This review is 1,300 words
or about 3 printed pages long
Down the rabbit hole
Reviewer’s note: I moved to Rhode Island in January 2004, before Robert Creeley told me that Brown's MFA program wouldn't even accept him. I was unaware I'd meet Mike Magee and Araki Yasusada. In June 2005, Mike Magee asked me to edit Combo Magazine, a job I began in January 2006. However, by October 2005 I was thrilled by an idea that Mike had been discussing: a Combo Books release of the follow-up to Doubled Flowering (ROOF books). Being a freelance translator (NCLR.org in DC), I wanted the chance to discuss theories behind translation. Not interested in parlaying the reality of a pseudonymous author or focusing on the surrounding drama, I sought to expose the language aspects of Also With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords.
— Ryan Daley
To establish that we’re in the same lifeboat, let’s say it’s all Kent Johnson. He’s created everything, conjured from thin air. In what one day might become the Himalayan-size peaks of Illinois proper, he toils in his lair to weave situational authors, forcing readers to upgrade their goggles. And with the latest volley of Yasusada material penned into the virtual reality think tank, Also With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English, the executors of Motokiyu’s work give the reader another gift to tongue. Move closer to the glass. Exist on paper.
Curiously enough, we glimpse Javier Alvarez, back to co-edit, who perished easily enough among the dedicatories of Yasusada’s previous work..
The “this cannot be happening” of Hiroshima revisits “this should not be written” issuing from Yasusada’s critics. All can happen. A hand waited to write Doubled Flowering and Also with My Throat I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords. So the hand must wait. If it hasn’t been given the megaphone, shouldn’t the truthful voice be that one created to emerge from the rubble and rabble rouse?
The “Don’t do as I say not as I do,” of Yasusada’s evidence is a logical mirror of a moment in history when logic absented itself in favor of science. The insertion of a monkey into space — a no man’s land the day of the bomb — had to be done.
The fact that Yasusada/ Motokiyu uses pen pals to evoke such self-imploded translatese shows an attempt (though perhaps so very “salamander”) to revive dead media of handwritten correspondence, or at least communication moderated by Postal Service and not Internet. Subterfuge as subterfugue. Yasusada revitalizes concrete forms of well-crafted letters to save them from the abstraction of an already amok information age. One must wonder if Richard responds to these volleys in his own hand.
Literary gun barrels aside, until this point much of what has gone unnoticed in most Yasusada criticism is Kent Johnson’s use of translation as historical diktat: what is said gets into the vehicle of to push a literary agenda. Conceptually, it is the case we choose to carry art in, not so much the contents. Yet Johnson succeeds, too, in making it matter. Critics of the Yasusada creation fall into the mitt of either support or attack based on whether the reader should take offense or if this remains true literature. What goes unanswered often is our trust of an author who doesn’t exist — as if breath weren’t existent due to our inability to witness the mouth — the text surrenders its creator, though an unexpected one. We don’t predict first hand accounts from absentees, but what if the minutes to the meeting are recorded? New understanding emerges from what is paraphrased and meta-translated; primary sources that weren’t at the scene, but that actually pretend they were. To the reader, the earnest judge/ jury of texts, Constance Garnett’s The Brothers Karamazov represents Dostoyevsky’s work in English as Crane’s Red Badge of Courage remains intact as Civil War literature.
In Yasusada we notice other facets of translation at work. The mistakes of that referential language many times born in scrutiny of both meta-translations and trots, and also the transferability of Johnson’s own Spanish language grammaticism into what supposedly has been written by a Japanese poet. Motokiyu’s footnotes as intermediary foreground that the text might be in doubt. We see this in many cases through Motokiyu’s own footnotes, especially in Yasusada’s letter of September 3, 1926, when he writes, “It is in the city of Miami, which is close to the River of Michigan.” Yasusada refers to Miami, Ohio, only to be corrected in the footnote on the same page, “Obviously, Yasusada is confused in his geography.” The confused party here is Motokiyu, thinking that the writer alludes to the better known of the Miamis, and the one still in existence. Furthermore, Yasusada writes of Wright State University in Dayton, 42 miles away. Motokiyu is a warning label that translation is faulty at best, and that language transfer misses certain cultural markings when we hang ourselves on the wrong tidbits or assume the incorrect referential language to supply the text.
Yasusada’s writing throws up signs that it comes from the homework of ESL classes for native speakers of Spanish. On page 13, Yasusada writes, as aforementioned, “Neverthemore, [sic] I will offer exemplars of my salamander attemptings [sic].” Although Motokiyu explains in a footnote that the word “salamander” is used in Japanese to refer to something of “paltry importance”, his footnote derails understanding. While it is possible that “salamander” had been conscripted for Japanese idiomatic expressions, the word certainly exposes Johnson’s previous Buddhist and Haiku work while alluding to a double entendre that resembles Spanish preposition use. “Attemptings” works as a noun or either gerund or present perfect progressive. We could interpret this as a language fault of Yasusada, who finds himself tempted by “paltry importance”. But Johnson’s Spanish translatese shows “salamander attemptings” more as “intentos de salamandra” in which case the “intentos” or “attemptings” is either an attempt to be the amphibian or represents the creature’s efforts to “attempt”.
As viewed above, many times Motokiyu’s footnotes distract while Johnson’s and Alvarez’s commentary further deludes the reader, giving the text a system of advanced piping, pulling us down the rabbit hole through each incarnation of interpretation. We might ask whether this work is a historical indictment of translation and this same interpretation or a public service announcement on concretizing the role of the reader.
In general, Araki Yasusada’s letters are spongy and tortoise movement along the page. We understand by his correspondence that the basis of his work, and thus his reasons for delaying the publication of these letters is to survey how his reader will interpret the work, a question that Johnson must have mulled over pre-1997. For, “Who or what is it, at this moment, that is reading?”
Throughout numerous missives and hyper-editorial happenings or pseudonymous authorships, Kent Johnson equips himself with history to labor as translator sub-par excellence. In showing the boundaries of translation, he effectively accomplishes what translation seeks to answer but fails to ask. How can we be witnesses to a past that has been left unrecorded? Yasusada “himself” argues this in a letter to Richard dated May 7, 1926. “What was there before your birth? What was there after your death?” What is in place of the reader or writer after their death? Our answer may be that translation remains in the absence of body, only the voyeurism of others on our work lasts posthumously. We are, in fact, reliant on non-existent voices through each translation we read. While Doubled Flowering supplied the witness to the Hiroshima atrocity, Also With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords offers up pre-witnesses, which then reveals Motokiyu’s request, that these letters be published after Doubled Flowering, as one of great importance. Not at all “salamander”.
How can we find the echo to a voice to a history’s crucial moments if it has yet to be written? Santayana often rises to quip that we accomplish this through close study of history to thus formulate our premonitions, checks and conclusions. They are not particular to so much a specific time and place in chronology: that we should look to the pallbearers of history to know when to dress in black, to the vanguard to know when to be voyeurs, to the mourners as to what regimes and despots we might better fight against. Kent Johnson goes beyond quotes, he supplies the witnesses.
You can read seven of these letters in Jacket 9.
 Doubled Flowering. Pg. 30
 Motokiyu writes that, “An idiomatic phrase in Japanese. Something paltry or insignificant is often adjectivized with “salamander… ” Also With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords. Pg. 13.
 Ibid. Pg. 13.
 Also With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords. Pg. 5.
 Ibid. Pg. 5.
Ryan Daley writes poems and lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and attends Brown University, where he is an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing. He is the Managing Editor of Combo Magazine. His work has previously appeared in Spindrifter, canwehaveourballback?, www.the-hold.com http://www.the-hold.com/ , and has upcoming work in Shampoo.
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