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Sunday, July 10, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Existential dilemma from the Japanese wasteland


By JOHN GILLESPIE
TOWARD MEANING: Poems of Kikuo Takano, translated by Hiroaki Sato. Middletown Springs, Vermont: P.S., A Press, 2004, 116 pp., $12 (paper).

Kikuo Takano (born 1927) first wrote poetry in the bleak postwar years and is said to have burned his initial output. Aligning himself in 1953 with Ayukawa Nobuo's Arechi (Wasteland) poetry group, his subsequent work, existential and darkly spiritual, reflects the era's pervasive despair and peers beyond.

Takano's spirituality emerges in connecting with nature. In "The Sea," rivers flow into the sea, linking earth to sky, and he regards the sea as mother (the kanji for mother is part of that for sea):

Even I, when unable to go farther,

go toward you,

aiming for the one mother in you.

This interconnection of all creation has a Buddhist tinge, reinforced in the prayer-like "Answer Me, Please":

Standing on the shore,

I was the shore.

Looking at the cloud, I was the cloud.

I the purring rivulet, I the plover . . . .

The attempt to merge subject with object indicates perhaps Takano's dominant concern, explored with an imagery of reversal. He is bent on reversing accepted patterns, going backward, turning experience inside out or upside down, to get back to human origins, to deconstruct his very existence. Take the poem "When Alone":

When alone

what is closest becomes the remotest,

the inside replaces itself with the outside

like a glove pulled inside out.

I read the Gospel . . . upside down,

plant a cape jasmine upside down,

and say:

Father, I take this path upside down,

take it, knowing it's wrong.

It is "Wrong," because, however prayerful his attempt to identify subject with object, self with nature, to turn everything inside out, it is invariably inadequate, the gap between such opposites unbridgeable. Attempting such reversal, in short, is beyond mere words, as he indicates in one of several "To You" poems:

Now is when we must choose the stone itself,

not as a metaphor . . . .

Yet, what else is the stone but metaphor? Trying again in "Feigning to Aim at a Bird," he would direct his linguistic bullets at a bird; unable to shoot it, he unexpectedly shoots himself:

I held the gun in reverse

and pulled the trigger.

He has become both bullet and bird and, of course, is left not with the beating heart of real life, but only metaphor. His existential impasse is borne out in "The Candle," with the poet

Turning into a wavering flame,

gradually burning up from your head,

you are a sacrifice for your own shadow.

Were his reversal of metaphor into life successful, therefore, it would mean that, like Izanami, the Shinto-mythological goddess of Earth and darkness, who gave birth to fire that then consumed her, the poet's "flame" would consume him.

What are we to make of this existential dilemma? In the poem "Father," Takano is advised to "write poetry," that "poetry is another way of being saved." Indeed, the impulse to write transcends despair and provides his raison d'e^tre. Although admitting he never felt "saved," he ultimately gathers meaning in enduring, even if, as he concludes in "Life":

Isn't it just to wait in vain --

for the human with his words

for the sunflower with its flower head?

Moreover, in "A Pool of Water," the waiting is validated, even in his paltry poetic effort:

Like the blue of the sky it reflects,

our small heart struggles to be

as high as the sky it reflects.

This spiritual, Sisyphean effort at poetic creation in the face of ineluctable failure moves Takano to press on and lends this tome a profound wisdom. The clear, concise renderings by the redoubtable Hiroaki Sato make Takano's work eminently accessible to English-speaking readers.

This book can be acquired from P.S., A Press, 169 Garron Road, Middletown Springs, Vermont 05757.


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