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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kitagawa Fuyuhiko: Small Bird in a Dismembered Landscape, & Five Short Poems

Translation from Japanese by Jerome Rothenberg


What’s right
about this head
that’s cut off from its body?

These fingers cut off from their hands,
these feet cut off from legs,
there’s nothing right about them.

And yet
this scene of legless feet
and handless fingers
wildly strewn across a field

once witnessed by a bird
and fired clear as life upon that tiny inner eye,
the bird falls down,
its eye in ruins,
even then the scene escapes decay.

Wind-scattered fingers
feet and
return at last to where you started
return at last to where you started
(for only then wind-scattered fingers feet and
head will draw the curtain over death)


How painful drawing breath inside this bamboo reed:
Is anything still happening outside its narrow walls,
and if so, where?


Its belly holds a harbor full of guns.


A crescent moon is hanging in the willow branches.
A beautiful young man emerges from the W.C.
His face in profile painted white with lime.


Scars on stone.


Punching tickets at the gate:
Our fingers bleed instead.

[TRANSLATOR’S NOTE. In 1956/57 I spent a year studying Japanese at Columbia University, the exploration of a language distant from my own that opened me to both the differences and the sameness of all human languages. In the course of study I was allowed the possibility of real translation on two occasions: a few pages from Mishima’s Mizu no Oto (Sound of Water) and the poems reprinted here from the radical modernist poet Kitagawa Fuyuhiko. It strikes me in retrospect that Kitagawa – a surrealist and marxist who translated Breton’s first Manifesto in the 1930s and who wrote as well on Japanese and world cinema – was very much alive at the time I was translating him. (He died in 1990 at the age of eighty-nine.) In that sense he was part of a generation of predecessors, many of them still active in what we took to be our time or a time about to be our own. Finding him for me was part of a 1950s (re)awakening from many different directions – not only what we came to call “the new American poetry” but a revived experimentalism and radicalism in Europe and in the Americas north and south, along with which the generation after Kitagawa and Kitasano Katsue (the first Japanese moderns whom I knew or read) was slowly coming into focus. In the intervening years I lost my hold on the language, but what it had given me was as invaluable – by way of translation and close attention – as what would come to us later from contemporaries and poet comrades wherever found. (J.R.)]

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