For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Takashi Hiraide (trans. Sawako Nakayasu). New Directions. 144pp, $16.95.
An Open Letter to Takashi Hiraide Inspired after Reading the Poet’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut
Dear Takashi Hiraide,
(First: please forgive all the numerous asides. I seem to want to address you directly— or as you would have it, “Hey, say it again, one more time. Come see how the dust rises when you say it again, right here, hey you, say it again”—while avoiding any real confrontation at the same time. Second: I should provide you, Hiraide, with some justification of what I am doing here, as this piece rests somewhere between critical review and epistolary essay. I refuse the conventional form in order to better understand your work. And if you can write and address an entire book of “postcards” to an artist—Donald Evans—whom you never met, surely I can write a letter of appreciation to a poet who will only respond with immaculate silence?)
When reading your work (so little of which has been translated into English thus far, while the very little kanji, hiragana, and katakana that I know are not enough for me to read you in the original; perhaps one day) I am reminded of something the Greek poet Manolis Anagnostakes once wrote: “I have no confidence in my own critical abilities.” Such a sentiment always seems to accompany me, to shadow me, when confronted with your texts (and I would prefer not to call it “poetry”; that would be far too reductive and easy. Your projects remind me of something Marianne Moore once said of her poems: that the only reason her work was classified as poetry was because there was no other genre that would apply). Your work mystifies, at least as much as it reveals—like that of William Blake, the English visionary, with whom you have a clear and sincere connection; you delight in revelation, in lifting reality’s curtain to show us the profane in the mundane (I can only wonder what I might learn from your untranslated essay collection, William Blake’s Bat).
Consider the strangeness of the following fragment from your most recent work to be translated (masterfully, I might add, by Sawako Nakayasu) into English, For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. What I find revelatory is your violent yoking of the everyday with the impossible to define.
Just then, I noticed a single rusty rail bursting out of my chest, falling to the asphalt in front of me. I dropped to my knees in time with the landing, and it sped up, stretched even further, and was pulled into the underground stairs before me, which seemed to be cradled quietly in the belly of a lonely, faint black stone architecture. I crawled forward while drawing the track back into my chest, until I finally arrived at the entrance, and peeked in. Far beyond the cavity made of bones, near two intersecting beams of light, something with a dim shadow. And then, something surging forth from who knows when.
The question asked here is a simple one—steeped in phenomenological tenets—but it can never be answered: Where does the self begin and the world end? You, of course, know well enough to not posit an answer, but simply to reveal the importance of asking the right questions.
Like Dante, a poet equally confident in language’s revelatory powers, you have your own Inferno: the Japanese subway system. (And have you read Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette? It also transforms a subway system, this time New York’s, into a hellish selva oscura.) Apparently it was during your daily commute to work on the train that you found time to write the prose fragments that became For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut—that’s not quite an example of Michel de Certeau’s notion of la perruque, but it’s almost there (the idea of stealing/diverting time/energy from work in order to construct the wonderfully subversive, the intensely personal, all under the watchful eye of the boss). But what the fragment above—number 59 out of 111, a number to which you would return to when writing your elegiac One Hundred and Eleven Tankas to Mourn My Father—illustrates is the capacity for the common to transform into the sublime. As you yourself have said, there is nothing truly surreal in For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. According to Eric Selland, another of your translators into English, “these images [are] not surrealistic at all—they [are] extremely minute, almost scientific observations of [Hiraide's] daily commute on the train between Shinjuku and Iidabashi where at the time he was working in book design for Kawade Shobo Publishing.” All the observations in it are actually acute, almost clinical representations of objects on an incredibly small scale, or seen at breakneck speeds. I often remember, as a child, gazing at underground tunnel lights in the subway as the train rushed in/out of Manhattan, and find that you experienced something similar:
The Radiant subway again. Today, too, in this still-radiant subway, small white explosions occur here and there. They are the sounds of joints popping, the sound of an all-too-convenient despair fading away.
Such clinical and exact representations of objects brings to mind another collection of yours, Portrait of a Young Osteopath, a text that has yet to be fully translated into English, and of which I only know through the few translations provided by Selland. But let me illustrate what I mean about your sharp and insightful gaze by quoting this section from Osteopath:
Between the huge rocks where the water’s foam frothed upward to become irregular granules of fire and then fall, possessed by the shadow of a jelly fish just dead, one pair of gloves whirled round and round. The ten fingers, some broken off and others twisted, strained to reach out in every direction. But according to observation, only the stars of partial destruction existed on the tips of the various fingers. There I fixed my gaze still harder.
What that scene enacts is a pseudo-scientific inquiry into objects seen and observed; there is almost too much going on here to ingest on the first go. First, consider the radical shifts in scale and detail: the huge rocks give way to the foam’s froth, which give way to the incorporeal existence of the dead jelly-fish’s shadow—the shadow being a central image in For the Fighting Spirit. Even a hint of the cosmic, “the stars of partial destruction,” haunts this scene. Your poems, Hiraide, traverse spaces big and small to find the most compelling of details; and we haven’t even arrived yet at the surreal appearance of the gloves, possibly representing the fragmented identity of the narrator (the person who speaks the words, “I fixed my gaze still harder”).
This procedure of pseudo-scientific inquiry does two things: first, it allows poetry and the imagination to make “objective” claims that would otherwise only be made by science, and, second, it undermines science’s grip on the empirical and the rational. The melding of these seemingly incompatible disciplines continues in For the Fighting Spirit:
The strange insect called scarabaeus skillfully constructs round pellets from the dung of hoofed animals such as sheep, cows, and horses, and takes them to an appropriate place to be slowly consumed. For its larvae, special pellets are made by selecting only the dung of sheep, which has the most nutritional value and is easiest to digest. First the mother carefully selects the ingredients, then crushes them finely, carrying it to an underground nest. There, beginning here operation in earnest, she creates a beautiful pear-shaped pellet, and through the small hole she has left open until the very end, pushes an egg into the center. When the larva is finally hatched from the egg, it finds itself in the middle of this enormous lump of dung, and peacefully eating its surroundings, little by little grows larger.
An enclosure, the dung heap, gives rise to life, one of nature’s unlikely miracles; and out of the non-poetic—the language of science—comes poetry. Here, the actions of the poet mirror the actions of the beetle.
Why the Walnut?
We’re still left with the unavoidable question: why the walnut? As Alan Gilbert wrote in a review of this collection in The Believer, “A walnut is a train is a poem is a heart is a shadow.” As Sawako Nakayasu explains in her introduction to your collection: “Kurumi, the Japanese word for walnut, is homophonous with kurumi, meaning ‘wrapping’ or ‘enclosure.’” Different kinds of enclosures proliferate in this book, a radically diverse listing of wrappings and shelters. Consider Apollinaire’s head, a humble reminder that the body itself can be the most fragile of enclosures:
(Even as I roll about here, I have never for a moment forgotten about the loving, large head of Guillaume Albert Vladimir Alexandre Apollinairis de Kostrowitzky, injured by a shell and wrapped up in bandages.)
I can’t help but think of Hamlet’s words, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Your work is intensely interested in different spaces, both real and fictitious. (Consider your collection Postcards to Donald Evans. As with Evans, the artist who devoted himself to painting stamps for imaginary countries, so too do you seek to explore what can only be called an imaginary psychogeography. The subway becomes one such place, a real topos but one imbued with the vitality of the imaginative.) This also applies to how you approach genre. Your work is often categorized as being hostile to certain genre conventions, and rightfully so. Again, from the introduction by Nakayasu: “Hiraide himself jokingly refers to it all as sabotage: reflecting upon several decades of intense literary production, he notes that it has been twenty-some years since this ‘poet’ has published a book of poetry.”
As a poet can imagine the infinitely tight interior of a walnut, and give life to that impossible space through poetry, so too can one imagine a different space within any literary genre. You seek to abandon the conventional notions of what it means to inhabit spaces or genre conventions, and this leads to thoughtful and wonderful deconstructions of almost every form available to literature—travelogue, nature writing, poetry, criticism, etc.
And what is the walnut if not another enclosure, a metonymic marker for all other shelters of some kind (whether they be subway car, shadow, Apollinaire’s head, genre, language, or other?). Hamlet, in his nutshell, had only the imaginative capacity for bad dreams (one can’t blame the guy). You, on the other hand, have much brighter and lighter images to convey; this does not make them any less serious since they illustrate the severity of everyday living—the idea, for instance, that even the most prosaic of everyday activities, a subway ride, can be the staging ground for a radical poetics.
Despite the compassion and empathy that one finds in For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, there is also an extreme amount of both despair and pragmatic realism. The shadow that you return to over and over again brings this to mind. The world, despite its fighting spirits, can still be a dark place. For the walnut is not simply that which is present and real, but it can also be the absence of reality itself. Your texts, Hiraide, often bring to mind a feeling of mono no aware, that traditional aesthetic motif found in many Japanese works of art regarding the ephemeral nature of things (at least that is how this Westerner describes such a concept; but I also wonder if this at all resonates with Eliot’s shanti shanti shanty, “the peace which passeth all understanding”? Though to be honest, I have never been able to fully accept Eliot’s Christianized interpretation of this Eastern notion).
I first encountered the notion of mono no aware while reading The Tale of Genji, a text filled, much like The Fighting Spirit, with many moments of staggering poetic beauty. And that, to me, is what your always-shifting walnut represents: the transient way of things. Much like Lacan’s petit objet, it is the inexpressible object of desire; a hole at the center of subjectivity (and whether that subjectivity arises from person, thing or genre remains to be seen; but we rarely ask, what of the life of objects?). The walnut is an empty signifier just waiting to be filled, and once it is, it just as quickly vanishes, turning into something else. This brings to mind Žižek’s reading of the Kinder Egg (which I’ll paraphrase as: I love you, but I love even more that which is inside you, and therefore I must destroy you. Every Kinder Egg, like every walnut, exists to be smashed and destroyed). To name the walnut, in other words, would be to destroy it and its contents. Again we return to the presence of shadows in your texts; Emily Dickinson had her blank(s) and you have your shadow(s). It is probably for the best that you leave us there, in the luminous shadows, waiting for what comes next. (I’ve always had a difficult time saying good-bye.)
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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