Review: DOUBLED FLOWERING: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada.
Roof Books. 168 pages, $14.95. ISBN 0-937804-71-1
Grateful acknowledgment to The Nation, where this piece first appeared on July 13, 1998.
You can read six different articles on the Yasusada phenomenon here in Jacket.
This piece is 2,100 words or about six printed pages long.
Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada is the most controversial poetry book since Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Lingua Franca devoted a special section to it. The Boston Review hosted a forum of responses to it. The American Poetry Review featured an insert of Yasusada's poems preceded by a portrait of the writer. On August 9, 1997, Asahi Shinbun, Japan's leading newspaper, published a front-page story on Yasusada. Poems and letters from the book have appeared in major literary journals in the United States, England, Australia, Russia, Spain, Israel and Italy.
And yet Araki Yasusada - the diarist from Hiroshima, the Zennist, the member of a prominent literary group called Layered Clouds, the Jack Spicer afficionado conversant in French and English, the family man whose family was devastated by the nuclear blast, the writer whose moving poems, letters and notes comprise the text of Doubled Flowering, this Araki Yasusada - apparently never existed. The translator and critic Eliot Weinberger suggested as much in the Village Voice, writing on "witness poetry," which he decries as "a set of biographical criteria that favors verifiable experience over imagination." Lingua Franca and others followed suit in publishing articles about the hoax. Wesleyan University Press, which had been interested in printing the Yasusada volume, dropped the idea.
No one has yet claimed to have written the book, despite suspicions that the Yasusada materials were generated by Kent Johnson - a professor at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, and the self-proclaimed literary executor of Yasusada's main "translator" (whose reality is also dubious). Critic Marjorie Perloff charged in the Boston Review that Johnson is the author, although he denies it. The time for a hoaxster's revelation would seem to have come and gone; but Yasusada's work is more than a mere hoax, even if his biography is.
Most of the individual poems were published in respected journals (including Grand Street and Conjunctions), their fictional authorship undiscovered, as the work of Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada. Along with Yasusada's own purported writings, there are numerous footnotes, scholarly commentaries and references that weave, in the manner of Woody Allen's Zelig, documentary facts into Yasusada's putative biography (for instance, references to actual Japanese poets, literary groups and affairs in Hiroshima). While there seem to be enough anachronisms (a reference to scuba-diving gear, for example, in a poem dated before the invention of such) and outright mistakes (a Japanese woman given a name that would only be used by a man) to suggest that something is awry, the general impression given is one of scholarly thoroughness and detail. As a result, many editors published Yasusada believing that he was, indeed, a Japanese poet and nuclear bomb survivor. Many of them have been quite angry to learn that they were taken in by an elaborate fiction. Some have suggested that no one who has not experienced an event as cataclysmic as the bombing of Hiroshima has the right to "pretend" to have done so, that such a pretense demeans the people who truly suffered there.
But before we launch into that furiously raging debate, let's consider the work itself, which, until questions concerning its authorship waxed full, provoked only wide-ranging international praise. The book's introductory note serves to identify the bulk of the text as translations made by three Japanese scholars of Yasusada's recently discovered notebooks. The ensuing assemblage of diary entries, Zen exercises, English class assignments, letters and drafts of poems coheres loosely around themes of loss and authorship.
The first poem, for example, begins with the speaker conversing - in a garden at night - with a turnip that he mistakes for "the severed head of my / mad daughter lying on the ground." References to the death of Yasusada's daughter and wife recur hauntingly throughout the book. At one point in "Suitor Renga" the author says, "You are a little girl with blistered face, pumping your legs at a great speed beside the burning form of your Mother." In another poem, "The crying girl sounds like a loon." Yasusada makes references to "grief-stones" and to the place where "a temple once stood / As seventy thousand voices are fused by a sphere and." The sentence stops there. In a modernist parataxis, this fragmentation, the lopped-off sentence, iterates on the syntactical level the speaker's loss by intimating a world come prematurely to an end.
But to say that the book's themes concern loss and authorship isn't any more significant, really, than observing that the theme of Shakespeare's sonnets is love. Theme is only a minor aspect of poetry, and whether in the form of grammar exercises, Zen aphorisms, haibun or diary notations, the bulk of Yasusada's work is poetic. For most readers, what counts is a poem's representation of inner life. Let's consider a Yasusada poem and ask ourselves whether the fiction of the poem's authorship makes it less emotionally authentic, or whether the poem's revelation of human experience and feeling is exaggerated by our presumption that it was written by an actual Hiroshima survivor and not by someone else. Here is the complete text of "Dream and Charcoal":
And then she said: I have gone toward the light and become beautiful.|
And then she said: I have taken a couple of wings and attached them to the various back-parts of my body.
And then she said: all the guests are coming back to where they were and then talking.
To which she said: without the grasp-handle, how would you recognise my nakedness?
To which she replied: without nothing is when all things die.
Which is when she had a wild battle with the twigs.
Which is when the charcoal was passed from her body to mine.
Which was how she rose into the heavens, blinding the pedestrians.
Which was how our union was transposed into a dark scribble.
Which became the daughter calling, calling my name to wake me.
The poem starts with a modernist move, an "And," as though it had begun prior to our appearance as readers. It ends with the familiar device of the speaker waking from a dream. But what occurs in the middle rescues the poem from cliché. The accumulation of death images - "gone toward the light," "a couple of wings," "when all things die," "she rose into the heavens" - is interrupted by contrary images of guests at a party, of a woman playing with twigs, and by enigmatic questions and assertions. One emotional texture is spliced with another in a manner that suggests both the distrust of a unitary speaking voice and traditional narrative development typifying literary modernism and the contrastive tonal patterns and heuristic leaps typifying classical Japanese renga. The book borrows modes, images and forms from both Japanese and Western literatures, complicating presumptions concerning its authorship. In this cultural encounter, Yasusada's work seems to stress the simultaneity of creation and transformation, of resonance and influence. |
Several sentences in "Dream and Charcoal" have that lexical awkwardness and syntactical formality suggestive of inexpert translations. No native speaker, for instance, would say "the various back-parts of my body" or refer to the body's "grasp-handle." The very strangeness (and, for me, the strange beauty) of the poem in English only emphasizes its supposed translation. The English has been subverted by a foreign language; foreignness and nativeness, then, are consubstantial in the sense and syntax. We might even say that Yasusada's frequent "translatese," the union of two languages, has been "transposed into a dark scribble." The very grammar conspires to merge authorial identities.
And yet despite disjunctions in tone, grammar, form and structure, despite the indeterminate pronouns - are there two women who speak or does one reply to her own questions and assertions? Can we assume that the last speaker is the husband? - the poem communicates an undeniable emotional power. And elements of scenario and agency do cohere. We might infer, for instance (and this inference is bolstered by other poems), that the woman having a "wild battle with the twigs" is the poet's wife observed in a moment of childlike playfulness. References to her "nakedness," to her beauty and to something being "passed from her body to mine" eroticize the relationship. When she dies, "rose [rises] into the heavens," the poet's love for her continues as a writing, a "dark scribble." As Shakespeare tells us, poetry is a miracle of presence if "in black ink my love may still shine bright." By writing about her, Yasusada keeps her alive, even if she never lived. Even if he never lived. This Yasusada poem seems to me as accurate in its representation of longing and grief as the poems by Petrarch, written in Laura's lifetime, imagining Laura dead.
Finally, the pages of Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada are stunning as poems and failures as the historical documents they turn out not to be. They are alternately funny, ironic, irreverent, bitter and passionate. I do not think that they add up to a kind of joke, as some critics have argued, by seducing North American readers with their Orientalist exoticism, by fooling us into liking them for all the wrong reasons, or by taking advantage of our desire for Western clichés of Japanese and Chinese writing. Clearly, though, the poems do make jokes, setting up puns, proposing anachronisms, making purposeful factual and typographical mistakes and juxtaposing versions of translations from classical Japanese poetry, novels, Hiroshima literature and Zen manuals with formal concerns - dissonance, collage, ellipsis, fragmentation - associated with literary modernism. But the book does not merely "play into the residual guilt of contemporary American readers" or serve mainly to poke fun at the American market for "authentic" witness poetry by parodying it, as Marjorie Perloff has suggested. Sentimental references to kimono sleeves soaked with tears, to moon and hair and perfume may seem parodic, but they occur often enough in the poems of the imperial anthologies and, to a lesser degree, in the Manyoshu, and Yasusada always complicates such images. John Solt, a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College argues that Yasusada "plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture . . . and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony." But I think he misses the point, too.
Instead, Yasusada proposes a radical contemporary aesthetic response to one of the worst human atrocities, what Kai Bird, Gar Alperovitz, and others have amply demonstrated as the absolutely unnecessary nuclear bombing of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American military forces. Using modernist strategies, the author(s), steeped in translations of Japanese literature and feeling uneasy, even - if they are Americans - complicit with the U.S. foreign policy that generated such mass destruction, invented an imaginative, political and poetic act of empathy. To write poems concerning Hiroshima, they felt it necessary to imagine themselves as the other, "the enemy." They relinquished their own identities as authors and became invisible, as the Hiroshima victims themselves disappeared. It is an impossible gesture of solidarity, since one cannot become someone else and since one cannot truly imagine one's way into an actual culture considerably different from one's own. But nevertheless, it is a gesture worth making if its resultant poetry is worthwhile as art, as poetry, as - finally - contemporary Western poetry. In this gambit, Doubled Flowering is an astonishing success.
As to whether the application of a pseudonymous history to such a work is, as one writer claimed, "a criminal act," or whether Hiroshima's vastness and horror exceed any common understanding of subjectivity, I leave it to you, tender and merciless readers, to determine for yourselves. Other pointedly relevant readings would include the books May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow / An Anthology of Japanese-American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, Writing Degree Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, and Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age.
After the one hundred and twenty pages of Yasusada's notebooks, there are forty pages more of critical commentary and interviews that help to focus the issues at stake. You might want to add your response to what is already a kind of Talmudic document published with commentaries around translations of notebooks written by an author who does not exist about a place that was once blotted out. Modern art, it has been said, is something with which to think. Bernard Berenson once noted, "A complete life may be one ending in so full an identification with the non-self that there is no self to die."
Flipping through the book's pages again, I'm drawn to a poem toward the end titled "March 3, 1970." It reads as a suitable, if bathetic, postscript to this review:
Where our house once stood
the pinecones have fallen
among the pinecones.
Grateful acknowledgment to The Nation, where this piece first appeared on July 13, 1998. You can also read twenty pages of letters between Kent Johnson and Akitoshi Nagahata, Associate Professor of English at the Faculty of Language and Culture, Nagoya University, Japan, exploring the tensions and ambiguities behind the Yasusada affair, in Jacket # 2.
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