My Floating Mother, City, Kazuko Shiraishi (trans. Yumiko Tsumura and Samuel Grolmes). New Directions. 160pp, $14.95.
Born in Vancouver in 1931 and raised in Japan, Kazuko Shiraishi rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s as a countercultural figure, moving in the orbit of the American beats—she was the first to translate Allen Ginsburg into Japanese—and traveling the world performing her poems to the accompaniment of jazz. Her early work, written in relatively short, unmetrical, casual-sounding lines and rife with bizarre, surrealistic imagery, is deliberately opaque, and for every poem that still works well—such as “Tiger,” with its menacing opening,
All day long
A tiger kept coming in and out.
The room was falling into ruin and
Broken arms, legs, and chairs were
Crying at the sky.
—there’s another, such as “My America,” whose too-great debt to the beats renders it stale:
The night train to Chicago
Let’s take the A train
Lou Rawls’s “Goin’ to Chicago Blues”
We were so blue
As blue as tomorrow’s blues.
My Floating Mother, City, a new English-language collection of Shiraishi’s recent poems, opens with the poet turning back to those days, re-reading her first book, Falling Egg City, which was published when she was twenty. As she begins “The Day I Visited Falling Egg City 50 Years Later,” she’s confident of what she’ll discover there:
I went to Falling Egg City yesterday
I thought it was the old place of 50 years ago.
The images and characters from the poems remain familiar: an elephant man, and a lion who is
from way back when anyone would love to live
his life that way but
And it is from that “but” that the rest of the book springs. For as she reads, Shiraishi realizes that while the book of her youth may be the same, she is no longer the person who wrote it, having been irrevocably changed by time and life:
a leap is already
a tragedy it is the same with any
will and fate.
That the quotidian tragedy of time is signified by the familiar, yet utterly changed landscape of youth is our first indication that the presiding spirit of My Floating Mother, City is Odysseus, who has played a part in Shiraishi’s poetry since the early days. Odysseus has long represented the plight of the exile, changing in a different way and at a different pace from the homeland for which he longs; as Chinese-American poet and novelist Ha Jin explains in his book of essays on exile, The Writer as Migrant,
When Odysseus actually lands on the shore of Ithaka, something extraordinary happens. . . . As if a stranger, Odysseus fails to recognize his own homeland. His confusion originates from two facts: first, in his twenty years of exile, he has changed and so has his memory of his homeland; second, his homeland has also changed, no longer matching his memory of it. . . . [O]ne cannot return to the same place as the same person.
Odysseus’s presence in My Floating Mother, City is made explicit soon enough, in “Travel Is a Dream You Do Not Come Out Of”:
I wonder if Orpheus who returned from the land of the dead
and Odysseus who returned to the island of Ithaca
both woke from a dream
Orpheus and Odysseus, the sweet singer and the wanderer in search of a home, appropriate for this aging, peripatetic poet, who in these poems wanders from Japan to Berlin to London to Iowa and speaks by turns for herself, her grandmother (plunged into bureaucratic limbo because of a lost passport), and various friends and influences. The poems in this volume are simultaneously more staid—their imagery more controlled, relying far less on the simple shocks of juxtaposition—and more free-flowing than her earlier work. Shiraishi writes here in long lines with interpolated breaks that look strange to the eye, but fall naturally on the ear. At times she deploys those breaks to give the poems a wave-like rhythm, reliable yet never staccato, the separated phrases taking on the comfortable pace of breath, as in these lines from “Even a Phantom Gets Thirsty”:
we don’t know what will become of tomorrow
nevertheless there is also something I have understood
even a phantom gets thirsty
At other times, the lines feel more like a muted call and response, as in “The Cave of the Soul Shrouded in Mist”:
the heavens are cloudy never clear up
day turns to darkness instead of sunflowers.
Shiraishi’s language, at least in these translations by Yumiko Tsumura and Samuel Grolmes, is relatively plain, and while at times it can seem too conversational, at others Shiraishi uses that stripped-down simplicity to impart the power of myth, as in “Sumiko’s Summertime”:
she began to bake
the bread of loneliness in her oven but the guests
who had come to eat one by one
deer fox hares badgers and birds and young girls and boys
all disappeared and the woods are empty
the woods and the magic disappeared.
Several of the poems offer distant echoes of haiku and tanka, as in the closing lines of “Intimacy,” where what has seemed a sprawl of thoughts unexpectedly resolves itself into a compact reflection:
mankind is deserted even by intimacy on the autumn globe
crying like a cricket with a broken leg
ah, someone is chirping in the grass field
inti inti in ti macy
But through all the techniques and styles, it is Odysseus, “the Ulysses of my soul,” to whom Shiraishi returns again and again; he serves as a constant companion for this poet of multiple homelands augmented by a lifetime of travel and reading across cultures, trafficking in “a comfortable language and bits of / uncomfortable other languages.” The best poem in My Floating Mother, City, “Sendai Metro, Greece Street,” pays homage to Bansui, who was the first to translate Homer’s account of Odysseus into Japanese,
this mere boy
who every night envisioned a strange ship
tossed on the sea and blown skyward.
Each time he tried to climb onboard,
he was flung backward.
A visit, perhaps imagined, to Bansui’s widow off the Sendai Metro stop leads to reflections on desire, a calling, the home we ache to return to (“intimate stories about a cushion, a fire”), and the exile we can never truly escape.
And it is through the inspiration provided by Bansui, “one of Odysseus’s intimates,” that we begin to see hints of a solution to the problems of time and change that haunt the book, posed directly in “Can Can”:
many years have gone by like that it’s the same even if tens of years go by
this is what it means to fall in love with a myth.
For it is in Sendai, thinking of Odysseus’s loyal dog, the only one to recognize him on his return, that Shiraishi begins to see that,
Here the past turns backward
from day to day,
past and present both given
to dreams beyond dreams.
The change that separates us from the past need not be insurmountable, if we remember that it is a continuity rather than a break; each moment points both ways, and with attention, imagination, and sustained engagement we can just make out the twists and turns that got us here. The breathless ramble of “An Hourglass” lays it out:
also when I dove into the time called a birthday like being covered up in bed I found myself inside a tunnel and could see both ways the way I came from and the way I go from now.
The book of fifty years ago is still there for us, as strange yet familiar as a recurrent dream; all we have to do, Shiraishi suggests, is open it.
Levi Stahl is poetry editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
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