Minoru Yoshioka: Poems from Monks (1958)

Translation and commentary by Eric Selland:

The Dead Child

I

On top of a large bib lies the dead child

Enemy to no one

Nor ally

The dead child is spirit

Inheritor of an immortal lineage

If there is a humanity

This is the crown of thorns

Of its cursed memory

Eternal heart and stench of flesh

Once marked with the seal

Of its mother’s mirror and womb

The fruit of the sweat of its beautiful soul

Cannot be taken away

Wrapped in straw, he goes out to work

With his father

New teeth in earth’s roundness

Firm backside and reliable weight

But starting today

Neither his father’s artificial eye

Nor his mother’s pet tiger

Nor even his siblings

But a new personality

This frozen century has summoned

To a temple of spherical bacteria

With the ring of a bell

A tribute of pure fear

He who judges / He who is judged /

He who sees

An amazing film of identity rotates

The dead child is not to be found

In the flames of a casket

Nor in a muddy grave below the stars

But on the side of the living

Where he keeps watch

 

II

In a strange land covered with withered trees

Mother washes the body of the dead child

It is the command of a cruel, medieval king

His palace is made all of bones

End of flame’s causation

A flock of dead children leaves

The land where mother’s tears were cultivated

Shut away inside a horse’s hooves

Noon is the time for torture

Which the retainer delights in

A mother is assigned to each tree

For every withered tree that grows

A mother is suspended from there

A million dried trees sway

And a million mothers are torn asunder

In the August sky the womb’s precipice

The intense eyes of the world’s mothers

Watch a forest fire

 

And at the same time hear

The approaching flood waters coming to put it out

 

III

By chance the dead child finds

All the beds throughout the world

Have elderly people placed on them

Causing the beds to creak

Then from multiple leaky faucets

Roundworms give up

On the elderly and death

And in the direction in which

They begin to crawl

Vegetables and meat are wrapped up

So that the working stomach

Becomes transparent

Sometimes the barrel of a gun

Is pointed at them

And so we pray for the beatitude of the elderly

Whose screams can be heard

Slowly their blood is carried up the mountain

And poured out at its peak

Lovers of tradition / The marriage bed

The dead child weeps for one reason alone

He does not possess sex

So like the roundworm he is ashamed

It is the dawn of a new friendship

A bed of soft silk

He cannot live in the cool shade

Of a wheat field

In the darkness of his mother’s mourning dress

The dead child repeatedly engages

In a lonely debauchery

He studies the germination of rough stone

Growth of the forbidden

Honor of sterilization

And he studies the knowledge

Of extinction

Now is the season of the forest trampled

In green satin shoes

The fountain of castration glitters

The flowering of the pumpkin

The dead child shares a bed

With the aged dead

Throughout the world

 

IV

As for the dead child’s growth

And his disease

All of the doctors fell silent

A beast running rampant

Exhausting the source of nectar

And sea sponge

The mother’s breast is not to be found

Not even on the horizon

Hidden by an impure climate

And the violence of the brassiere

If one makes an unreasonable effort

To sneak a peek

One may find a young crystalline body

Of sulfur

That is why our time wanders

Below the magical rocks

The merchant who hauled

Too much autumn fruit to the river

The sly old fox’s arithmetic

Produces disease

The dead child’s fingernails

Do not grow outward

But wind their way into an interior

Pregnant with dreams

The dead child’s disease

Has grown steadily worse

Because of malnutrition

And his father’s cowardice

In the end he disappears

In a fog of gun smoke

No records of the dead child

Were kept by the doctors

His story is told by the violets

Growing in the historian’s graveyard

 

V

Mother lifts the dead child onto her back

And leaves on a pilgrimage

To the waxing capital of the world

 

General of pulverized moles

Encampment of night

Around which the intestines

Of a headless horse are coiled

A burned roof displays

The slender thighs of a young woman

Who has committed adultery

The wedding of a soldier

And a dead fish

In the morning swamp

The battleship’s gun turrets

Covered in spider’s webs

It leans toward the ocean

Where the teeth and fingernails

Of the stoker are finely chopped

 

It is a landscape that pleases the dead child

But a mother’s love is quick

She takes the tragic toy

From the dead child’s hand

And disciplines him proper

If he resists he will be punished

Expose his private parts at a table

Of gentlemen and ladies in broad daylight

Let the dead child’s hair hang down

From a height where the crests of countries

With a liking for night warfare

Are ripped apart

Or expose his smooth shaven head

Humiliate him, put him to shame

Disgrace the dead father

The bodies of killed compatriots

Illuminate the melancholy rose of the soul

Till the dead child washes away

The filth of pain

Dead child of the yellow broom

Dead child of marble

Dead child of barbed wire

Dead child of the blonde forest,

Of plentiful sand

Then on the earth in trees filled

With summer cicadas

With a different energy

In a different voice

The wise and clever mother makes

History with that same anger

 

VI

Games the dead child likes to play

Get together in a huddle

Then toss some nets into the Coral Sea

Make resound the heavy testicles

Of the men who sank

Along with their artillery

The anus which sucks the sand

And darkness of the women

Is also colorfully adorned

If it’s for the dead

You can work with peace of mind

Remove the shackles from the salt

And the various metallic fixtures

Bundle up the body in durable glue

Fulfill your public service a second time

In the land of dead trees

You can gather bags full of fish scales

Of gold and silver

Ecstatic days of enmeshing shark teeth

The quiet bones whisper

Standing vigil over water is boring

The dead child overhears them

Let us spread the nets as widely as possible

Once more, from the moon

They’ll catch anything as long as it’s dead

Mother makes a face and refuses to help

You can’t barter the dead

She shouts in the shipwreck which is home

The dead child can’t argue

His voice is so small

He goes where his mother can’t see him

And frozen, lays down on his side

Nearby

That legendary trajectory the sea

 

VII

Once mother has fallen asleep

The dead child creeps and crawls

On the floor

Eventually he completely fills

The sea of spring storms

He gets started above the upturned faces

Of the dead

Then the dead child jumps

From one to the other

In search of his elder sister

Who has been raped

Called by the spirits of the waves

Not only of one sister but all sisters

He holds aloft the melancholy lotus flower

As he goes along his way

To the half breed sea

To purify his pillar-like thighs

Elder sister is pregnant

Festival of night

Of the innumerable dead children

Given birth by elder sister

Opening the way to the shining royal road

In the back-country of ancient times

The dead child looks at the partogram

Of the future

Lightening of mothers torn asunder

Then from the darkness of abundant blood

Dead children with white hair are born

One after the other

 

VIII

The mothers gather together

Holding the dead children

They come from a ruined city

A certain hemisphere

Dragging the bottoms of their

Uniform mourning kimonos

Though rare, they even bring along

The dogs of atonement

They enter the desert

Until it reaches capacity

Another group of chattering mothers

Migrates from the village to the sea

In search of silence

One after another the pious current

Of black obis passes by

In order to govern this transient world

They cradle the dead children

So they will not be reborn

How can they sing a chorus of songs

Of this decaying civilization

In flesh and blood

In repetitive lullabies and nightmares

Like rolling thunder

They twist and gyrate their abundant hips

And in the end half the widowed mothers

Line up on a glacier

To prove beyond a doubt that

Each holds at least one dead child

They slap their shiny bare bottoms

And when it makes the babies cry

Dawn breaks on this journey

A lengthy ordeal of retribution

In a world of mourning dress laid out

The tops of the pyramids

Are just barely visible

So many gather together here

That for the first time

A new sky emerges

In the curled hair of all the mothers

And dyes the zodiac of real numbers

 

Comments on the Poem

Yoshioka’s first collection, Still Life, self-published in 1955, was largely ignored by the poetry establishment, but many poets of his own generation were energized by his work, including Iijima Kōichi, who alerted the editor of Eureka magazine to this talented new poet. The magazine liked what Yoshioka was doing, and asked him to write about his war experience in Manchuria and North Korea. The product of this effort is the long poem sequence “The Dead Child.” But Yoshioka doesn’t write about particular themes. That is not his poetic. The poems in Still Life are essentially self-contained aesthetic objects. Yoshioka was the singular inheritor of Japanese Modernism during Japan’s postwar period, which during the early years just after the war was in the midst of a backlash against the Modernists who were seen as having been complicit with Japan’s Fascism. Yoshioka’s approach is what is often referred to as nonmimetic or non-representative. In other words, the poem does not refer to something outside the poem, but instead creates its own internal formal or linguistic space. Yoshioka writes in an autobiographical essay that he wanted to make something like a sculpture, something with a geometrical beauty. In fact, Yoshioka originally wanted to become a sculptor, and his early poems after the war were influenced by Rilke’s famous book-length essay on Rodin. This does not mean that there is no meaning, but meaning must be organically derived by the reader in an active approach to the reading. The poem does not directly refer to war, nor does it directly symbolize wartime violence, but the images are suggestive enough that Yoshioka’s editors and many other readers at the time were able to derive what they believed to be a symbolic or metaphoric relationship to Japan’s war experience. The long poem sequence “The Dead Child” takes its title from a work by Croatian painter Miljenko Stančić (1926 – 1977), the recurrence of central images provides the reader with plenty material with which to interpret the work. Though Yoshioka’s images are not completely developed allegories or symbols, they are extremely suggestive. There is a rougher edge to the language here than one finds in most of Yoshioka’s other work. Perhaps this too is a comment on the poet’s years in Manchuria.

 

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