The Imagination of a New Era: new translations of Japanese modernism
Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems
by Hirato Renkichi, translated by Sho Sugita
Ugly Duckling Presse
USD 17.00 AU
Published September, 2017
The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa
by Chika Sagawa Translated by Sawako Nakayasu
USD 13.97 AU
Published April, 2015
‘The Japanese,’ writes Ezra Pound in a 1914 essay on Vorticisim, ‘have had the sense of exploration.’ More specifically, Pound believes, they have a feeling for the image, for what he calls the ‘super-position’ of two brief ideas to create a whole. Pound’s own poetic innovations in the 1910s depend on this technique, which he traces to the short Japanese poetic form of hokku (an older term for what was then becoming known as haiku). In so doing, Pound inserts Japanese poetry into the heart of European modernism, initiating a familiar narrative of cross-cultural borrowing that continues to shape our understanding of the art of the period. Pound—and European modernism itself—(so the story goes) is innovative in part because of his willingness to look abroad, to cross-fertilise the moribund tradition he inherited with Eastern forms.
In Pound’s version of this encounter, Japan—and the East in general—is curiously ahistorical. It is imagined as a timeless repository of cultural forms to which Pound and other European modernists might turn to find their way out of the impasse of their contemporary moment. In the Vorticism essay, Pound cites two examples of haiku: a famous poem by sixteenth-century poet Arakida Moritake (whom Pound does not name), and a spontaneous composition by an anonymous ‘Japanese naval officer,’ relayed to Pound by his friend and fellow poet Victor Plarr (the only one of this trio who is named in the essay—and the only one who produces no poetry). Although Pound’s examples were written four centuries apart, he treats them as reflections of a single, timeless form, apparently so resistant to historical change that their provenance need not even be noted.
More: by naming neither of the poets, Pound creates the impression that these haiku are not individual creations, as works of Western literature are generally understood to be, but simply the spontaneous expressions of a timeless and impersonal tradition: the essence of ‘Japaneseness.’ Thus divorced from history, the East becomes an integral part of European modernism’s attempt to rejuvenate and recreate Western literature, precisely because it is imagined to remain stubbornly outside of modernity, immune from the principle of cultural change. In its extra-modern wholeness, Japan and its literary forms are imagined as restoring that which has been destroyed by the West’s gallivanting modernity.
What gets forgotten by these modernist orientalists is Japan’s own modernity. Haiku is not a timeless form; despite its roots in the Japanese medieval period, it underwent dramatic changes in the late nineteenth century. Modernisers such as Masaoka Shiki were responsible for an extensive renovation of the form, in the light of Western poetic models that were then becoming influential in Japan. Under their influence, haiku was separated from its origins as a collaborative literary form—the hokku was traditionally the first in a series of linked verses composed by multiple writers—and emerged as a sole-authored, free-standing form, amenable to Western ideas of autonomous art and individual creativity (Kawamoto). Even the term ‘haiku’ is a product of Shiki’s modernising attempts, coined by him to replace the older terms hokku and haikai. Haiku, as it was transmitted to European modernists, was thus itself a product of modernity, and of the modernisation of Japanese tradition.
Read in this light, it becomes apparent that the Japan that Pound looked to in order to revitalise Western tradition was also looking to the West to revitalise its own. By introducing Japanese literature of this period into the conversation about modernism, the conventional narrative of modernism as the unilateral appropriation of a passive Eastern culture by dynamic Western artists starts to fray. Instead, modernism is refigured as a complex and global system of cultural exchange, riven by inequalities and mutual misunderstandings, but nonetheless comprised of real cultural innovators on all sides, as Japanese and Western writers looked to each other to revitalise and reorient their traditions, both rent asunder by the tumult of modernity.
In this context, the recent publication of English translations of the collected works of two important Japanese modernist poets is a significant event, opening up our understanding of what modernism is and could be. Sawako Nakayasu’s 2015 translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa and Sho Sugita’s 2017 translation of Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi each introduce an English-speaking audience to a key figure in Japanese modernism. Hirato Renkichi, born in 1893 in Osaka, has been hailed as Japan’s first futurist poet; Chika Sagawa, born in 1911 in a village on the northern island of Hokkaido, its first female modernist. Both were sickly adults who died tragically young: Renkichi from pulmonary disease in 1922, at the age of 29; Sagawa from stomach cancer in 1936, at the age of 24.
Despite their short lives, however, both poets were major innovators. But while they were influential within their immediate circles, their positions in the canons of international modernism and Japanese poetry have been less than assured. These volumes are in this sense recovery projects, aimed at creating a new readership for the poets and establishing their positions as major figures of Japanese and world literature. Their publication has importance for the reception of the poets themselves, but also for the light it sheds on modernism as a global phenomenon and on the particular Japanese contribution to modernist poetry. They suggest that if the Japanese have indeed ‘had the sense of exploration,’ it might have been more exploratory, more dizzying than Pound’s ahistorical reading credited.
‘Come into the imagination of a new era!’ invites Hirato in the closing lines of his 1921 manifesto of the Japanese Futurist movement. This extraordinary document, reproduced as the last text in Spiral Staircase, offers a glimpse of what that new era might look like. Hirato grounds his new age of imagination in the new, mechanised power of the city. ‘The city is a motor,’ he writes, ‘Its core dynamo-electric.’ In this new environment, humanity is transformed. Dwelling within the electric future, we eventually become one with it: ‘We reside within powerful light and heat. We are the children of powerful light and heat. Our very existence is powerful light and heat.’ Lauding the ‘freedom of the machine,’ Hirato elevates the dynamism of technology over the staid historicism of tradition. ‘Libraries, museums, and academies,’ he writes, ‘do not even amount to the sound of one automobile skidding on the street. Try sniffing the stench behind the piled books; the superior freshness of gasoline is manifold.’
With this manifesto, Hirato claims a place within the international Futurist avant-garde. His language and goals clearly invoke earlier Futurist manifestos, such as F. T. Marinetti’s wildly influential ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), which likewise takes the mechanisation of man at the wheel of a car as the harbinger of a radically new future, heralding an art movement that, like Hirato’s Futurism, seeks to ‘destroy museums, libraries and academies of every sort.’ Indeed, Hirato explicitly invokes Marinetti throughout his manifesto, at one point directly quoting him: ‘Après le règne animal, voici le règne mécanique qui commence!’ (After the reign of the animal, here the reign of the machine is beginning!).
How did a young Japanese man who had never left his native country come to be so committed to—and so intimately familiar with—an avant-garde movement headquartered in Europe? The answer tells us as much about the international nature of the modernist avant-gardes as it does about the outward-looking culture of Taisho-era Japan (1912-1926). Marinetti’s manifesto first appeared in the French newspaper Le Figaro in late February 1909. It was translated into Japanese with remarkable speed, its key sections appearing in Japanese just weeks after its French publication, thanks to the translating efforts of Japanese writer Mori Ōgai. Throughout the 1910s and into the early 1920s, Futurism retained a presence in Japanese avant-garde circles, through a stream of translations and reports on Futurist art exhibitions in Europe. Nor was this interest unidirectional. In a lurid essay from 1911 Marinetti finds ‘the plainest and most violent of Futurist symbols’ in the alleged Japanese practice of grinding the bones of fallen soldiers into munitions during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)—a practice that crystallises Marinetti’s interest in war and the technologisation of human flesh. Later, Marinetti would correspond with various Japanese Futurists throughout the 1920s and 1930s, mostly after Hirato’s death, and in his 1924 manifesto ‘Le futurisme mondial,’ listed Japanese artists as members of his world-wide Futurist movement.
In Japan, Futurism’s influence was made possible by the country’s vigorous translation culture—one early twentieth-century manifestation of a larger opening of Japanese culture to the world and particularly to the West. For over two centuries, from the mid-seventeenth century until 1853, Japan maintained a policy of sakoku, a form of isolationism that severely restricted trade, travel and other forms of exchange between Japan and the rest of the world. When in 1853 the US forced Japan to open to trade with its representatives (followed quickly by treaties with France, Britain, and Russia), the government embarked on a dramatic project of modernisation, in part as an attempt to protect itself from further encroachments by imperialist Western powers. As a result, modernity in Japan was a top-down project that was understood as combining Westernisation with Japaneseness in a project known as Wako-yōsai (Japanese spirit, Western techniques). To modernise would require not just the rapid adoption of European technologies in a massive project of industrialisation, but also the absorption of Western philosophical and cultural values, on which the West’s technological advances were understood to rely. This is the context in which Masaoka Shiki modernised haiku, and in which Japanese literature first began absorbing Western models. It also sets the stage for Hirato and Sagawa’s own enthusiastic translation projects, and the cosmopolitan poetics that they produced.
Modernity arrived in Japan with dizzying speed. Tokyo, long one of the largest cities in the world, was transformed into a booming metropolis with a vibrant, modern culture. As the optimism of nineteenth-century modernity exhausted itself, Japanese society and politics produced a kaleidoscopic array of alternative projects, from militant nationalism, to radical internationalism and a Westward-looking cosmopolitanism. In the factories, leftist ideas began to take hold and workers began to organise. Grudgingly, the government offered limited democratic reforms—and violent political repression.
The period’s sense of apocalyptic flux had its shocking climax in the Great Kanto earthquake, which in 1923 levelled Tokyo and produced a sense of shock that is sometimes likened to the effect of the first world war on Europe. Far from arresting modernity, however, the earthquake provided a new impetus to avant-garde movements such as the vaguely Dadaist MAVO, and paved the way for the new flourishing of Japanese modernist culture as the city scrambled to rebuild. Hirato and Sagawa stand on opposite sides of this apocalyptic event: while Hirato died in 1922, the year before the earthquake, Sagawa, arriving in Tokyo in 1928, was a denizen of this earthquake-ravaged city and its frenetic projects of rebuilding and renewal.
Through it all, jazz filled Tokyo’s fashionable cafes and nightclubs, where young people congregated to argue over politics and philosophy. Women cut their hair short and men grew theirs long. With their new forms of dress, new ideas and new cultural forms, these moga and mobo (modern girls and modern boys) personified Japan’s rapid transformation.
This cosmopolitan and self-consciously modern city is Hirato’s Tokyo, and it’s the city that he captures in the first chapter of his unfinished novel, Nothing Day / Not Guilty, translated and published for the first time in Spiral Staircase. It’s a city in which a ‘young Russe wearing a Rubashka,’ ‘two geishas’ and ‘Ms. K . . . licking an ice candy’ might rub shoulders in the hip ‘Café-europa’; a city that is animated by a playful cosmopolitanism. Inside the café, the chapter is overrun with dialogue, as conversations about the passé quality of literary tradition, women’s self-presentation as a form of advertising, and cinema as the global future of the arts erupt unmarked into the text. The dissection of modern aesthetics becomes the fabric from which the café itself is woven. When the nameless protagonist wanders outside, the patter of the interior dissolves into the city’s overwhelming dynamism: ‘all of these illicit races came together in full force—Bravo!’ until finally ‘A GIGANTIC MAGNETIC ENERGY SWALLOWED THEM WHOLE.’
Nothing Day / Not Guilty—at least on the evidence of its first chapter—is not just a Futurist novel; it’s also a novel about Futurism as the inevitable form of the modern Japanese city. It synthesises and absorbs the café’s lively debates about the future of art into an all-consuming experience of speed and mechanisation, in which ‘His heart disintegrates and passes out inside the absolute.’ In so doing, it implies that the ‘absolute authority of the absolute’ that his manifesto celebrates in the machine is also the point at which the city dissolves into art. In this whorl, the differences of nation and language that make up the urban collapse into an experience of absolute modernity.
Futurism in this model is not simply a foreign import, another cultural position to constellate with all the others. For Hirato, Futurism, with its vision of an absolute experience of transcendent speed, foretells a modernity that is unmoored from the particularity of time and space. As he writes in another essay (not published in this volume), Futurism is ‘the world-ideology to burn down all literary circles for the sake of our Future.’ This future is global, not as the accumulation of national differences (although that’s one step along the path) but as the subsumption of them into a capital-m Modernity. In Nothing Day / Not Guilty, one of the unnamed speakers muses that ‘all arts are headed in the direction of cinéma graphique’—in 1922, still a silent medium—because of the way that ‘one film can dash across the world without mistranslation—it’s global.’ Futurism, which Hirato links to the ‘shape-shifting’ of the ‘cinematograph’ in his manifesto, heralds this global art form. Hirato’s writing, which voraciously incorporates foreign loan-words, sometimes still in their original romanised script (all words in italics in the quotations indicate words borrowed from non-Japanese languages), seeks to move poetry and prose in the direction of the frictionless art of cinema, the global art of the future.
Hirato’s global Futurism—and, as I’ll suggest, Sagawa’s modernist poetics—both imply a starkly different model of international literary production and exchange than we are accustomed to. Our contemporary models of ‘world literature’ (especially as they relate to non-European writing) tend to understand it as a form of diversity: what each country contributes is a unique national or ethnic culture. World literature is the sum, then, of these differences. What we share when we come into contact is a set of cultural identities, and we communicate across these identities from a given position. Authenticity becomes a privileged value in these exchanges: how authentic is the culture being represented? How authentic the relationship between author and the culture they claim to represent? What would matter in this model is the Japaneseness of Hirato’s Futurism or Sagawa’s poetry: how they offer us a portrait of a Japanese modernity, distinct and even divorced from its European or American cousins and models. What would haunt it is the spectre of derivativeness: the suspicion that their literary innovations merely imitate the Italians or the Americans or the British, and that in so doing they forfeit what is unique about Japan.
Japanese modernist poetics, however, is hard to understand according to this model. While it’s clear that these poets write out of (and often against) their historical positions in Taisho and early Showa era Japan, they imagine their artistic projects as the eclipse of this specificity, not its authentic realisation. In this, they follow modernists the world over, for whom our now-familiar models of world literature are frequently an awkward fit. In fact, in an important sense, modernism reposes on a different model of international cultural exchange to our own. One of its defining experiences is the sense of being on the wrong side of a rupture from tradition, unmoored from the cultural continuity on which contemporary forms of cultural nationalism are premised. Modernists commonly proclaim that they are living through the exhausted, degenerate endtimes of their culture, or that the catastrophes of modernity have exposed its inherent corruption, its unviability in the brave new world of the modern. This is, it need hardly be said, an unpromising position from which to represent one’s culture to the world. Instead, it leads to a form of world literature that prioritises both a repeated cross-cultural turn, in search of new resources for aesthetic innovation, and an internationalism that aims to supersede or surpass the nation-state as the chief site of culture.
The Japanese relation to haiku illuminates this anxiety about national literary tradition. While Pound turned to what he imagined to be haiku’s timeless clarity to help formulate his Imagist poetics, many of the more avant-garde Japanese poets of the early twentieth century doubted whether even Masaoka Shiki’s modernised haiku could provide a fruitful model for poetic production in the dazzling conditions of modernity. Even Yone Noguchi—a Japanese writer active in the West and an influential proponent of haiku to Western modernist audiences—ends his 1913 essay ‘What is a Hokku Poem?’ on a note of doubt: ‘Was it possible,’ he wonders, ‘to hear the cricket in the very centre of the metropolis?’ Was it possible, in other words, for the famously nature-centric form to survive the encroachments of modernity?
Hirato provides his answer in the poem ‘Toad,’ a sardonic response to Basho’s famous ‘frog haiku,’ which is often held up as one of the chief exemplars of the form. In Lafcadio Hearn’s 1898 translation, Basho’s haiku reads: ‘Old pond – frogs jumped in – sound of water.’ The image is one of tranquillity, expansive enough to enfold not just the stasis of the pond but also the disturbance of the frog’s movement. Against this calmness, Hirato’s poem opens: ‘Ugh how long are you going to cry you irritating rain drizzle.’ For Hirato, Basho’s natural idyll is unsustainable in the conditions of modernity: ‘this happy-go-lucky nonsense’ is untenable in a world where ‘I’m going on multiple strikes and barely making ends meet.’ Instead, ‘Toad’ becomes a hymn to his own distinctively modern irritation before the toad: ‘infuriating triangular face diamond-shaped face warped face—shit-demons get out of my way!’ In the process, Hirato’s ‘Toad’ rejects both the affect and the canon of Japanese literary tradition, writing a modernity against Basho.
Against the promise of national specificity, Futurism offers Hirato an international literary context, which reimagines modernity’s chief symbols as harbingers of a quasi-spiritual absolute. As a result, he understands Futurism as—as Sugita writes in the introduction—‘an international movement that he was actively involved in shaping,’ a mode of art that wove together national cultural positions in order to transcend them. The poem ‘Brightly Set the Torch,’ for example, imagines torchlight—here, the electric symbol of modernity—as:
bridging the sky
From the city of the Bolshevik
From Beijing, from Warsaw,
Also from London or Paris or Berlin
Uniformly glaring it looks
I think the more lustre the better.
Dashing across the globe, the electric spark of modern light links these cities not through difference but through similarity, through the shared experience of modernity. It ends in a conflagration:
Every dog and mosquito and bacillus
Until they are charred to death
The faces of people walking the streets
Until they are brightly shimmering in bronze
Our young compatriots.
This electric cosmopolitanism brings both the fiery end of Marinetti’s règne animal and the transfiguration of humanity in a new metallic lustre. It burns the people of the globe up together until, in the abolition of national difference, they are all ‘our young compatriots’.
The formal trajectory of Hirato’s poetry follows ‘Brightly Set the Torch’ and Nothing Day / Not Guilty’s abstracting arc, whereby the people in the street are transfigured into vessels for a depersonalising and denationalising modernity. At the level of form, this manifests in Hirato’s poetry as a development from free verse poetry that moves appreciatively around the natural world in his earliest writing, to a wildly experimental abstraction that folds onomatopoeia, mathematical symbols, and other non-linguistic elements into the fabric of the text. Spiral Staircase’s most experimental poetry is collected in the volume’s fourth section, ‘Development,’ which was compiled posthumously by his mentor Kawaji Ryuko from poems published in coterie journals in the final years before his death.
At its most radical, in poems like ‘Ensemble,’ the typographical arrangement of the text on the page supersedes and augments the text’s semantic content. ‘Ensemble’ provides more a field than a text, offering multiple reading pathways through which the text’s building blocks—words like ‘voice,’ ‘mountain,’ ‘valley,’ ‘human’ and ‘tower’—can be placed into constellating, shifting relationships with one another. In this sense, it maps a conceptual field of modernity, in which the position of the words and the dots, lines and addition signs that separate them are as meaningful as the semantic content of the words themselves. As the importance of visual and aural features grows (the text also features a number of letters that combine to form sounds rather than words), the text becomes translatable in a new way, moving perhaps closer to the quality of film that can ‘dash across the world without mistranslation’. Certainly, it participates in an international eruption of experiments of this kind, particularly among Dadaist and Futurist avant-gardes. At the same time, prising itself free of language as a national category, it prises itself free too of the individual and even the human, turning ‘human’ and ‘voice’ into simply one element among many, neither more nor less poetic than the ‘light’ or ‘tower’ with which the text constellates them.
‘Ensemble’ takes Hirato’s poetry in a direction that is more formally radical than most of his work, but the same posthuman sensibility is recognisable throughout the collection. Perhaps most interesting, as a contribution to international Futurism, is Hirato’s emphasis on the hospital as a crucial site of technological modernity. In his manifesto, he imagines ‘The City of Tokyo draped over the stench of hospitals’ and this centring of (Western) medicine as a form of modernity runs throughout the volume. In ‘An Impression of Hospital K,’ for instance, Hirato uses the onomatopoeia and mathematical equations that he elsewhere associates with technological modernity to imagine the hospital, where ‘the nurse spins around a sleeper at the balcon to carry the wounded—gossip—glide—turn—PATAPATAPATAPATA—PATA—PA—TA—TATATAAAAAA’ and where ‘visitor+doctor+storm of disinfectants=battle of life and death=the will to live!’ If Italian Futurism imagines itself as the cultural form of the young and physically invincible, Hirato’s sicklier Futurism centres the hospital—more even than the motorcar—as the symbol of a new cultural arrangement that can realise the proclamation of the manifesto that, ‘Nothing in Futurism deals with the flesh—freedom of the machine.’
It is tempting to assume that this celebration of the machine is a repudiation of the natural, but there is also ‘Nature found inside the hospital’: the nurses with their patients form a flock of swans, and ‘the giant moth sucking the wind created from the folding fan flutters white towards the sweet nectar of fruit SAPA—SAPA—SAPO—SSSSSSSSSSSSSS.’ In this poem—as throughout Hirato’s poetry—there is a collapse of the line between the natural world and a technological, urbanised modernity that, in the West, we conventionally take as nature’s opposite. Running through and animating Hirato’s Futurist enthusiasm, there’s a real interest in the ways in which nature is remade with a technological and mechanical intimacy—an intimacy that’s as likely to produce irritation and annoyance, as in ‘Toad,’ as it is celebration. In this sense, the heavily nature-focused tradition that Hirato writes out of and against colours his experience of modernity, and allows us to see the structure of modernity anew.
Like Hirato, Chika Sagawa also offers a radically original version of nature’s role in modernity, at least to eyes trained in European modernism. In the Western tradition, modernism is commonly understood to be built on an opposition between rural and urban spaces, rural and urban ways of life. The modern, in this reading, dwells in the city; sometimes it is the city. Although the natural world is important to many European and American modernists, they most often imagine it as a site of retreat and respite, representing an anti-modern, pre-modern or extra-modern sphere of existence. Sagawa and Hirato, in contrast, offer striking insights into a natural world that is itself modernising, or at least caught up in the changes of modernity. The opening poem of Sagawa’s collection, for instance, begins:
Insects multiplied with the speed of an electric current.
Lapped up the boils on the earth’s crust.
Turning over its exquisite costume, the urban night slept like a woman.
The insect swarms are not just in the city, they also assume its characteristics. Instead of a schism between city and country that is also a divide between modernity and tradition, Sagawa (like Hirato) imagines nature and the urban as part of a single integrated system, shaped and transformed by the encroachments of modernity. In this sense, both poets participate in a widespread inclination within Japanese modernism towards what George Golley describes as ‘a strangely “ecological” world’.
Unlike Hirato’s largely urban modernity, Sagawa’s writing gravitates insistently around scenes from nature. Her most important critical prose texts—reproduced at the end of the Collected Poems—place an engagement with nature at the centre of her conception of poetic and artistic endeavour. Gently rebuking her peers, she writes, ‘What relationship could there be between their imagery and the rows of trees on the other side? . . . neither their pastry-like sweetness nor their enumerated language could be seen as having the freshness of the young leaves on the zelkova trees by the side of the path as I walk.’ Taking the freshness of new leaves as the standard for poetic production, she seeks not a mimetic representation of nature but a more direct (re-)creation of its affects and moods. The goal is to see anew. As she writes of leaving an art exhibition: ‘I was so tired I could no longer feel my feet on the ground, but when I stepped outside, the brilliant young green stung my eyes.’ The innovations of Sagawa’s modernist writing represent not a retreat from nature but a new approach to it, a new way of seeing the natural world.
The centrality that Sagawa grants to nature places her in a different relation to Japanese literary tradition than Hirato. As Nakayasu notes in her introduction, Sagawa’s writing, for all its experimentalism, shares an affinity with traditional Japanese waka poetry, with its interest in seasonal changes and its preference for ‘perception and emotional response’ over ‘conclusive, epiphanic [or] narrative’ modes. Indeed, Japanese literature and culture as a whole has traditionally understood itself as centrally concerned with the natural world. The assumption that ‘we Japanese are close to the flowers and the birds, the wind and the moon’ (Haga Yaichi, quoted in Shirane) is pervasive in Japanese culture, and is often taken as the country’s most distinctive aesthetic trait. In poems like ‘Promenade,’ Sagawa reprises this thematic cluster, returning to the terrain of Japan’s own sense of its literary tradition:
Seasons change their gloves
The three o’clock
Trace of sun
Of flower petals that bury the pavement
A black and white screen
Eyes are covered by clouds
Evening sets on some promiseless day.
What shifts in Sagawa’s writing is the tone. Nature becomes sinister and uncanny; its stillness is no longer peaceful but now is infiltrated with a creeping horror.
While Hirato’s Futurism aspires to the outright rejection of all lineages and all genealogies, Sagawa is concerned less with erasing tradition than rewriting it, bringing it into a new and alien focus. Like Hirato, she has read and translated widely in and from experimental and avant-garde Western literature, but she uses her Western interlocutors to hold Japanese tradition at arm’s length, to inspect it from without. Nakayasu notes in her introduction that Sagawa’s poetry ‘invit[es] us to read (or see) the poem from multiple angles,’ and the same can be said for Sagawa’s approach to Japan’s most familiar literary tropes. Making them strange, she writes at once against and within Japanese literature. Her writing transfigures tradition, in a way that is perhaps most familiar to contemporary Australian readers from the tradition-bending writing of European modernists (think of James Joyce relocating Greek myth to the streets of Dublin, or T. S. Eliot’s Tiresius grimly watching a deflating modern sex scene in ‘The Waste Land’).
Sagawa’s writing has a crystalline precision, made strange by her surrealist sensibility (‘Night eats colour’ begins one of her poems. Some lines later: ‘Day falls into the leaves like sparkling fish.’) The combination produces a poetics that is exquisitely alien. It’s tempting to read this as a hybrid poetics, crossing, say, typified ideas about Japanese clarity and Euro-modernist defamiliarisation, but to do so would be to miss the specific intersection that Sagawa occupies, which is more concerned with setting traditions into harmony with each other than negotiating between essentialised versions of them. She finds the point where Objectivism and waka meet, and burrows in until both become irrevocably strange—until the clarity becomes hazy (one of her favourite metaphors for poetry). As she writes in one essay,
It is not so much about searching for boundaries, but rather the precise snapping together of the infinite allusions on either side of that single line, with the cross-sections of a leaping field of vision.
Perhaps this concern with the point where the boundary vanishes is why the window is such a pervasive image in her poetry. Curiously, though, it’s rarely vistas or landscapes that appear through Sagawa’s windows. Instead, ‘Forests and windows go pale, like a woman’; ‘Time and flames entangle, and I watch them planing over the perimeter of the window’; ‘The sky stands facing the window, darkening with every turn of the ventilator.’ The windows in Sagawa’s still world open onto moods and abstractions, rather than sights. They are a threshold space, taking, as she writes of poetry itself, ‘materials that had once been reflected into reality and returning them to the realm of thought.’ Seen through Sagawa’s window, the Japanese tradition of nature writing and contemporary European experiments in perspective and impression become inseparable, as vision itself is transfigured into thought.
In a 1914 poem, Mina Loy—a British-American modernist whose work Sagawa translated extensively (and also, incidentally, the lover of several Italian Futurists)—imagines the window as a site of gendered vision. ‘Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots’ describes unmarried women in the windows of Italian houses, watching men passing in the streets:
Men’s eyes look into things
Our eyes look out
Throughout European and Japanese modernism, women have been persistently understood as spectacles, linked to consumer culture and advertising, and Loy’s poem both reflects and critiques this tradition. As Hirato writes in Nothing Day / Not Guilty, ‘publicity is the life-blood of women, particularly as an unmistakable weapon.’ Following a highly conventional and transnational modernist trope, Hirato depicts modern women as all advertisement, utterly modern because they are such spectacles of pure exteriority.
Sagawa’s writing turns this tradition on its head, taking her cue from Loy in imagining what new kinds of vision might be afforded by the capacity to ‘look out,’ in the curiously intransitive and darkly threatening mode of ‘Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots’. Eschewing the still-conventional Japanese relegation of writing by women to a distinct genre of ‘women’s writing,’ her perspectival poetics reclaims vision for herself, making both the act of seeing and the sight of women’s bodies strange. The poem ‘18.104.22.168.5,’ one of her last, records this sense of visual estrangement:
Under a row of trees a young girl raises her green hand.
Surprised by her plant-like skin, she looks, and eventually removes her silk gloves.
The twist that abruptly shifts the perspective in these lines echoes the experiments in vision that characterised Pound’s Imagist movement, where his interest in Japanese hokku found its first and most influential expression. In this sense, ‘22.214.171.124.5’ reads Japanese and American traditions through one another, to allow Sagawa to paint the modern woman as both a vision made strange, blurring into nature, and a vision whose strangeness is self-generated, a product of her own idiosyncratic way of seeing. In ‘Shapes of Clouds,’ in what may be a response to Loy, Sagawa describes, ‘A wrinkled curtain by the window’ that is ‘gathered and then torn apart.’ Ripping up the ‘curtains at our windows’ that in Loy’s poem characterise female imprisonment within the domestic, Sagawa’s poetry reimagines the window as a site of transformative transparency—a place where vision is altered and liberated.
The appearance of these two new translations of Japanese modernist poetry within less than two years signals the arrival of an important moment in the history of Japanese modernism’s reception in the English-speaking world. It also marks a significant moment in the development of Japanese-American poetry in English. Both Sugita and Nakayasu are themselves poets—both Japanese-Americans who write in English—and, like Hirato and Sagawa before them, they use the act of translation as a way of establishing a new tradition, one that grows in the space between languages and national lineages. Japanese literature since the second world war has remained committed to a form of cultural nationalism that privileges the expression of authentic Japaneseness. In such an aesthetic universe, however, there is little space for the kinds of modernist-influenced, English-language poetics that Nakayasu and Sugita practice. Their recovery of these neglected modernist poets therefore contributes to the formation of a new canon of Japanese writing, one that has always been multilingual and cross-cultural, and that has developed out of the inexorable readings and misreadings of literary traditions that constantly look abroad for signs of and solutions to modernity.
Nakayasu’s 2011 chapbook, Mouth Eats Color offers a sense of what this poetics of translation might do. Turning her translations of Sagawa’s poetry into the stuff of her own poetic experimentation, Nakayasu produces a multilingual and prismatic text. She does to language what Sagawa does to vision, turning the original poems around to examine the linguistic artefact from all angles, until the haziness emerges as a kind of alien clarity. In one extended experiment, ‘Promenade’ is rewritten over a dozen times, intermingling Japanese, French and English, prose and verse. In another, she translates another of Mina Loy’s poems, ‘Widow’s Jazz,’ back into English from Sagawa’s Japanese translation. In the space between languages, idioms lose their transparency and become surreal; vernaculars are smoothed out or accentuated. The resulting poems, like Sagawa’s own, are no longer either Japanese or American. Occupying a new space of estrangement, they stand at the head of a minor tradition that refuses a poetics of authenticity or purity. Or as Sugita writes in a recent extract from his poem TANKA/ZANKA:
The innocent primitive.
Then, from Basho and Buddha
a gang of comedians and priests.
Not easy to work here
without a permit for purity
to pine that of pine.
Note: Japanese names conventionally put family name before personal name, although sometimes they are transposed in translation, to conform to English conventions. Between these two volumes, no particular order has been imposed, so we have Hirato Renkichi in the Japanese style, and Chika Sagawa plus both translators’ names in the English style.
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Hirato Renkichi. Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi, translated by Sho Sugita. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017.
Kawamoto, Kōji. ‘Modern Japanese Poetry to the 1910s,’ in Haruo Shirane, Tomi Suzuki and David Barnett Lurie, eds, The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Loy, Mina. ‘Virgins Plus Curtain Minus Dots.’ Rogue (August 15, 1915): 10. Digitised by the Yale Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
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Marinetti, F. T. ‘Electrical War,’ in Rainey, Poggi and Whitman, eds, Futurism: An Anthology.
Nakayasu, Sawako and Chika Sagawa. Mouth Eats Color: Translations, Anti-Translations and Originals. Providence: Factorial Press, 2011.
Noguchi, Yone. ‘What is a Hokku Poem?’ Rhythm 12 (January 1913): 354-59.
Pound, Ezra. ‘Vorticism.’ The Fortnightly Review 96 (1 September 1914).
Sagawa, Chika. The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, translated by Sawako Nakayasu. Iowa City: Canarium Books, 2015.
Shirane, Haruo. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Sugita, Sho. ‘From TANKA/ZANKA.’ Brooklyn Rail (April 1, 2017).