Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
We, the Zipangu1 People
The island, draped in golden clouds,
does not exist anywhere on the chart.
We, the residents of the island, too,
do not exist anywhere in reality.
The sea of merchant Marco Polo’s fantasy -
contiguous with it, the sailors’
cerebral ocean in whose storm we float, drift,
we, the so-called Zipangu people:
a multitude who are in the end an illusion, a dream, non-existent.
Never believe our word.
Invisible Book (a Santiago)
There is no one who has seen the book.
Yet there is no one who doubts its existence.
It sleeps in the depths of the distant clouds dark before dawn.
To awaken it from its sleep, which has neither form nor size,
our imagination is too poor, too weak.
What is now spread out in our lamp
is a metaphor, too negligible,
of that unimaginable book to come.
Let’s try to see how effective a metaphor can be:
The number of pages of the book is much greater than
all the pages of all the books in the world added together.
The gilded top and bottom rims are farther apart than heaven and
earth in the evening glow.
Its front cover and back cover are separated from each other,
farther than the horizon of the east from the horizon of the west.
The number of characters in this book … but this book
can neither be written in characters nor counted by page.
There is nothing that is not inscribed in this book.
All the pulses of the universe are inscribed.
Every vertical wrinkle of that rose is recorded.
The action in each second of every one of us—for example,
even each of the words I write down here,
or if I draw a line and erase my own description,
even that erasure is written in, leaving out nothing.
This description, too, is written in. So is this description.
Who are we in front of this book?
If we are not allowed to read it, but on the contrary
we are read closely by it,
is the book a mirror-like eye, and are we
the spilled types transfixed by the eye?
Is the book a heavily guarded savage jail, and are we
the prisoners chained in the dark of its cells, half dead?
Is it in the end impossible to reach the blue sky engraved in the
Let us burn this ominous book while there is time,
before it shows itself in front of us.
If this is impossible, let us feed the tongues of burning fire
with these words strung together to chronicle it.
But if the incineration of the words, even the combustion of the book
is inscribed without exception, what will become of us?
The only way left is to throw ourselves into the flames of paper,
for ourselves to burn, to be recorded in the book of flames.
Once, on some occasion, I said to Mr. Shigeo Washisu,2 ”If the Ah’s
and Oh’s disappeared from your writings, they’d feel so much more
modern.” Well, here’s what he said in reply: “Ah, you’re right. Oh,
that’s true, you’re right.” Two years since he descended into the
Underworld and, stripped of his temporary personality known as
Shigeo Washisu, joined the common herd of the dead, I wanted to
call to him using Ah’s and Oh’s abundantly. Ah, Oh, true enough, I
wanted to call to him.
Ah, this land is sick.
Oh, is the soil there fertile?
Ah, what thrives here are stones and weeds.
Oh, do a lot of heads with disjointed neck bones fructify?
Ah, both poetry and potatoes are skinny and dry.
Oh, are the words exploding like the nuts of the dead?
(Ah, Oh, the nuts of the dead, shattered brainpans, also called
Ah, the underground river escapes the vertically shaking earth’s crust.
Oh, does the thick river haze of oblivion cover the ground?
Ah, I dig and dig, but only yellowed white hair.
Oh, is the pubic hair of the soil glistening wet?
Ah, I seek and seek, but only despair turned brownish white.
Oh, is even despair refreshing again and again?
(Ah, Oh, there, even despair revives again and again.)
Ah, the handle of a hoe can only become dry and break into two.
Oh, is the steel amply soaked in the night air?
Ah, the nails can only become deformed and crack into numberless
Oh, do the nails and whiskers continue to grow night and day?
Ah, the eyes and the breasts become wrinkled and irritatingly pointed.
Oh, are the breezes through the trees black and delicate?
(Ah, Oh, the trees of the Underworld are equipped with eyes and
Ah, the starved babies weep, impatient with the nipples that only give
Oh, are even the old, smelly mouths satiated with milk?
Ah, under the man’s excitement, the woman is the fire that burns
Oh, is lust properly kept cooled?
Ah, here the fire, too, is frazzled.
Oh, are the flames velvety and pliant?
(Ah, Oh, our fire is a clumsy copy of the fire of the Underworld.)
Ah, it merely scorches uselessly and doesn’t purify anything.
Oh, do burnt things learn of the peace of the ashes?
Ah, the dog that has swallowed the sun rolls about on the horizon.
Oh, does the eternal twilight change the barking dog into a gentle
Ah, I look up at the uphill path and, with my brow knit, continue
Oh, he continues to descend on the other side of the path, wiping
off his sweat.
(Ah, Oh, his ears will never hear my voice.
That can never happen. Ah, Oh.)
Mutsuo Takahashi, born 1937 in Kitakyushu. After a long recovery from tuberculosis in his early twenties, he went to Tokyo, where his first book of poetry, mino, atashi no oushi (Mino, My Bull) was published in 1959. Since that time, he has established himself as the major gay poet of Japan. Two full collections of his poems have been published in English: Poems of a Penisist, trans. Hiroaki Sato (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1975); Ã Bunch of Keys, trans. Sato (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1984).
Mutsuo Takahashi appeared in a Festival of Japanese Poetry, bi-lingual reading, sponsored by the Committee for International Poetry in November 1985 at Cooper Union. BOMB would like to thank the Committee for their aid in assembling this material for the Contemporary Japanese Poetry section of this issue.
1 The first Western name of Japan, given by Marco Polo (1254–1324); it’s a corruption of Ji-pun, the Chinese pronunciation of Nippon.
2 Shigeo Washisu (1915–1982): Born of a poor family who were Russian Orthodox and formerly of the samurai class. During the great earthquake of 1923, he lost his mother and his youngest brother. During World War II he fought in various parts of China. After Japan’s defeat, he tried to settle as a farmer in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, but couldn’t manage it and ended up changing his job 15 to 16 times. He spent his last ten years in Saitama as a writer and a poet. Though afflicted with a great many chronic illnesses, he mastered more than ten languages, ancient and modern, on his own, and wrote lyrical and religious poetry with strong themes. He also wrote about poetry and religion. His position in modern Japanese poetry is without compare. Takahashi regarded Washisu as a “big brother” in poetry.