A Round of Renshi & the Poet as Other: An Experiment in Poesis (Part Two)
The openness of renshi was the first thing that came across. I had read enough about renga to recognize how rule-bound that was – not only the tanka or waka form with its strictly fixed lines and syllables, but thematic commands and prohibitions (seasonal, geographic, imagistic, and so on), and the way that poems linked or bled into each other, sometimes openly, more often by a kind of subtle indirection. In advance of my own participation, I had read a number of books, to get a better feel for renga as the traditional underpinning for renshi, while aware that renshi practice, in so far as it had developed, was formally open and left the linkages in the hands of the individual participants. In the present instance, Tanikawa, as the senior figure and acknowledged renshi-master (sabakite), only asked that the individual poems be kept short (between four and fourteen lines, I think he said), that some attention be paid to poems preceding and following one’s own, and that linkages be subtle or mysterious rather than direct or obvious. We were also encouraged to avoid competition and to go easy on the confessional or expressionistic side of things. Then, as the work unfolded, allusions to earlier works and sources came into play, a practice in which I was happy to engage, as a further instance, let’s say, of what I speak of elsewhere as “othering” or “writing through.” (Itō in this regard drew all her texts directly from earlier, largely oral, sources.) And there were passing references too to matters that came up in our conversation – dinner talk, a lot of it – which would be more difficult to reconstruct but had a resonance for some of us that may or may not carry over to those who read us.
A SECOND DIGRESSION. Of all such “distant links” (soku) mentioned by Tanikawa, the fifteenth-century poet-monk Shinkei wrote in his Sasamegoto, a masterwork of renga poetics and 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.) My own inclination here is to see this, as with much of Shinkei’s poetics, as a forerunner to the principle in modernist collage, of bringing together disparate elements in a single field and, as Pound or Reverdy might have had it, letting them cohere. In that sense the very process of renga or renshi might be seen in itself as an instance of poetic collage.
As if to underscore the contemporaneity of what we were doing, the opening set of the renshi event began before we arrived in Kumamoto. We made the link by email, with the leadoff slot given to Itō, who was the local organizer along with a group of others who had named themselves – curiously, I thought – The Kumamoto Literature Band. As would be the case throughout, every poem in Japanese was immediately translated into English, and every poem of mine into Japanese. The order in which we wrote was also set beforehand, switching a couple of times along the way. So, by the time Diane Rothenberg and I left San Diego, I had the first five poems stowed in my computer, and by the time we arrived and met a few of the others at Mount Aso (still a ways from Kumamoto), some of the talk (but not most of it) was already turning to the poems.
Hiromi’s opening gambit was a response, she later told me, to a criticism at an earlier renshi event that she had been too personal, too I-centered in what she wrote there. (She also didn’t care to write short pieces, she said, her own work known for its expansive form and, even more so, for the outrageously sexual and transgressive nature of its content.) So she decided on a strategy of total appropriation and armed herself with a stack of books – mainly from ancient and oral sources – as a repository of works from which to draw her poems. And because we had started at Mount Aso, the four lines she tossed down were from a song chanted by young women dressed in white who come to feed the local gods in the yearly Onda Festival at Aso shrine:
Let us offer up a song, may the gods
Of these fields bear witness
The gods look down, the farmers
Plant the fields and are glad
These lines set the tone, then, and were followed by Tanikawa’s linked
response, which picked up the idea of festival and planting, plus something more:
The children form circles and play in the forests
Where the leaves of visitor’s language flourish
Even in the land of roots
There are seeds waiting to germinate
Or so my great-grandmother used to say
I knew, in writing after Tanikawa, that I couldn’t answer directly even if I tried, that there were things that weren’t open or clear to me as outsider, and yet enough came through, aided by hints thrown at me by Jeffrey Angles – as translator – and a little too from Hiromi. I was the “visitor” here and the “leaves”were “pages,” as they are with us, or “words,” as they are with them. I also knew the “land of roots” as an ancient formula – in the Japanese origin myth Kojiki and elsewhere – for the subterranean world of gods and ghosts. So I took it all as an invitation to play out my role as visitor or guest or stranger and to see how far I could move between my own resources and theirs. As a first instance I found myself following the syllable and line/strophe structure of the traditional tanka or waka (5-7-5 7-7), something I wasn’t likely to do in any other circumstance including the rest of the renshi event. The result follows, and then some words about it:
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
... all of which was more allusive than anything I would later do but was needed, I thought, to bring our worlds together or to make a stab at linking them. In doing so I brought in my own Japanese name (Akayama = Red Mountain = Roten Berg), which I had given myself many years before, and juxtaposed it with the name of the mountain/volcano (Aso yama), where we were heading, in contrast to the mysterious Death Mountain (shide no yama) that I found in a seventeenth-century “death poem” by a Buddhist poet/monk named Shiyō. Also, once Tanikawa’s “land of roots” gave me an opening, I introduced ancient Jewish sheol as a great-grandmotherly accounting of my own. And as a further nod in his direction I appropriated a phrase, “the shadow of a visionary fish,” from a poem of his, to end the poem and, as far as I could, to put my own authorship in question.
Such questioning, it seemed to me, was crucial in this kind of work. So I wasn’t surprised when Kaku followed me with a poem that, though I didn’t recognize the source at first, had a larger than life quality, an attempt, about which I might otherwise be dubious, at mythopoetic speech:
My red, burning fluid!
From my crumbling bosom
Through my chest and arms
To the villages beneath the mountains
Things seen with the eyes
Washed away, burned to ashes
Bring a beginning to this world
Once again after so many times
For Kaku all of this involved both a relation to the Greek Eurydice –suggested by the “death world” references from me and Tanikawa – and an immersion into the ferocious sexuality of the Kojiki, in which the creator gods Izanami and Izanaki fuck and give birth to the islands of Japan and multiple lesser divinities. Still alive here it was a world like what I knew from Technicians of the Sacred and elsewhere, though I couldn’t pin it down precisely until the source was disclosed to me.
A THIRD DIGRESSION. As the oldest surviving Japanese book, the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Things,” completed on “the twenty-eighth day of the first month of the fifth year of Wado” (A.D. 722) is an attempt to keep a grip on matters already at some distance from the compilers and to establish the “origins” of the Japanese court and nation on (roughly) native grounds. It is, at the same time, “a compilation of myths, historical and pseudo-historical narratives and legends, songs, anecdotes, folk etymologies, and genealogies.” (Thus: Donald L. Philippi, the composer of
a long-standing translation.) Like other such works it begins with the generations of the gods and follows their creation of and descent into this-place-here. The fecundity and sexuality of those early gods – like Izanaki and Izanami in the present instance – is an example of surreality (= poesis) as an attempt to comprehend and thereby to possess the world. The following, for example, is from Yoko Danno’s recent translation: “When Izanami was delivered of the fire deity Kagu-tsuchi, her genitals were severely burnt and she was seriously ill in bed. She vomited and in her vomit a pair of ore deities came into being. In her excrement arose a pair of clay deities, and in her urine the female deity who controls irrigation water and the young deity full of procreative force whose daughter is the food goddess Toyo-uke.”
Yotsumoto, when he linked to Kaku’s poem, took the “red fluid” as menstrual blood but transferred it from dreamtime to the scene of a woman watching a kitsch diorama of a volcano at the Aso Museum and feeling her period come on, for which he used an old-fashioned Japanese term and, for better or worse, spoke it in the woman’s voice:
Standing before the diorama
Gazing at the mechanized plumes of smoke and flows of lava
My monthly visitor caught me off guard
There is another me who watches silently
As I let out a sigh of relief
That ended the first set of renshi as a mix of myth and dream with words and
voices from the non-mythic present and past – an expanding field that could accommodate the several minds at work here.
It was in this spirit that the game continued.
Yasuhiro Yotsumoto Wakako Kaku
[Originally published in Critical Inquiry, volume 37, number 4, summer 2011]
[to be continued]