Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Something New to Make You Cry : The Poetry of Ishikawa Takuboku

Big beauty, big pain. Blyth says man's essential task--or at least the poet's-- is to reconcile the two.

Yesterday one of my adult students who is aware of my interest in Japanese poetry brought me an issue of a bilingual literary magazine. She drew my attention to one writer in particular.

The writer that my student Kiomi introduced me to has me reeling. How have I never heard of Ishikawa Takuboku (石川 啄木) before?

Since English translations of his work seem scarce on the internet, I'll publish what poems of his I have, and let the man speak for himself. Now settle down and listen.

[Begin plagiarism from unknown Japanese magazine:]

Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912)

In 1910, the first collection of tanka by Ishikawa Takuboku came out with the publication of A Fistful of Sand. The book exerted a major influence on Taishō era poetry with its use of plain everyday expressions as well as its distinctive presentation of each poem in a three-line format.

Tuberculosis and poverty drove Takuboku to his grave at the age of 26, and each one of his poems extends from candid feelings about his anguished life. He was the first to create a poetic style of bittersweet lyricism and everyday grief, using language that mutters and stammers, and ignoring conventional poetic terms as well as the standard diction of modern poetry. While wandering from place to place to support his family with meager wage earned from taxing work, Takuboku composed poems through tears of loneliness, thoughts of the past, and nostalgia for his birthplace in Iwate. The exceptional tanka in this collection reveal this poor city dweller's keen sensitivity by crystallizing his heart's momentary tremors, the plaintive echoes of which still move readers today.

A Fistful of Sand

on a patch of white sand on a tiny island in the eastern sea
drenched in my own tears
i play with a crab

just for once i want a love
that feels like plunging my flushed cheeks
into deep soft snow

so i work
and work, yet life gets no easier
i stare down at my hands

once upon a time--imagine!
my heart
felt like a loaf of fresh-baked bread

i called out my name softly
then started crying
no way back to the spring of my fourteenth year


the grief of leaving my hometown
as if chased by men with stones
never goes away

like some ailment
one day this wave of homesickness hits me
what i see--smoke against a blue sky--is all so gloomy

just for laughs i gave my mom a piggy back ride
but she weighed so little i started crying
and couldn't take three steps

it saddens me to think
how i used to play with the little brother
of my big, now deceased sister's boyfriend

there's nothing sadder than
us guys happy to get together
here away from our hometowns


listening to the candy man's flute
is like
finding the heart i'd lost from childhood

i think back one year
on that woman who said i'll lend you some clothes, go dance
at the feast of lanterns

i feel sorry even for that carpenter's bully of a son
who went off to war
and didn't come back alive

a flash of lightning on the wedding day
of the black-hearted landlord's son
ill with consumption

my cousin
sick of hunting in the hills
got drunk, sold his house, fell sick, then died


like white lotuses blooming in a swamp
floats up clear between bouts of inebriation

can you spare me a cigarette?
i talked in the wee hours with a
tramp who came up to me

right below the window of the bank
blue ink is
spilled on the frosty gravel pavement

just as the white radish roots were growing fat
this one child
was born, then soon died

breathing in
maybe three square feet of late autumn air
my son went off to die

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nishi no Hosomichi, or Go West, but Not Too Far

It’s just me, this old man, silence and the mountains. Just me, this old man (who doesn’t respond to my sumimasen), the silence, the mountains--and the heat, and the waiting, and the contrition and the dread. I can’t believe this is happening. I am sitting on a not-uncomfortable molded plastic seat on a near-deserted platform in the west Kantō backwater of Ogose. You’ve never heard of it? Well neither had I until twenty minutes ago, when I boarded the wrong train and ended up here. I can tell you zip about it, save for two things: I had to go through a forest to get here (which was a nice change of scenery from the bustle and ostentatiousness of Harajuku) and it’s about half an hour in the wrong direction from my job interview—and I’m already half an hour late.

Fuck me.

Should I even bother to show up for a job interview an hour late? I guess so. I mean, I have to pay fifteen bucks round-trip train fare either way. In the meantime, more people are straggling onto the platform. I think the train is coming soon, to bear me back east….Onward, to my mighty destiny!

* See Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi, the On the Road or Dharma Bums of 17th-century Japan.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Everything I need to know I learned in airports.

Everything I need to know I learned in airports. I can’t back that up. I can back it up a little.

You can blog about things. You can do things, and then blog about the things you do. It can make doing things better, or having done them better, or maybe both the doing and the having done. It can make you feel less lonely. I learned this now, in the airport.

I am in Las Vegas. I am in the airport in Las Vegas. Unlike all the other airports, it is not like all the other airports. All the other airports are the same, but this one is different.

You can imagine airports in different ways. You can experience them through different metaphorical lenses, but this is not necessarily a superficial like clip-on-over-your-normal-glasses kind of lens. This is experiential. You feel it weird (your metaphor), especially if you’re sleep-deprived.

I woke up at one in the morning. It’s a bad time to wake up. It’s too early. And then I drove hard northeast across the whole state map, and checked my bag and flew in the air to Las Vegas.

Seeing, unless you have a weird kind of eyes that let you see heat or bones or something, is necessarily superficial.

I flew out of the muggy river-valley morning dawn. For the first half of the flight you’re pushing up, against, exerting and asserting, and for the second half you’re gliding in. We crossed a mountain range—flew right over it. It was imposing and grand and imperious and small and inconsequential. This mountain range--you can see it on maps and from space--from the sky, which you can easily pay to fly in, is irrelevant and redundant and decorative and “awesome.” You push up for awhile over and against the atmosphere, and you glide down and on the other side of the journey there is a dry orange craggy desert. It has layers and colors and depths and shadows.

Your destination pulls you into itself. You start out 99.9% elsewhere and not at all where you’re going, and the next thing you know it has subsumed you and you’re nowhere else but there. For example, at this moment I’m entirely in Las Vegas.

I’m not even going to tell you about the metaphor.

You glide down, like everywhere—this is after banking a tilty right over and within an arm’s reach of those vividly granulated and striated sedimentary peaks—and the flatness spreads out before you. The flatness could be any airport’s town. You glide down like you do anywhere, but not just over and through but into. Already you’re in Vegas. All the dumb tall buildings lie a long arm’s reach below you and apparently you’re going to land on The Strip, and they get bigger and dumber and more opulent and thematic and you touch down craning your head to lock eyes with the fake sphinx. There are palm trees.

One of the ways it’s different: You can’t play Airport Pretty Girls Game. I learned this game from myself on a cold northern airport night. Once I had to spend the night in the Oslo airport. The game is addictive. You look at a pretty girl; you splash around in her glistening blue Scandinavian eyeballs until she looks back, and then you raise your eyebrows very briefly in a sort of vulnerable/quizzical expression before abruptly breaking contact and looking down at your journal like you weren’t falling in love.

Well you can’t play that here because everyone has a fake tan.

Maybe it’s a real tan.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Do not think of football as a secular game.

It is often remarked that to the Japanese mind, every thing is "holy," or at least potentially so. Having no concept analogous to The Fall, the Japanese view the natural world as perfect in and of itself. Far from something to be transcended, nature is to be carefully observed and emulated. Anything worth doing is worth doing perfectly, and any given activity is an opportunity to bring one's life into accord with nature, with the way things are. Still, I was very pleasantly surprised to come across the following description of an ancient Noh drama entitled Mari, or The Football, which in addition to illustrating this kind of Shintō pantheism, is freaking hilarious

(The Football)

A footballer died at the Capital. When the news was brought to his wife, she became demented and performed a sort of football-mass for his soul. "The eight players in a game of football," she declared, "represent the eight chapters in the Hokke Scripture. If the four goal-posts are added the number obtained is twelve, which is the number of the Causes and Effects which govern life. Do not think of football as a secular game."

The play ends with a "football ballet."

The Journal of the great twelfth century footballer, Fujiwara no Narimichi, contains the following story: "I had brought together the best players of the time to assist me in celebrating the completion of my thousandth game. We set up two altars, and upon the one we placed our footballs, while on the other we arranged all kinds of offerings. Then, holding on to prayer-ribbons which we had tied to them. We worshiped the footballs.

That night I was sitting at home near the lamp, grinding my ink with the intention of recording the day's proceedings in my journal, when suddenly the football which I had dedicated came bouncing into the room followed by three children of about four years old. Their faces were human, but otherwise they looked like monkeys. "What horrid creatures," I thought, and asked them roughly who they were.

"We are the Football Sprites," they said. "And if you want to know our names--" So saying they lifted their hanging locks, and I saw that each of them had his name written on his forehead, as follows: Spring Willow Flower, Quiet Summer Wood, and Autumn Garden. Then they said, "Pray remember our names and deign to become our Mi-mori, 'Honourable Guardian.' Your success at Mi-mari, 'Honourable Football,' will then continually increase."
And so saying they disappeared.

Excerpted from Waley, Arthur, The Nō Plays of Japan.

A moderately persistent Googling reveals that the game itself is called not mari but 蹴鞠, kemari, and came from China in the 7th century C.E. Read the wikipedia entry here . Once again I'm astounded and amused by what can be found by even a cursory look into Japanese history and culture. Thank you Arthur Waley!