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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Norbert Francis reviews
Also, With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English
by Tosa Motokiyu (edited by Kent Johnson & Javier Alvarez)

Cumberland RI: Combo Books, 2005. 53 pp. $12.00, paper.

This review is about 5 printed pages long.

A curious asymmetry


paragraph 1

A second appearance of Araki Yasusada has prompted this reader of the poems attributed to him to reflect on an aspect of the work itself and the wide-ranging commentary that its publication has provoked. The current editors of translator Tosa Motokiyu’s compilation, Johnson and Alvarez, have deepened the provocation (in the broad sense) occasioned in the first instance by Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (1997).


For my (narrow) purposes, it is Mikhail Epstein’s respective critiques, appended to each edition, that I will primarily attend to, as they are pertinent to an important discussion in one of the sub-disciplines within the broad field of applied linguistics: the study of the contextual constraints on written expression. We have before us yet another example of how the study of literature helps researchers better frame what in the end (for us) are empirical questions, requiring the application of a set of necessarily prescribed methods. Keeping these strictly separate, by the way, is how full advantage is taken of the extra-disciplinary framing opportunities, that for the most part we neglect unnecessarily.


For readers of Jacket unfamiliar with the earlier controversy, greater part of the heated objection to the work stems from the revelation soon after its initial publication that the author of the poems and letters was actually the translator himself (Tosa Motokiyu being his pseudonym), who the present editors admit was a close friend and collaborator. The translator’s testament, furthermore, stipulates that the true identity of the writer/author be never revealed. Crucially, the portrayal of Araki Yasusada as a Hiroshima survivor of 1945, for many, crossed a line. What that limit might be is part of what is interesting about both the commentary and the poems and letters themselves. In a 1997 interview, annexed to Doubled flowering, Johnson and Alvarez offered an initial reply to those who took offense, pointing out that rather than a “guise,” Tosa Motokiyu’s portrayal of the hibakusha poet should be taken as an attempt at entering into an “identity and voice” for the purpose of facilitating a gesture of transference and empathy. They go on to specify what, for us, here, is the central concept to be considered: “[a] fusion between the fictional personae and the possibility of writing” (p. 128). The Yasusada project, together with the public interventions of its detractors, it should be said in fairness, explores the boundaries of this idea. By no means is it a new idea; but perhaps because the questions of hypothetical reader and imagined authorship remain unresolved, the hard cases, like this one, make the questions current again in an unexpected way.


Readers are directed to the public record of the various exchanges beginning with Jacket magazine: Jacket 2, Jacket 4, and Jacket 5. The reason for this reader’s interest in the material is how it brings into focus important ancillary issues related to an ongoing work in progress on the origins and development of aesthetic genres <>. Historically/prehistorically, in the evolution of human culture, and from the point of view of how individuals (over the span of their lifetime) acquire the relevant aesthetic abilities, what aspects of artistic sensibility and its underlying competencies emerge from internal, inherent, human nature, and how are these conditioned by external social constraints (the “contextual” factors)?


Here is what’s at stake in this particular hypothesis of writer and reader, so far most clearly formulated by critic Epstein, who we will try to follow closely. Poetic forms are at the same time the most primitive[1] and most refined of the aesthetic discourses; developmentally in children, they precede the emergence of language, later to emerge in adults among its most advanced expressions. This may be true as well from an evolutionary point of view, genetically, although this argument will be put aside for now. Yasusada’s letters to “Richard” (compiled in the 2005 collection) in second language learner English[2] called forth the pointed assertion that: “Poetry is forgetfulness or negligence of language, either by the one who has achieved perfection in it or by the one who is just a beginner — a child or a foreigner” (Epstein, in Tosa Motokiyu, 2005, p. 41). Both will take their privileges with the syntax of phrases and sentences. Exemplified we see in the letters how “license” applies intersectingly (surprisingingly so, we might add) to both the agrammatic constructions of the language learner and those of the linguistically competent speaker/poet. In modern times, the idea can be traced back to Vygotsky (among others): man’s dissociative and (re)creative capacity implies “deformation and reelaboration,” from isolable features. To be able to recreate them [the child] must ...“first break the natural association of elements in which they were initially perceived,” thus serving as the foundation of abstract thought, figurative understanding and all creative work (2004, p. 25). Keeping these proposals by Vygotsky in mind, it will occur to the reader in the letters the same “blissful disorder” that Epstein calls our attention to. This observation is made, happily, in the postscript so that we may discover it for ourselves (“each word [of the letters to Richard] is weird”). Yasusada, in an apparently unsent draft of a letter to literary critic Kobayashi Hideo, remarks:


My letters to pal-pen Richard as a kind of epistolary shishosetu quite complicated immensely by the vaudevillian nature fact of their English.[3] I see each letter as a “scene,” so to speak, a making shaping of an abstract form out of strokes of color. Cezanne the foreign tongue But it English is like painting with the beak of a living bird, dipped its beak wing dipped in the paint of words. In this way, you see, I don’t have to worry too much about the “homogenizing funnel of perspective”: Language is a wind which that tosses the leaves I (p. 32).


All this leads Epstein to a theme previously developed in the 1997 edition: hyperauthorship.[4] Space precludes even the most summary treatment of this concept on this occasion. Rather, it will be exploited for the narrow purposes alluded to earlier. The question, for both researchers and artists, is about the relationship between the context of the writing-act (more broadly, to also include the speech-act) and the text itself. Context takes in the following: communicative or expressive purpose, distinctive features and peculiarities of the author (now, not necessarily the same as writer), intended audience, the experiences, understandings and background knowledge of each, and how each one perceives and understands the other and the other’s understandings and misunderstandings. And now we can add that audience is not necessarily the same as the reader, the material, psychologically real, potential reader, or otherwise. As a subfield of inquiry, it might belong to that of the meta-pragmatics of writing, a fundamental introduction being Olson (1994). What are the limits of decontextualization; or rather, which aspects of recontextualizating a product of written expression are appropriate and permissible, and under what circumstances? How is understanding affected when readers’ expectations about the different interfaces between text and context are violated (made vulnerable or broken outright)? What are the limits of this transgression? None of this, as most readers of Jacket will recognize, is new.


But, one of the points that Epstein and the caretakers of the manuscripts are making, it seems, is that there is a curious asymmetry of late in regard to this modest consideration. The claim isn’t that there are no limits, but rather that the relevant boundaries can be the object of rational inquiry. And it happens that from the largely one-sided discussion over the years, one gets the impression that at the context-dependent end of possibilities, there is no limit, a view that appears to represent a growing consensus among scholars in the fields of multiculturalism, cultural and ethnic studies and allied disciplines. The idea that context, ideology and cultural knowledge deeply penetrate all aspects of interpretation and understanding of texts goes largely unchallenged these days. A welcome exception, not surprisingly as part of the public exchange around the publication of the poems, is Weinberger’s (1996) assessment of “witness poetry”: venturing a rough characterization, it could be taken as a highly context-embedded poety, a verbal art form validated by the author’s biography, a poetry with a “message” that is informed by a verifiable testimony. One thing that the Yasusada project has helped to revive, maybe, is the possibility of a serious rethinking about the limits of context-saturated “reading of the world,” desperately in need, by the way, of a good measure of critical assessment itself. This appears to apply, interestingly, to both the understandings of prosaic discourse and the apperception of verbal art, and even to musical cognition, to put the proverbial cards on the table.


None of the above cited authors, or any other reader who has found Tosa Motokiyu’s compilation evocative in some way, may concur with this way of dividing up sides in the controversy. But this is how the poems and letters have resonated with one reader, at least.


1. “Primitive” here to include the sense of: primary/original/fundamental, not derived from or reducible to something else, closely approximating an early ancestral type.

2. Translator Tosa Motokiyu draws recourse on this same figure of composition, less explicitly, in Doubled flowering.

3. In an earlier letter to Richard, the author closes with a related observation, that should be of certain interest to students of linguistics: “Thank you for reading. I think my English is like fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are parts of a vessel” (p. 30).

4. “Hyper” is to be taken as combining the sense of both “excess” and “pseudo” (Epstein et al., 1999).

Works Cited

Epstein, M.; Genis, A. & Vladiv-Glover, S. (1999). Russian postmodernism: New perspectives on post-Soviet culture. New York: Berghahn.

Olson, D. (1994). The world on paper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42, 7–89. (English translation of 1930 monograph).

Weinberger, E. (1996). Can I get a witness? Village Voice Literary Supplement, July 1996.

 — Norbert Francis, Northern Arizona University
April 14, 2007

Norbert Francis with SEMYCA coordinator Pablo Rogelio Navarrete Gómez

Norbert Francis is professor of Bilingual/ Multicultural Education at Northern Arizona University. Recent research projects include studies of the origin of music and aesthetic genres and traditional Nahuatl narrative in Central Mexico as a member of the Seminario de Estudios Modernos y de Cultura Acal-lan (SEMYCA) Pictured here (left) with SEMYCA coordinator Pablo Rogelio Navarrete Gómez in San Miguel Canoa, Puebla.