To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
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

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Six Poems for a Round of Renshi (First Offering & Note)

Kumamoto, Japan, March 2010

Let us offer up a song, may the gods
of these fields bear witness
The gods look down, the farmers
plant their fields and are glad

– HIROMI ITO, from a local folk song


the future rising
as does my name red mountain
summit high above

the earth below in darkness
hole the fathers called sheol


soon to be with you
on Aso not Death Mountain
in the other poem

beneath which looms the shadow
of a visionary fish


The language of those who hate me
The language of those who will love me

so that he starts again
until the mud
through which he walks

covers his body
starts again but robs him
of his breath


I must have been born to play,
I must have been born to frolic

yet in his emptiness, his voidness
he is a real man only
when he murders

so in love with death
he leaves me desperate

the more I look into his eyes
I see a dead bull gutted
but a living man


I left my infant child in my lasciviousness
and slept with many men

—how does she know the time then?
—by fits & starts
—and if the time starts running?
—she runs behind it
—then try to pin her down
& hear her squeal
—a word caught in your throat
is still a word


passing through
will sweep all illness away, they say
will change one into infinite blue—
the body whole

840 million thoughts
the sutra says
come every night
& overwhelm the sleeper
looking for a place
to hide
for which he writes
his death poem
as a perfect circle


We put logic to rest
We celebrate the outrageous
The last song remaining
is our offering
to the world

people speak at me
& I don’t understand
except my name & yours
& little words like koko & asoko
& those that aren’t words at all
but sounds remembered
first as sounds
the small nouns
crying faith (he wrote)
what poets always knew
what still astounds

NOTE. Renga, the traditional & well known form of Japanese collaborative or linked writing, has its modern counterpart in renshi, generally practiced with projective or open forms but always with the shadow of the ancient orders somewhere in the background. While the renga practice goes back some 800 years or more & follows a wide range of traditional rules & constraints, renshi is tied closely to the freeing up of verse during the upsurge of a new poetics in the half century & more of Japanese “postwar writing.” Its notable Japanese practitioners include Makoto Ooka & Shuntaro Tanikawa, key figures of the modernist or postmodernist “postwar” groupings, & an occasional foreign participant such as British poet Charles Tomlinson in the late 1990s.

My own brush with renshi came this March, a four-day event in the southern Kyushu city of Kumamoto, where I was the fifth wheel with Tanikawa, Hiromi Ito, Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, & Wakako Kaku. For this the chosen site in Kumamoto was the happily alternative Orange cafe & bookstore, as a result of which the place for writing, unlike some other renshi that I know of, was open rather than private, a small area at the rear of the equally small cafe, which was however closed off to outside business during our time there. Even so, people came & went freely, which only enhanced the sense of writing in public – in-the-open, so to speak. That & the relative speed required gave it – to my mind at least – a performative & improvisatory feeling, while responding – always – to what came before & after. For all of that it was the sense of writing that dominated the proceedings – pen & paper augmented by the computers that all six of us brought to the event. At the end the Japanese poets used brush & ink (& long strips of Chinese paper) to transcribe their work in calligraphic form, as did Jeffrey Angles who functioned – largely for my benefit – as our principal translator. There was also – to top it off – a public reading & discussion, a paying event that drew over 400 people to an auditorium adjacent to the city’s Literature Museum.

So, while I'm limiting the offering here to my own six poems & brief cuts (in italics) from the poems to which they linked, at a later time I would like to publish the renshi as a whole & to discuss, or have the others discuss, the strategies behind the links. The over-all restraints (laid down by Tanikawa as the master of our ceremonies) were minimal – to keep the poems short & to avoid the links being too direct or obvious. There was also a degree of referencing to earlier works & sources, a practice in which I was happy to engage, as a further instance, let’s say, of “othering” or “writing through.” (Hiromi Ito in this regard drew all her entries from earlier, largely oral, sources.) And there were also references to matters that came up in conversation, which would be more difficult to uncover but had a resonance for some of us that may carry over (or not) to those who read us.

Of all such “distant links” (soku), the fifteenth-century poet-monk Shinkei wrote in his Sasamegoto, a masterwork of renga poetics & of poetics over all: “A soku poem is said to be one wherein it does not matter that the upper and lower part are put together in a seemingly unnatural and arbitrary way so long as they cohere in the mind.” (For which see Murmured Conversations: a Treatise on Poetry and Buddhism by the Poet-Monk Shinkei, translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, Stanford University Press, 2008.)


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