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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Takahashi Mutsuo: “This World, or the Man of the Boxes,” Dedicated to Joseph Cornell

Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles

Pilgrim on earth, thy name is heaven,
Stranger, thou art the guest of God.
—Mary Baker Eddy

The shade of sooty quince
The bloom of dusty roses
——And beyond that
A fence of metal wire     entwined with vines
Of spiderwort     or knotgrass perhaps?

There     tossed among the plants
Reclining     in a weather-worn wooden armchair
Hands folded at his abdomen     like a dead man
Who could he be     this man who looks as if
He was washed here from some distant world?
This man is a decrepit adolescent     a broken angel
Swept here by the ark of dreams     a boat in the shape of a box
When was that?     Yesterday     or a hundred years ago?


The world to which this man really belongs     is not here
The world to which this man really belongs
Is far away     through the fissures of dream
Guarded by sensible, steadfast parents
This man wearing a starched collar     is a clever boy
He has two beautiful younger sisters
And a younger brother with an upright spirit
This family of angels with wings hidden under their fancy dress
Is enveloped in golden happiness
That world     of distant memories
Is like a box     floating in a galaxy of tears


One morning suddenly     that box-shaped boat ran ashore
In the doorway to that timeless world of happiness
When was that?    A second     or a hundred million years ago?
Dreams are always nightmares     interlopers with foul intent
Drawn by death     the father was pulled backward
And the rest of the family were dragged quickly away
It was here they disembarked     the backyard of a sickly city
Here     not even angels could escape human fate
The mother grew ill from anxiety     the sisters grew thin
And wrinkles spread across the brother’s spotless soul


In this false world perched atop the scales
This man was the quiet, noble head of the household
Working harder     growing old faster than everyone else
But     that was not the reality of who he was
His real self is hidden     under the disguise of an old man
Strewn across his chair     seated like a corpse
He inhales the blue-green seas     of his own world of reality
Watches clouds trailing behind airplanes     over the sea
And pricks up his ears to overhear the daytime dialogue of the


This man suddenly stands from his chair
And slowly descends     through the fallen leaves
Underground     he finds his own private box-like world
With objects     neatly stored in shelves and drawers
Candy boxes     pill boxes     candle boxes
Cut-outs from old images     musical scores     lost wooden blocks
Shells     brass rings     sky blue marbles
Cracked glasses     soap bubble sets——
These too are fragments of the real world
Drifted here through the fissures of dream
This man     gives himself plenty of time
How long?     One week     or thirty years?
He chooses the fragments     then puts them together
In just the right place     in just the right box
While the faint reflection     of the golden happiness
Belonging to the real world so far away
Turns into pale afternoon sunlight     and falls
Upon his deftly moving fingers


Is this man no longer at his chair in the garden?
Is he no longer at his basement table?
If he is nowhere to be found
This man     must never have been here at all
What we thought we saw was nothing more
Than the shadow of his real self
His shadowy eyelashes drawing the bow of vision toward the real
His shadowy hands caressing the flotsam from the real world
It is not for us to lament his absence
Like little birds     we should descend into the garden to bathe as
And play on his basement window     like light


Then     what about these boxes?
The objects captured inside     the princesses
The ballerinas     the rabbit princes
The parrots     the honeybees     the butterflies
Does this man     lodge inside them
Borrowing the forms of these ephemeral creatures?
Like the garden and basement     these boxes are also
Cheap hotel rooms inhabited briefly    by this man’s shadow
It swings upon the roost     pours some sand
Creates nimble cracks across the panes of glass
And then vanishes
The destination for his shadow is the real world
These wistfully nostalgic boxes before us are
The frames around the well through which
We peer into that world and are drawn in

A NOTE ON THE PRECEDING (from the original Japanese publication)
One of the most poetic visual artists is the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Each one of his small-scale installations—whether it be filled with antiques, bits of broken glass, balls, sand, or clippings from books and magazines—serves as a small, intimate world that draws the viewer in, inviting him or her to make sense of the work’s poetically suggestive juxtapositions. For this reason, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi, has long been drawn to Cornell’s work. Takahashi originally wrote the poem “This World, or the Man of the Boxes” for an exhibition of Cornell’s work held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan. This poem was such a success that in 2010, when the same museum once again held a large scale Cornell exhibition, the curators invited Takahashi to write one poem to accompany each of the artworks. The result was the collaborative exhibition “Intimate Worlds Enclosed: Joseph Cornell x Takahashi Mutsuo,” which drew large crowds and quickly sold through multiple prints of its catalog. The English renditions of the poems in the catalog were done by Jeffrey Angles. For more information, see the museum’s website:

Mutsuo TAKAHASHI (1937- ) came to international attention in the 1970s for his bold expressions of homoerotic desire. He is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary poets, with over three dozen anthologies of free-style verse, haiku, tanka, and other forms of poetry to his name. He is also one of the most thoroughly translated contemporary Japanese poets, with four volumes of his poetry available in English, including the recent Irish publication On Two Shores: New and Selected Poems, translated by Mitsuko Ohno and Frank Sewell (Dedalus Press, 2006). A translation of his memoirs is forthcoming in 2012 from University of Minnesota Press.

Jeffrey ANGLES (1971- ) is an associate professor of Japanese literature and translation at Western Michigan University. He is the translator of Forest of Eyes: Selected Poems of Tada Chimako (University of California, 2010), Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Itō (Action Books, 2009), Soul Dance: Poems by Takako Arai (Mi’Te Press, 2008), and numerous other works of poetry and prose. His translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s memoirs, Twelve Views from the Distance, is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press.

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