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.