Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems by Yoshimasu Gozo (ed. Forrest Gander, tr. various). New Directions. 240pp, $18.95.
Literature, as an art form, has been criticized for not yet challenging itself to experiment as fully as visual art has been doing for over 150 years. While painting has evolved from figurative to more and more abstract, playing with color, breaking out of the canvas, returning to the canvas and finding room to continue figuration and landscape, literature has stayed on a fairly even keel. Moreover, as the argument goes, abstraction and pure experience aren’t always what we expect, or want, literature to deliver.
Of the genres of writing, poetry has serious potential to enter into abstraction, yet, apart from some remarkable experimentation (among them Gertrude Stein, Saroyan, and poets of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school, and so many more) the lion’s share of poetry has stayed representational, even while innovating. Gozo Yoshimasu, an experimental Japanese poet, painter, musician, and shaman, is interested in breaking the written word open. A new career-spanning volume, Alice Iris Red Horse, gives a sense of his powers.
Because he prizes concept over medium, I would argue that Yoshimasu is an artist before a poet. If a project needs to be visual, he is a photographer and filmmaker, as in gozoCiné, ethereal short films that mix sound, music, and spoken word with shaky, sometimes filtered images. (There’s an interview with Gander in the collection in which Yoshimasu discusses this project.) If the concept requires an aural element, he’s a musician and chanter with what has been called “a unique ‘vocalization’ recitation style, which relies upon a highly rhythmic delivery and intense vocal modulations.” If the concept requires language, he is a poet, but even then he is not limited to one language, or even to language at all. In “…Stones Single, or in Handfuls,” translated by Sawako Nakayasu, Yoshimasu uses drawn symbols (two version of an eye) within the text. The poem begins:
The “perpetual world,” and poetry’s role in reaching it, is crucial to Yoshimasu’s vision. When we reach this place, there is no hierarchy in which one thing is valued over the other (or one road valued over another road). There is “no ‘good or bad’ fortune.” All that matters is the presence of song. Has song been achieved? Yoshimasu’s sense of song lies in his embrace of the non-linguistic element of poetry. A poem conveys more than the sum total of its words. Its sense of music, the juxtaposition of that music with meaning, and the way in which a poem reaches out to its subject and the emotions encasing it combine to burst over the dam of mere semantics. Yoshimasu’s use of the drawn-eye symbol exemplifies his lack of attachment to any “rules” surrounding communication. Why would the word for “eye” be better than a symbol? The poem goes on to incorporate multiple layers of language, an ur-text and a sub-text, as well as katakana characters. The only valuation Yoshimasu places on the text is whether or not it achieves “song,” and he’s willing to use any means to reach that “perpetual world.”
In, Alice Iris Red Horse, a range of poetry from throughout Yoshimasu’s career has been gathered and translated by a group of very talented translators (nine in total, though most not working collaboratively). A few interviews are also included, as well as a translator’s note attached to every poem. While some might resistance the idea of using text to scaffold text, an artist like Yoshimasu invites such ways of reading. Just as a good essay about Brice Marden’s marble paintings can contextualize and articulate the emotions they convey, the translator’s notes and handful of interviews in Alice Iris Red Horse shed light on how these poems function beyond the page. As many of these poems are intended to be accompanied in performance by noise and vocalizations, the scaffolding that these “extra” texts provide go some way to help contextualize Yoshimasu’s vision.
Sawako Nakayasu’s translation notes, for example, don’t merely scaffold or provide context for Yoshimasu, but engage in a conversation with him, perhaps revealing the core work in any translation. Discussing “…Stones Single, or in Handfuls,” she explains the first lines of the poem, which refer to a “narrow road.” To my ear this recalls Basho’s book (sometimes translated as) Narrow Road to the Interior, But Nakayasu reveals that Yoshimasu refers not to Basho but to a children’s song “Toryanse”: “This narrow road, where does it go? / This narrow road is the Road of the God Tenjin.” This nursery rhyme has a tune and “many pedestrian crossings in Japan have adopted the melody of ‘Torynase.’” While one walks through the streets of Tokyo, or other cities in Japan, this melody jangles, making the landscape of this poem both everyday and haunted by memory. Nakayasu’s translation notes are particularly lyrical and convey the connection Nakayasu must have felt to Yoshimasu’s poem. She adapts his use of changing font size:
“火 Fire (To Adonis)” engages a reader on multiple sensory levels. Reading it, I felt elation at witnessing an artist achieve something disjointed, abstract, and strange without being in any way cynical or particularly self-referential. This is particularly welcome in light of the recent attention given to poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. While Goldsmith makes a strong point in Uncreative Writing about literature’s lack of true abstraction and the mechanisms around which we sell and consume literature being culpable in that stagnation, his Goldsmith artistic contribution, and that of many American conceptual poets, feels to me cynical about the reader, bordering on patronizing. None of that cynicism is in Yoshimasu. In fact, the openness of his vision has potential to invite criticism of being hokey or unsophisticated.
What’s more, Yoshimasu’s inclusiveness is very refreshing to come across in a contemporary American poetry scene that loves categories and valuation. His semi-identity as shaman, rooted in his interaction on Mount Osore with an itako, a blind female shaman, seems in full mode when is a short poem like “火 Fire (To Adonis),” which skips between languages and reference points, even goes so far as to break down individual words while building a structure of repetition on which to hang rich emotion. He writes:
The “no ‘good or bad’ fortune” of “. . . Stones, Single or in Handfuls” returns to this even playing field of sound and sense. Yoshimasu has more than once evoked Paul Valéry’s notion of poetry as the “hesitation between sound and sense,” and it’s exciting to see how (literally) he manifests the hesitation and balance Valéry described. Adonis, known to Yoshimasu through translation into French, remains in French in this poem, mixed in with English and Japanese, opening up layers of “linguistic connectivity,” as translator Jordan A. Yamaji Smith writes. To create the hesitation, which is also, I believe, where song and the “perpetual world” reside, Yoshimasu combines languages, typographical space, and mystery. He seems at home with mystery in a metaphysical way. In this poem, fire is invoked, Saigyo Hoshi, Mt. Fuji, and Babel and its demise.
As a multi-media artist, Yoshimasu has enough layers and levels of interest to fill volumes. What is most exciting to see in his work, however, are the possibilities for poetry to abstract beyond the limitation of language, while of course using linguistic elements. As Forrest Gander writes in his introduction, “It isn’t romanticized ordinary language Gozo seeks, but a marriage of languages, he tells me, moving his hand in the air as though erasing a blackboard. In some sense, Gozo’s poetry takes place before calligraphy, outside of language, but, as he says, ‘touching it.’” Yoshimasu experiments and pushes the boundaries our languages set for us because he chooses not to observe these boundaries. In an interview included in the collection, Yoshimasu likens himself to groundbreaking artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Klee, and John Cage in the way that he tries to shake up his writing, using visual elements and side notes that “have an uncertain noise about them.” Breaking apart the strictures of writing to achieve abstraction is a drive to spark a certain kind of emotional experience in the audience. Artists who use abstraction know that it can tap into and convey a physical response. It can reach a level beyond thinking (while still having plenty to offer intellectually). Brice Marden created paintings to be “felt.” Rothko’s large paintings were designed to be “intimate and human.” These artists offer an experience, not a message or a story, and that is precisely where Yoshimasu’s most interesting work lies. He writes that he is trying to convey “Uchu no Shitakaze, or cosmic wind” in his work. He claims to court the “beyond.” All of this adds up to creating a poem that is an experience, not one for the poet who recollects the experience in tranquility, but an experience for us to take part in. Yoshimasu’s “perpetual world” is one we are already in, but song, the ineffable power of a poem, opens our awareness to its presence.
Yoshimasu’s inclusiveness includes the universe and he invites us along.
Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge (National Poetry Review Press). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Tinderbox Journal, Volt, and others. Her essays have appeared in The New Inquiry and been anthologized in Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics. She won the 2016 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize and the 2016 Unclassifiables Arts & Letters Contest. She is founding Editor at JERRY Magazine and Associate Editor at Two Lines Press. She lives in San Francisco.
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