To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hiromi Ito: The Maltreatment of Meaning

Translated by Jeffrey Angles with Commentary by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto

Can you speak Japanese?
No, I cannot speak
Yes, I can speak
Yes, I can speak but cannot read
Yes, I can speak and read but cannot write
Yes, I can speak and write but cannot understand
I was a good child
You were a good child
We were good children
That is good
I was a bad child
You were a bad child
We were bad children
That is bad
To learn a language you must replace and repeat
I was an ugly child
You were an ugly child
We were ugly children
That is ugly
I am bored
You are bored
We are bored
That is boring
I am hateful
You are hateful
We are hateful
That is hatred
I will eat
You will eat
We will eat
That is a good appetite
I won’t eat
You won’t eat
We won’t eat
That is a bad appetite
I will make meaning
You will make meaning
We will make meaning
That is conveying language
I will use Japanese
You will use Japanese
We will use Japanese
That is Japanese
I want to rip off meaning
You want to rip off meaning
We want to rip off meaning
That is the desire to rip off meaning
I want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
You want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
We want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
That is, language is nothing more than raw material
I will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
You will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
We will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
That is replacing words mechanically and making sentences impossible in real life
Rip off meaning
Sound remains
Even so we search for meaning.
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger one sticks out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger I stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger you stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger we stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger that sticks out
As for me, meaning
As for you, meaning
As for us, meaning
Is meaning, that is
Do not communicate
As for me, do not communicate
As for you, do not communicate
As for us, do not communicate
Do not do that, that is communication
Meaning ripped apart and covered in blood is surely miserable, that is happiness
I am happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
You are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
We are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
The blood-covered meaning of that is blood-covered misery, that is happiness

© 1991, Hiromi Ito
From: Noro to Saniwa

Publisher: Heibonsha, Tokyo, 1991
© Translation: 2005, Jeffrey Angles

[Translator's Note: This poem draws inspiration from American artist Bruce Nauman’s 1985 video installation Good Boy, Bad Boy in which two video monitors are placed opposite one another, each showing a sixty minute-long video loop. In them, two actors recite alternating phrases, such as “good boy” and “bad boy,” with an increasing degree of emotion. Itō’s poem, written at a time when she was traveling back and forth between the different linguistic worlds of the United States and Japan, shows her interest in (and resistance to) the signifying process by which people learn language and make meaning. In fact, the poem’s structure is not unlike the grammatical drills that language learners use to master new patterns, yet by the end of the poem, the neat grammatical patterns have broken down. The Japanese title of the poem, Imi no gyakutai (literally “meaning abuse”), leaves it unclear whether meaning is the thing being
maltreated or the thing doing the maltreatment.]


COMMENTARY
by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto

Hiromi Ito, born in 1955 in Tokyo, is one of the most important and highly regarded poets in Japan. Since her sensational debut in the late 1970’s as a free-spirited and intelligent female poet with shamanistic qualities, Ito has published more than 10 collections of poetry including such monumental works as Oume (Green Plums, 1982), Watashi wa Anjuhimeko de aru (I am Anjyuhimeko, 1993), and Kawara Arekusa (Wild Grass upon a Riverbank, 2005) which won the prestigious Takami Jun Award

She has also written a dozen essay collections on such diverse topics as child rearing, foliage plants and English lessons, collaborated with the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and the feminist critic Chizuko Ueno, creatively translated the medieval Buddhist stories and a 19th century novel into modern Japanese, and published novellas, two of which were the finalists for the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prominent award for literary fiction.

Ito has been consistently expanding her creative spheres over the last decades: from the relationship between the sexes, motherhood, the oral traditions of Native Americans, and pop songs from the 1960’s, to the lifecycles of plants, just to name a few. As the critic Nobuaki Tochigi points out, “she is an omnivorous poet who can transmit and transform a variety of literary legacies”.

But whatever she writes in whatever form, one can always recognize qualities that are unquestionably hers, qualities that remind us of the wandering minstrels in Medieval Japan who delivered their poems by voice alone and not by written text. She seems to be obsessed with moving, both in her real life and in her narratives, and with the voices that “just come out and fade away”. After having left Tokyo for Poland and then for Kumamoto in Southern Japan, Ito now lives in California, writing in Japanese and visiting Kumamoto frequently.
[A video of Hiromi Ito & Jeffrey Angles reading "The Maltreatment of Meaning" has recently been posted at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGGYS7-noBw ]