art terms, communicates to the viewer that what they are seeing is a painting, i.e. art, allows the poem to explode beyond its boundaries, producing a trajectory which moves in multiple directions at once.

In Nude Day, Nomura takes us on a tour through hell on earth, much like Dante’s Inferno; accept that for Nomura, hell is birth itself. The parades of flesh winding their way through Nomura’s poem are living creatures both human and non-human, and often subhuman, but ultimately embodying the human condition. The title, Nude Day (The Day Laid Bare), is expressed here in a way to bring out its relationship to Agamben’s concept of “bare life” – human life stripped down to its most basic, biological reality, vulnerable and powerless. Nomura also mentions Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as something relating to what he is getting at. The entire work is overshadowed by the colossal earthquake and tsunami which destroyed much of the northeastern region of Japan in March of 2011. Though expressed in the language of the absurd and the Felliniesque, Kiwao Nomura’s Nude Day (The Day Laid Bare) has an existential urgency. The poem’s constant repetition of lines like “all things are laid bare,” “stripped to the bone,” echoes Heidegger’s insistence that the way in which our lives are ordered  and controlled in modern, capitalist society leads to a “leveling down” of Being.

Note: These poems first appeared on Big Bridge. Selections from Nude Day have also appeared in Eleven Eleven.



Parade 1



Nude day


Stripped bare












Roadblock 1 (Sand on Lips)



When disquiet

With its as much as one hundred legs

Puts down roots all around me


Who’s voice is this?


“You have to go on with your own water

As far as that of which we cannot speak”


With water?

All wet and shiny?

Losing all color?


A distorted face appears

A monkey wrench for a neck


On lips






Parade 2



The day laid bare


Go in pursuit of unknown flesh, of the disappeared

If not, you yourself will become a fugitive


 Stripped to the bone


Ground of unraveling sutures

Remains of dissolved flesh


Go, follow – give chase


It’s a parade. The First Flesh arrives. Seems like a mere octopus, or something an octopus has on its exterior. It moves forward, spewing something incomprehensible, but then, as it grows distant, it is revealed, revealing, no doubt, the human. Then it multiplies, from belly to belly, a fetus with only a head seen in perpetual motion.


Seen in perpetual motion


With the first flesh in front, the Second Flesh undulates. Go in pursuit of that wretched nerve center mimicking animated ashes


Because it is equal to the fate of the breast


All is laid bare

The stones give off a scent in the confusion “according to internet media rumors, there was a tattoo imprinted on the breast”


Third Flesh – of all things, masquerading as sand, or engulfed by sand, in either case, all that can be seen is sand, an enormous amount of sand, its sun-soaked, smug expanse.


All is laid bare



“Two pages torn from the latest issue of a comic book, Hunter x Hunter


The Fourth Flesh is working. For instance, when you are immersed in afternoon sleep in the eternity of water, that which divides in many fish gathers together and eats the history of your diseased skin, eats it all up nicely.


The Fifth Flesh is so smelly you could call it stench itself


All is laid bare

Like gum which has lost its flavor, I who am nothing more than myself


The Sixth Flesh is the hand, shaking pom-poms all around. How ridiculous. It’s not as if it’s a cheer leader. It should probably be thrown out of the field. It has the limitations of a crustacean.


The Seventh Flesh is the shadow of flesh shimmering, giving birth to flesh though it is a mere shadow, raising its young in the hollow of an eye socket. Hold them in your arms when they’re grown – you’ll be covered in blood. Why is it – do you say live out the sullen remainder of your days as a monk?


Adenylic acid, guanylic acid


“While walking in the Western Market someone stumbled toward me, skin blackened as if they had attempted to burn themselves alive”


Like gum which has lost its flavor, I who am nothing more than myself






Roadblock 2 (Atomic Bomb Brick)



Of course it’s not as if

An atomic bomb brick

Came flying over nor is it the case that

I brought it home


Here right out of the blue

This suddenness continuing on forever

Or something

An atomic bomb


Actually, a screenwriter friend

Came like the wind from Hiroshima to my house

And gave it to me as a gift


From the Calbee Foods warehouse

Formerly the Hiroshima military supply depot

Its pedigree noted on a piece of paper and again like the wind

He left

But how troublesome

I tried adding it to the objects arranged in the entryway but it just didn’t fit

Then I moved it to the glass case in the living room

With the rock collection

But still it didn’t fit in

An atomic bomb


Wrested from the depths of the earth

A fragment, filled

With fine scars, a mysterious


Or something

So I placed it on the palm of my hand

Nothing to do but gaze fixedly upon it

And then music I’m sure it was

Music I heard coming from somewhere

In the bone at the bottom of the ear

A torrent of metallic blood

Colliding, crushing


The metallic

Rainbow squeaking, made to undulate severalfold

Or something







Parade 3



Stripped to the bone


The day laid bare


No one can escape

And yet there are runaways, always runaways, everywhere – it is the real.


The Eighth Flesh appears, in every respect its flattened figure a kind of zone – blood zone, knowledge zone, ground zone. Each zone separate, the gaps between their names which matter little are sewn together. A voice is heard from somewhere saying it’s all gas so there’s not much you can do.


“The collarbone snaps”


The Ninth Flesh – one becomes mesmerized by its swimming around and around aimlessly. Said to have the ability to charm, those who have grown weary are warned against becoming so inactive they end up falling in with a plop, floating next to the ninth flesh.


Cytidylic acid, thymidylic acid


In this way the Fourth Flesh and the Sixth Flesh run strictly parallel, competing in their hushed silence like cotton. Eventually they are surprised to find they have transformed into the ninth flesh. Similarly, the Seventh Flesh and first flesh collide, thereby forming The Tenth Flesh, while the Fifth Flesh and the Third Flesh merge to form The Eleventh Flesh. Meanwhile the Second Flesh and the Eighth Flesh move along arm in arm, the perfectly harmonious couple, but of course, they produce nothing.


The Twelfth Flesh is blind, but it is of course specialized, and is a master at spewing out words, much more so than the first flesh, but obviously it has no reproductive capacity. It is a disposable product.


Much like myself


If someone asks, it must be The Thirteenth Flesh. The spirit just makes it in, but the two are at cross purposes after all. When the spirit tries to lie down the flesh stands up, and when the flesh needs to rest the spirit gets up, walks around in the arcade of bones and joints, and tries to go outside.


The Fourteenth Flesh wears an expression of anger and indignation, so one must hasten to apologize or else one might get clobbered, or draw its profile using quick-drying ink


Or something to that effect


The Fifteenth Flesh has discarded eyes and ears, even its beautiful legs, and has renounced mathematics, single-mindedly developing the meaning of its existence in a region inundated by sand, but the result is more like an eye socket laughing meaninglessly above a set of kneecaps, or nerves foaming up in order to dream.


The Sixteenth Flesh is an old curmudgeon, gradually cozying up once he’s found the meaning of existence. He opens his big mouth, which can only be described as like that of a comic book character, and gulps everything down at once.


With frightening speed

Actions take hold of the human


Blood drips

From the hands of people become like empty shells


Like testimony


To the here


And the now






Roadblock 3 (Oh la la Piece ‘a Meat)



Oh la la

Piece ‘a meat


Crushed to the toes by the crowd the nonperson

Heads toward the chaos of a foaming polar region


The nonperson laughs from the knees

While streets and more streets surge forth in a coma


The nonperson devours thighs

And the bruise of love floats there like a dirigible


The nonperson hurries toward the backside

While longing resounds like the roar of the sea


The nonperson swings its hips

And the structure of woman becoming water without end becomes visible


The nonperson shuts itself up inside its navel

Mother, soon a casket will dance in midair


The nonperson climbs up the back

And bones grow from the bed, flowers blooming from their tips


The nonperson scratches its belly

While the metallic grass demonstrates mental telepathy, making a mechanical noise


The nonperson raises a racket in the heart

Is that forested place the door to the other world, begun to decay?


The nonperson sits on one’s shoulders

That there is no end is a frightening wand I should think


The nonperson slits someone’s throat

Only the freedom of being cut to pieces screams at the top of its voice


The nonperson runs through one’s mind at the last minute

It is the dazzling glare in which at any moment the skin is peeled away to reveal another head


Piece ‘a meat

Oh la la




Nude Day: The Day Laid Bare, by Kiwao Nomura

June 15, 2014

Notes Toward an Introduction

It is in the context of this crisis of experience that modern poetry finds its place.

                             – Giorgio Agamben

The day when mad laughter will erupt in the world in the nameless marriage

                 – Gherasim Luca

There is always a certain element of the unknown in translation – of the incomplete. There are always latent possibilities present, meaning that there is some kind of excess in each translation in the form of what was not done, of decisions not made. The translation remains always in the liminal stage… on its way toward transforming into something else. Something other. But this condition begins even before the act of translation itself, at the level of reading, where multiple interpretations are always possible. Even before the question of how best to translate a particular poetic line there is already the question of what that line actually means. How to read and interpret a line. This remains a question for which there is no answer. Even the poet does not know.

This is of course especially true in the case of a poetry with a high level of indeterminacy. Nomura’s work takes place as an event (performance) between the fields of the semiotic and the semantic. (See Giorgio Agamben’s Infancy and History for a detailed discussion of this question.) In this sense it helps to relate the work to another art form, such as dance, rather than to how it ought to appear in another language. The poem already has an uncomfortable relationship with its own language (i.e. normative language, language for communicative or utilitarian purposes) even before the question of how it might interface or intersect with another, “foreign,” language arises.

There is the question of meaning in the poem, or of meaning formation. Repeated lines in Nomura work in the same way as musical motifs or as gestures in dance. This means that we do not translate “meaning” so much as gesture or function. The question is what is the function of repeated gestures or lines in Nomura. And if they cannot be translated in the normal sense, i.e. for their meaning, how may they be translated? What is their function and what will function (in English) in their place?

So is Nomura’s language the language of Babel, or of silence?

 “Thus between pure language and human language, between semiotic and semantic, [we are given] a new way of understanding the meaning of a body of work.” – Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History

“Language appears as the place where experience must become truth.” [ibid.]

It is the split between language and speech, between the semiotic and the semantic, which makes Nomura’s poetry work, and which gives it its significance outside the norms of accepted discourse. It is the place where conventional narrative breaks down, and ultimately fails.

The spoken as it appears in Nomura’s Nude Day is not so much literally something spoken as it is a gesture performed outside speech. A gesture which returns to the most basic elements of existence or pre-existence… it is bare life, totally exposed.

Nomura has a sense of the Felliniesque. His poetry is filled with absurdities, humor, and even silliness. The absurd or silly tone is affected with the use of colloquial expressions, verb forms and tag phrases which are common in daily speech patterns. For some readers, this may create a sense of closeness to the speaker of the poem, but it is actually one of the major ways in which Nomura brings conventional poetic language into question. The problem for the translator lies not only in the fact that many of these expressions or grammatical forms are impossible to translate into English, but that even where translatable they simply do not work in the same way. Perhaps this is more of a cultural sensibility, but it is difficult in English to be silly and absurd, yet dead serious at the same time. This mixture of styles or modes of speech can make Nomura difficult to pin down, and it means that the translator is forced to make some difficult choices.

This odd juxtaposition of modes becomes further complicated when one considers the importance of Celan to Nomura. Nomura sees a certain relationship to language and poetic form, a certain poetic strain in a line which he sees running directly from Celan to more recent experimental poetics. It becomes increasingly difficult to accept the tongue-in-cheek tone which can often occur right in the midst of the horrors of the Dantesque scenes in this book. Again, the translator is forced to make choices. Here we are obliged to look back at what it is about a certain work which asks for translation (harkening back to Benjamin). Assuming there is something in Nomura that is wanted or needed by American poetry, just what might that be?

Since not only the act of translation, but the choice of what to translate is an interpretation, something unavoidably ideological, we inevitably find ourselves picking and choosing from different aspects of the work. Here we return to the question of interpretation, which we find has already occurred even before grappling with the problems of language itself. Perhaps that which wants to find its way from Nomura’s Japanese into English does not, cannot include virtually everything going on in the poems. Nor is that necessary – there is plenty going on to choose from. For as it proceeds to unfold in its unique performance of the event of language, the book digs deeper and deeper, reaching more heightened complexity.

It is misleading to speak of that which gets “lost in translation.” Instead, it is more a question of what is gained through the engagement with the work and its language. What results is essentially a new work. It is a process which at its end finds the translator himself transformed, perhaps more so than language as such. And hopefully, the reader of the new work in translation will have been transformed as well.

Translation in general is of course a highly complex, time-consuming, and often frustrating process, but even in this context, translating Nomura is an extremely intensive, all-consuming activity. It requires much more than the usual daily regimen of the professional translator – one has to give oneself to it body and soul. In a sense one is obliged to become a medium, allowing the soul of the poet, the spirit of the poetic process itself to enter one, and to reenact the process of original poetic production. But here, rather than attempting something along the lines of a completely new “version,” I have engaged with the difficulties of the original Japanese text in a way so as to strike a balance between elements of Japanese I would like to keep and which produce interesting affects in English, and aspects of the language which cannot be reproduced. Michael Hamburger, one of the original translators of Paul Celan, calls the type of translation he practices “mimetic translation.” According to Hamburger, it is “aimed at the totality of the text.” Neither literal nor interpretive, it attempts to track the way of thinking of a poem as it unfolds. This is, essentially, how I have approached this work.

In his acceptance speech for the Rekitei Prize, which he received for Nude Day, Nomura relies on Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in explaining what his poetry attempts to do. Nomura is interested specifically in Agamben’s retelling of the riddle of the Sphinx, in which Oedipus glibly resolves the riddle’s mystery by virtue of pointing to what its metaphor represents – in other words, by choosing content over form – “the enigma disappears as soon as its utterance is reduced to the transparency of the relation between the signified and its form.” According to Agamben, by doing so Oedipus ignores the power of the symbolic, as well as the power of the originary abyss opened between the signifier and the signified. What Agamben also suggests is that this originary abyss is the very definition of poetry

Nomura claims that what his poetry does is attempt to restore the original mystery to the Sphinx, in other words, not only to restore the gap between signifier and signified, but to make active use of it in poetry, to write out of the gap, the original rupture present within language. Again, to quote Agamben, “this is the originary apotropaic stage of language in the heart of the fracture of presence.”

The parades of flesh winding their way through Nomura’s poem are living creatures both human and non-human, and often subhuman, but ultimately embodying the human condition. The title, whose literal translation is “Nude Day,” is expressed here in a way to bring out its relationship to Agamben’s concept of “bare life” – human life stripped down to its most basic, biological reality, vulnerable and powerless. Nomura also mentions Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as something relating to what he is getting at. The entire work is overshadowed by the colossal earthquake and tsunami which destroyed much of the northeastern region of Japan in March of 2011. The poem is literally a tour through hell on earth. But at the same time, as in Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, it points to the deeper meaning of that term. Like all good poetry, it is not limited by time or place, its poetics are not dependent on the specificity of event or any other limiting identification. This is a poetry which expands outward, infinitely, in concentric circles.

“The silence of the mystery is undergone as a rupture, plunging man back into the pure, mute language of nature.” – Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas

Much like the Agamben quote at the beginning of this introduction, Nomura locates the very source of modern Japanese poetry in crisis – “without crisis, there would be no modern Japanese poetry. This is true beginning with Hagiwara Sakutarō in 1916 and it is true for the postwar poets and those writing just after the end of the Showa period (1989).” (Nomura Kiwao, Shi no Gaia wo Motomete, 2008) Equally important is Nomura’s insistence that “difficulty” is a necessary aspect of poetry, particularly in our own time where life itself has become increasingly complex.

Kiwao Nomura’s Nude Day (The Day Laid Bare) has an existential urgency. The poem’s constant repetition of lines like “all things are laid bare,” “stripped to the bone,” echoes Heidegger’s insistence that the way in which our lives are ordered and controlled in modern, capitalist society leads to a “leveling down” of Being.

Many of Nomura’s detractors accuse him of destroying poetry, when in fact, he has merely cleared the way for a return to the very origins, the very source of poetry, in all its mystery, contradiction, and spontaneity. It is, in a word, the joy of language itself.

A Reading of Minoru Yoshioka for IJET 25

June 15, 2014

Still Life and Monks are the poems that launched the career of one of Japan’s most important and unique poets of the postwar period. Self-published in 1955, Still Life gained the attention and admiration of other poets of his generation, while the collection Monks, published in 1958, gained him a major prize for younger poets and the recognition of critics. Yoshioka went on to become the most influential poet of the avant-garde, embraced by counter-cultural circles in the 1960s such as the Butoh dance of Hijikata Tatsumi and the oppositional theater of figures such as Kara Jūrō and Terayama Shūji, while virtually all of the major poets of the generation following him were profoundly influenced by both his work and friendship, including Shiraishi Kazuko, Yoshimasu Gōzō, Kawata Ayane, and Hiraide Takashi.

Yoshioka Minoru was born in 1919 in the Shitamachi district of Tokyo. He received no formal education, but was instead self-taught, and began writing traditional forms of Japanese verse such as waka and haiku during his teens. He was inspired to begin writing himself after reading experimental haiku by Tomisawa Kakio. Later Yoshioka would be greatly influenced by the early Japanese modernists, and introduced to surrealist methods through the work of Kitasono Katue and Sagawa Chika. When drafted into the Imperial Army, he carried a number of books with him to the recruiting center, including a translation of Rilke’s famous writings on Rodin. (The books were promptly confiscated by the military officer in charge, as all foreign literature by this time had been banned by the militarist government.) Yoshioka was sent to Manchuria for the duration of the war, and avoided the fate of other Japanese soldiers sent to prison camps in Siberia after the Imperial Army’s surrender only by chance – he was transferred to another unit on a small island off the coast of North Korea as punishment for putting on a humorous play for the other soldiers with some friends, a parody of Cyrano de Bergerac with mildly erotic themes, involving word play and cross-dressing.
In the prose poems of Monks, Yoshioka engages in the most originary of Modernist exercises, one which speaks back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarme, as well as the originators of Japan’s own homegrown version of the tradition, including Surrealist Takiguchi Shūzō. All of these sources can be said to be feeding into Yoshioka’s poetry, the only poetry truly upholding and continuing the Modernist tradition in its pure form in Japan’s postwar period when most poets and critics tended to respond to Japan’s earlier experimentalism with a visceral repugnance, due to its perceived over-dependence on foreign sources and its association with a time best forgotten. But Yoshioka presents somewhat of an enigma, not only in his choice to continue in the Modernist vein when it was no longer popular, but by the fact that he is an avant-gardist without a theory. Unlike his Modernist predecessors, Yoshioka never produced any writings on poetics, and though widely admired, never became the official “leader” of a movement or school of poetry. His singular volume of prose writings consists mainly of remembrances of poets and certain poems, and of his own early life and influences. He writes only once, and briefly, of his own poetic process. When he writes of the work of other poets he writes mostly of haiku rather than the type of poetry with which he himself was involved. And the one time he writes more extensively about another artist it is not a poet at all, but Hijikata Tatsumi, the founder of the avant-garde dance form Butoh. In many respects it is outside the genre of poetry where Yoshioka finds his true peers, in the violent psychic disruptions of Terayama Shūji’s theater of spectacle, or in the shamanic madness of Hijikata Tatsumi’s Butoh dance. Yoshioka’s poetry shares with these artists a sense of the erotic and the grotesque, the beautiful and the strange, and the carnivalesque exposition of archetypal themes, at once comic and horrible, but which dig deeply into the Japanese psyche. The importance of the prose poems is in their narrative discontinuity, how the poem sets up certain narrative expectations in the opening lines and then sets out to undermine those expectations. According to critic Suga Hidemi, Yoshioka’s poetry destroys the monologic nature of poetry, putting into question the idea of the poet as a fixed, integrated consciousness with a recognizable voice. Suga goes on to insist that Yoshioka’s poems fail to attain the state of an integrated whole. The lack of any punctuation in the prose poems, as well as the use of spaces or gaps (breaks) in the text, not necessarily occurring in places where one expects there to be a natural pause in the narrative, contributes to the disjunctions and interruptions in conventional meaning formation. Most importantly is Yoshioka’s pushing of the Japanese syntax, already extremely flexible, to its limit. Quite often there is no clear subject/object relationship at all, due to the ability of Japanese to either dispense with the subject altogether, or to allow it to attach itself to any number of possible objects. This all means that in structural terms, the direction of meaning relationships actually reads backwards through the text or in both directions at once. Not only are there multiple meanings in Yoshioka, there are meanings or images which gradually metamorphose, giving the poem a filmic quality. Compare this to the traditional Surrealist method of estrangement, in which two unlike images are juxtaposed (Breton’s famous umbrella on an operating table). In contrast, Yoshioka’s images are constantly changing, one image morphing into the next, taking on a new meaning and subject/object relationship in the moment the reader assumes she has finally managed to grasp the last. Yoshioka’s poetry has often been compared to sculpture, a comparison which the poet does not deny. (Yoshioka himself suggests viewing his poems as if they were Picasso paintings, cubist images in which the figure appears to be looking in many directions at once. Yoshioka was a great admirer of the paintings of Paul Klee and Francis Bacon, as well as Japanese avant-garde painters.) Perhaps the measure of the greatness of Yoshioka’s poetry is in how it transcends language, doing something that poetry normally does not do, hence leading readers to resort to comparisons with other arts in order to describe it.

The difficulties are numerous in attempting to translate Japanese poetry of any kind, and Yoshioka’s work is famous for being especially difficult. But the primary difficulty the translator runs up against is precisely the major advance over the previous generation of Modernists and Surrealists mentioned earlier. As a young man, Yoshioka turned his interest from haiku to poetry after happening across a book of poems by Kitasono Katue. The young poet was surprised and moved by a beauty having a kind of “solidity” or “spatiality.” What is unusual about Yoshioka is that at such a young age, he does not merely imitate the poetry he admires, but goes a step beyond it. In his earliest collection of poems, Liquid, self-published in 1941 after receiving his draft notice from the Imperial Army, he extends the Surrealist pattern by causing the image to gradually metamorphose, making use of the highly flexible Japanese syntax and its capacity for infinitely long sentences. It is this way of structuring the poem that is impossible to imitate in English. The reader is lead through a series of phrases whose meaning is always inherently indeterminate. The syntax works like a movie – its images always moving and changing. In order to translate a Yoshioka poem, you have to stop the movie and splice the film in just the right places. But where do you stop the film? It is a dangerous balancing act, in which the translator, balancing on a tightrope like a circus performer, could easily fall into the void. Perhaps it is this gap, this void at the heart of language which is the true significance of poetry.
Yoshioka considered his work as a poet to be like that of a worker or craftsman working with his hands, an awareness which he arrived at through his reading of Rilke’s famous work on Rodin, which he was finally able to return to after the war. While at the same time holding aspirations to become a sculptor, Yoshioka went back to “building” poems with this as his inspiration. What he arrived at were the carefully controlled, quiet poems of Still Life, which in painterly terms could be compared to the eerie, empty Surrealist cityscapes of de Chirico. Critics like Suga point to the discontinuities of Yoshioka and the absence or failure of conventional narrative meaning, but it is precisely in this gap where traditional meaning fails that the truth value of Yoshioka’s poetry resides. Poetic meaning in Yoshioka functions in much the same way as the paintings of Francis Bacon – it is only through the distortion of normative reality that we are capable of reaching its underlying truth.

Translations of Yoshioka have appeared in anthologies over the years, and a selection of his poems translated by Hiroaki Sato was published by Chicago University Press in the 1970s. My translation of his later work, Kusudama, utilizing methodologies of appropriation and collage, appeared on a small press in 1990. However, all major publications of his work are now out of print and have been so for years. His two earlier, highly influential collections of the 1950s, which I have discussed here, have never been published in full for an English language readership.