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Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Mistaken Indemnities

paragraph 1

If “all poetry is mourning” — a replica of sorrow that we can manage [1] — perhaps Charles Bernstein may not attend that funeral, if the notion of poetry as “comforting” offends his office of poetry [2].  Although I agree with Juliana Spahr who has said poetry helps her think [3], since it helps me think, too, and with Bernstein and others for positing poetry as a possible alternative to deception — I no more want to champion feeling as thought’s backwards cousin, than I want to deny (at least not too often) my need for occasional, even frequent, comforting.


Poetry as entryway to suppressed or undiscovered thoughts/feelings; poets may feel (think) their poems accommodate complex thoughts / feelings better than relatively simplistic (if not deceptive) quasi-linear prose. (Writing in order to get rid of memory / Forget in order to remember and then forget what we’ve remembered  [4].) Who cares if our memories or poems are material, physiological, metaphysical, psychological, fake or real? As somebody said about John Waters’ films [5], the more fake, the more real. Let’s go for “the painfully impossible in the human heart” [6] [brain].


Reginald Shepard and others have championed the poem as experience versus as representation of experience. Shepard has commented he cannot claim to understand poems that have nonetheless changed him in important ways [7]. Today Sylvia Plath would not be ridiculed for “appropriating” the Holocaust any more than I was for appropriating Plath’s lines in collage poems:


They collapse like lungs, the escaped water
On the blank stones of the landing
Nailed to the rafters yesterday
Moldering heads console me
Soon each white lady will be boarded up

That big blue head
In the waters off beautiful Nauset
In his cage of ether, his cage of stars
In a sort of cement well
Papery feeling
Black bat airs
And hands like nervous butterflies
I have hung our cave with roses
There is this one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me
A crocodile of small girls
That life was a mere monumental sham
What holes this papery day is already full of
Surely the sky is not that color

Yet always the ridiculous nude flanks urge
such poverty assaults the ego; caught compels a total sacrifice
dragging trees
She is used to this sort of thing
a million ignorants
How the sun polishes this shoulder!
Now I have lost myself .... am sick of baggage
The tulips are too red ... they hurt me
How in such mild air [8]


The avant-garde has been said to “undermine all certainties, including the certainty that you possess the truth — and are entitled to kill people in its name” [9]. Yet Spahr warns against viewing the lyric as the backwoods relative of the non-lyric: “romantic in the derisive sense” [10]. richard lopez says: “poems, poetry, and poets are sort of an antidote against hate-mongering and thinned-down ideas that give rise to feelings of being absolutely right “ [11]. Experimental poetry has often been linked to political liberalism / anti-patriarchy. Does it follow that more conventional poetry is philosophically tied to the political right? Or to how tightly one holds on to one’s beliefs: an absolutist v. relativistic thang. God save me  (although he may not, perhaps the Goddess will) from the rigid liberals. The poetry of the future admits all sinners, indistinguishable from saints. Gary Sullivan said the multicultural movement — not mere identity politics — has helped create a radical shift in how we look at/ read writing, with more attention to context [12]. I want to think so.


Yet....even if sometimes true ? how often do we look closely at context outside of writing?


“If writing is lying, nothing is true, / and pressure is on the mind, not eye...” [13]


. . . I had, if recently, come to avoid using the royal we — as in “we’re bombing Iraq again” —  [14], yet, pressured to write a paper for a booklet about gender equity and linguistics where i was the only non-Japanese contributor, i resorted to the royal we (we in Japan, we at aichi university of education, we educators, we Japanese, etc.) to alleviate the anticipated dismissal of my “foreign” views.


Whereas I’d like to have written more directly about my own experiences of sexual harassment and racial stereotyping, I had an inkling that was not what was wanted.


I am with you
I don’t understand you
Therefore I understand that you are
Therefore I understand that I am
The sorrow that I do not understand you
The sorrow that you are what you are [15]


I worry about what is outside my mind. I worry about what is inside... about “nihilist thoughts in the brain of God” [16]...or being a madwoman, a victim of the rebellion of words [17]....The principal task is to dissolve the fermentations which, having formed in the body, give rise to madness [18].  Where do the fermentations come from, are they growing now?


Alice Notley has written:


The sons-of-bitches in Washington and Wall Street and
L.A. are still sons and rich ones — admitting a few
exactly like-minded bitches — and worse, self-perpetuatingly
powerful in the tiny glassed-in bubble that contains
all the controls [19].




. . . what if the poem actually is
the cause of our confusions, not outlet
or even inlay [20]


I can try to reject all authority, including the authority of art:


boy toy sequel ironic
pursuit device freeze time

tacked on finale mousy
checkout girl a bag

of feces slapstick epic
sweep inter locks observatory

horribly wooden castrati violently
tortured baritone pneuma smacking

absurd non sequitur centerpiece
hidden subtext but for

a wider market rigorous
censure transformative that might

backfire ouvre a testament
to despair at its

maximum lasso figurine international
brand ground zero decentering

forms of snobbishness exclusive
in groups variations on

death reluctant strangeness impressive
sounding but vacuous liquid

aspects laudations distasteful reliance
petty bourgeois vulgarity lacks

possibility ignorant of being
despair vain and conceited

they remain chemical and
caustic large and mounted  [21].


Perhaps “authoritative” literary journals will reject that poem.


Maybe I’ll look to the critics. i want to know what bad poetry is. So i can write some....


Like the actress the poet who appropriates may be unclear as to who she really is, whether she was really ever anyone, whether that matters, whether anything matters:


To be copied    the copied thorn    all but the copy    picture blotted out  [22]


Although I agree with Ayukawa Nobuo [23], accused of nihilism (Pessimists, too, are often seen smiling / because they know they’re right [24] ), who reportedly believed that appropriation was fine, if coinciding with authentic feelings/ thoughts/ beliefs of the appropriator, and with Park Kyong-Mi, who notes that “words that we call words all belong to others” as we “place [our] own self atop the words of someone else” [25]:


A single bird sang
but not her own song
a different song sang from her throat
her song a different song
the bird didn’t recognize
didn’t know it was a different song
a different someone speaking from her throat [26]


I embraced collectivism, then individualism, then hedonism, then relativism . . . .


Yet a relativist can lose her drive or direction when cultural values she no longer holds previously propelled her into action. For the poet what is left is “the wound and the cure of words” [27]. But it’s only a temporary balm. A fleeting frenzy.


Then nihilism:  “Sometimes nothing is beautiful or true [28]“ .


We dive into collective unconsciousness . . . .


According to Willard Spiegelman [29], John Ashbery surrounds himself with lots of nature in his poems to stave off loneliness. Yet maybe he is just an ordinary shopper. The cover of the Colorado Review Summer 2005 features a desolate broken landscape that reflects my life in spring 2008 in central Japan, in which Australian poet John Kinsella is also lost [30]. Colorado Review Summer 2004 has a dark cloud on the cover and two solitary trees, well two trees can’t be all that solitary, unless they are fighting or hate each other. Within poet John Kryah (almost everyone named in this paragraph so far is a John, and i am obviously a prostitute) in “Perforate” writes: “What hems in around them is the air.” [31]  Even nature confines us like an ill-fitting bra, or every item of clothing i have purchased in Japan since 1989. I may as well don traditional kimono and a black wig, and have eye surgery.


“You grow into the objects watched...” [32]


Misreading John Kinsella . . . in the Colo Review Summer 2005 [33]:


Many may suffer personality changes because of poetry, and become
quite irritable and easy to anger. The person who “wakes up” after poetry often loses the ability to express herself in any other fashion, thus becomes embarrassed when unable to carry on a conversation, get a haircut, or receive the proper item at the supermarket. As a result, many poets self-isolate. Friends, family, and co-workers who see the same external person may not understand why the poet believes she is so different.


The lost object is the poet’s former self. Obviously, depression becomes a big problem. She will write more poems to retrieve the lost object, and will fail repeatedly, tho succeed momentarily.


The Transformation by Juliana Spahr is a story of “how they became aware of not being a part of us or we, in the sense of accusation, whether they wanted to be a they or not . . . about realizing they cannot shrug off this they ....” [34]


As a they myself, I realized I could perhaps become a we again by moving back to the US, but, I’m not sure i can be a we there anymore, and not sure i ever was a we there in fact. And do i want to be we even if i could...:


“You wanted the moment to pass, / but when it did, you wanted it back again.” [35]


In fact (as if sure) however like Kyoko Mori I feel most part of things (or most authentic) when bathed in anonymity, mostly invisible like in an urban coffee shop surrounded by strangers [36]. Or in a forest hemmed in by trees.


A blast of wind
Flowing lips
Poplars desperately flaring up —
Incessantly  [37]


He doesn’t appear to be looking at me
He doesn’t appear to be able to smell anything
Despite his pretty face


Don’t you see that what I need now more than poetry is affection
I said in my heart
In the universe not even a sliver of affection exists
That’s why the stars look so pretty [38]


In a soil of pavement, a mesh of wires . . . / In the
new winter among enormous buildings [39]


I’m heading toward a town I’ll never visit in order
to spend time with people whom I’ll never meet [40]


What to make of the pastoral even where it’s apparent
hills are covered with tank tracks, where sheep contrive
to make this landscape hegemonic green and white,
connecting the dots into a tender portrait apart from
any pre-war sense of these fields; what will have been
shadowed by violence is still an open space, grief
mortgaged to later chaos. You cried yesterday
over the lost child; do not cry again [41]


I walk among enormous words in tiny boots.


Each word mobilizes another. Yet true meaning resides in ads for Botox.  It is better to exist in a poem, or appear to. History is a fiction haunted by language. Poems terrorize meaning, governments terrorize everyone.


Being comes before poetry, only by accident, only sometimes. That’s probably a fiction.


Illusions are comforting. Poetry is comforting to the extent it supports what you already think and feel, or to the extent it helps you forget what you thought or felt, temporarily replacing old ideas and feelings with new ones to momentarily relieve your boredom or despair.


Poetry becomes habit. On second thought, on third thought, on fourth thought....


Onward thought. Is thought habitual? Advertising replaces thought, poetry replaces advertising, death cures poetry [42].


I hope that poems are games where no one wins. The more loopholes one finds, the better the escape:


I celebrate myself and sing myself
I saw in Anjo a pachinko parlor
Jane Nakagawa a kosmos of Chicago the daughter
but now I hear Japan singing [43]


[1] Mori, Kyoto. 1997. Polite lies: on being a woman caught between cultures, p. 75 (New York: Fawcett Books).

[2] I refer to this Bernstein quote:

. . . in the wake of September 11, I felt a continued
commitment to poetry, to poetics and indeed to teaching.
If anything, 9/11 made me feel an intensified sense
of the relevance of the office of poetry. Not the
sense of poetry as 'comforting' in a time
of crisis . . . I mean poetry as a way of thinking in, around,
and through 'the real,' and in particular, a way of going
beyond the deafeningly deceptive representations of
'reality' provided by the massed media.

in: A poetics of impasse in modern and contemporary American poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press; by Susan Schultz, 2005, p. 211

[3] See Juliana Spahr, p. 131 in Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell, American poets in the 21st century (Wesleyan UP, 2007).

[4] from Hank Forest's Party by Ascher/Straus, appearing in The New Review of Literature, Vol 5 No 2 Spring 2008.

[5] If I knew who said this, I would tell you. I heard it in a documentary about Waters aired on Japanese tv some time ago; I was channel-surfing  — it may have been an American program from the Biography channel / Discovery channel about Waters.

[6] Rankine, C. and Spahr, J. 2002. American women poets in the 21st century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, p. 1

[7] Based on comments by Shepard found online in March, 2005, at

[8] These lines were included in two poems, S.P. #1 and S.P. #2, in my book Aquiline (2007), and in the ezine Sawbuck. The poems consist of lines taken from about a dozen and a half Plath poems.

[9] Found in Catherine Belsey, Poststructuralism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[10] From Rankine & Spahr, 2002, p. 1: American women poets in the 21st century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

[11] Said by richard lopez in his interview with michael farrell, in E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S, The Second XV Interviews, published by Otoliths, 2006 and 2007, p. 194.

[12] From an interview with Gary Sullivan by Tom Beckett, in E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S, The Second XV Interviews, published by Otoliths, 2006 and 2007, p. 142.

[13] From the poem Idea in Paul Hoover's book of the same name, published in 1987 by The Figures (p. 9).

[14] See Sets, a poem by Rae Armantrout, in War and Peace 2, edited by Judith Goldman and Leslie Scalapino, O Books, 2005 (p. 96).

[15] From the poem Between by Tomioka Taeko, English translation found in From the country of eight islands, p. 606, Columbia UP, 1986.

[16] Kafka, quoted in Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book in Writing and Difference by Jacques Derrida, trans. Alan Bass, p. 66.

[17] In Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book in Writing and Difference by Jacques Derrida, trans. Alan Bass, p. 68.

[18] From Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, trans. Richard Howard, 1965 / 1988, New York: Vintage Books, p. 164.

[19] From Women and poetry by Alice Notley, in Coming After, 2008, The University of Michigan Press, p. 170.

[20] From the poem Another Childhood by Susan Schultz, in And Then Something Happened, p. 7 (Salt, 2004).

[21] A poem by me titled Lament A, forthcoming in my book Exhibit C (Ahadada Books, 2008) and at the time of this writing [August 2008] not accepted for publication by any poetry journal.

[22] From the poem Copy by Matsuura Hisaki, English translation in Three Factorial, p. 26.

[23] Ayukawa's attitude toward appropriation / collage poetry (a practice he engaged in) is mentioned in Lowitz and Oketani's Kaya Press translation, America and Other Poems by Ayukawa Nobuo, 2008.

[24] From the poem The Speed of Thought by Paul Hoover in Idea, p. 21 (The Figures, 1987).

[25] From My Asian Bones are Ringing by Park Kyong-Mi (English translation), in Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry and Essays by Women (ed/trans Sawako Nakayasu, 2006, Belladonna/Litmus).

[26] From the poem Bird by Yona Volach, English translation in Dreaming the Actual, p. 254 (SUNY, 2000).

[27] The title of a book of Plath scholarship by Steven Gould Axelrod, 1990, The John Hopkins University Press.

[28] From the poem Idea by Paul Hoover, p. 9 (see note 24).

[29] How Poets See the World by Williard Spiegelman, 2005, Oxford University Press.

[30] Poetics recidivous and the de-poetics of lightning, herbicides, and pesticides by John Kinsella in the Colorado Review 32:2, Summer 2005, special issue: trouble in the garden.

[31] From Perforate, a poem by John Kryah, on p. 81 of The Colorado Review 31:2, Summer 2004, special issue: writing of the new west.

[32] From the poem Apology for the Senses by Paul Hoover in Idea, p. 11 (see note 24).

[33] I've adapted Kinsella (see note 30), p. 95

[34] See Juliana Spahr, the Transformation (Atelos, 2007), p. 21.

[35] From Apology for the senses by Paul Hoover in Idea, p. 11 (see note 24).

[36] From Kyoko Mori, 1997, Polite lies: on being a woman caught between cultures, p. 75 (New York: Fawcett Books).

[37] From an excerpt of Time of Sky by Kawata Ayane, English translation on p. 9 of Three Factorial.

[38] From the poem Panjii (Pansy) by Tanikawa Shuntaro (Japan’s most famous poet) in English translation in Modernism in Practice: An Introduction to Postwar Japanese Poetry (Leith Morton, 2004, University of Hawaii Press, p. 176). I've masculinized the pronouns of the original. Morton also reports Tanikawa’s comments from a 1997 interview when he stated he felt the practice of poetry was bad for him, a kind of disease from which to flee, at a time he decided to go on hiatus from poetry writing after a very successful 40 year career (see pages159—161 of Morton).

[39] From ‘Pedestrian’ in George Oppen: Selected Poems (New Directions. 2003).

[40] From the poem a mamaist vehicle in mamaist: learning a new language by Alan Botsford Saitoh, 2002, Minato No Hito.

[41] From And Then Something Happened, p. 125, by Susan Schultz, Salt, 2004.

[42] The preceding paragraphs are currently part of a long poem-like work in progress by me under the title OP / US.

[43] I became increasingly attracted to Whitman's work after moving to Japan. The poems referred to are ones I teach early in my undergrad introductory course in American poetry at a university of education in central Japan. Anjo is the name of the small city in which I live.

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Originally from the U.S.A., poet and activist Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is now based in central Japan. Her poems and essays have appeared widely in the international small presses. Her first poetry book, Skin Museum, was published in 2006; her second poetry collection, Aquiline, in the northern Fall of 2007, and her third book of poetry is titled Exhibit C (forthcoming in 2008 from Ahadada Books). She works as an associate professor at a Japanese national university of education, where she teaches courses in American poetry, pedagogy, gender, and intercultural studies. Email is welcome at <janenakagawa

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