Hiromi Itō: From 'Wild Grass on the Riverbank' (just published)

Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles 

[Two years after the first publication of the following extract in Poems and Poetics, Hiromi Itō’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank has now been published by Action Books in a definitive English translation by Jeffrey Angles.  One of the most important poets of contemporary Japan, her impact has been summarized by fellow poet Kido Shuri as follows: “The appearance of Itō Hiromi, a figure that one might best call a ‘shamaness of poetry’ (shi no miko) was an enormous event in post-postwar poetry.  Her physiological sensitivity and writing style, which cannot be captured within any existing framework, became the igniting force behind the subsequent flourishing of ‘women’s poetry’ (josei shi), just as Hagiwara Sakutarō had revolutionized modern poetry with his morbid sensitivity and colloquial style.”  More on Itō and this important new work follows the excerpt from the work itself. (J.R.)]



By late summer, everyone on the riverbank was dead,

Not just the once living creatures, but the summer grass, the rusted bicycles, the summer grass,

Cars without doors or windows, the warped porn magazines, the summer grass,

Empty cans with food stuck inside and empty bottles full of muddy water,

Girl’s panties and condoms, the dead body of father, and so much summer grass


The riverbank meant only to control you

The summer grass touched our bodies

The seeds falling down onto our bodies

Recently, on the bank, I noticed a kind of grass that multiplied conspicuously

It is about one meter high and stands like some kind of rice

It has ears

It is everywhere

It glimmers white in the dim evening light

Sticky liquid oozes from the ear

The dogs get sticky

The dogs smell terrible

The dogs agonize and rub their bodies onto the ground

The man from the riverbank appears in the evening

Every evening he appears, sits in an arbor

Completely alone

Aged, unpolished and shabby, pale as a corpse

When his penis rises up

A smell rises like the one from the rice-like grass on the bank

The penis in his hands shines and shines


The flowers of the kudzu also rise up, I notice the arrowroot flowers rising up here and there, one day, we became tangled in the tendrils of the kudzu plants, I heard something slithering along abruptly, no sooner had I heard this when a tendril trapped my heel, it hit me, and knocked me on my back into a bush, there the Sorghum halepense rattled in the wind, an unfamiliar grass shook releasing its scent, then the tendril stretched all the further, crawling onto my body, getting into my panties, and creeping into my vagina, I…  I inhaled and exhaled, I exhaled and the tendril slid in, I inhaled and the tendril slid out, I exhaled again and it slid further in, like the leaves of the kudzu my body was turned this way and that, my body was forced open and closed over and over, and Alexsa watched all of this, Alexsa was watching, watching and smiling, I became angry, so angry, I got up and shoved Alexsa away, she fell down on her back, the tendrils clung to Alexsa too, Alexsa also turned this way and that, the tendril also went inside her vagina, deep inside, and she started to cry


Everyone was dead



Mother and me


Ahh…I think to myself

Think I'll pack it in
And buy a pick-up
Take it down to L.A.
Find a place
To call my own
Or maybe a hot sprint
One that heals eczema, dermatitis, neuralgia
Menopausal disorders, diabetes, infectious diseases
A hot spring in a hot sprint to fix you up right away
To soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up
And then start a brand new day

Hey I’m itchy, so itchy, my younger brother cried, I told him not to scratch, but he did it anyway, the place he scratched soon turned into a blister, I didn’t scratch it that much, only a little, brother cried, but even if he only scratched a little, the place he scratched turned into a blister, all over his body were blisters, after they ruptured, they got inflamed and full of pus

My little brother no longer seemed like himself, he was horribly swollen, he rolled all over the house, mouth open, wheezing, crying,



I want to take him to a hot spring, Mother said I’ve heard of a hot spring good for your skin, if we’re going, why don’t we take our dead father and dead dog along to put in, so just left everything as it was, dirty dishes, old clothes, wet towels just as they were, then we carefully laid my wheezing brother on the rear seat, and we stuffed some other things in the car, my little sister, spare clothes, dead bodies, dogs, plastic bags, pillows, food and drink (even some flowerpots), so much stuff, and then we took off, as I stared at the road from the passenger seat, I asked, how do we get there? Mother replied as she drove the car, it’s over that mountain


That hot spring is

A hot spring that fixes you up right away

Soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up

And fix your eczema, blisters

Skin infections, ringworm

Dermatitis, infectious diseases

Atopy, allergic diseases

Dead bodies, death, dying, and having died

Try to fix you up and
And start a brand new day
Let’s go over that mountain, Mother said
The back seat was full, no space left
As for space, the car was old and rickety from the start
But still we stuffed it full with
Things, garbage, food
People, dogs, dead bodies
So there was no space
The dogs stunk
The dead bodies stunk
My brother was wheezing in the back seat
My sister sometimes cried out as if she’d just remembered
She’d left something back at home
Please go back, I forgot something
No, we never go back
We just go further
Beyond that forked road
Isn’t that Toroku?
Isn’t that Kurokami? 
Isn’t that Kokai?
The Jyogyoji crossing
Through Uchi-tsuboi
Up Setozaka slope
Shouldn’t we go
All the way over there?
I know the way to the big tree
Where the samurai-turned-monk used to live
At his big tree, we turn right at the three-way intersection
We see the huge treetop of his big tree
From here, it looks so huge
If you go under and look up, it blocks out the whole world
There’s a path only for tractors and pick-ups
Turn right at the three-way intersection
There’s a small stone bridge, we cross it
Then another three-way intersection
Go straight
Go straight
Go up the road
Go through mandarin orange orchards on both sides
And when we come out
We come to mountainous roads
Where it’s dark even during the day
The road meanders through a forest with shining leaves
The road meanders
Comes close to a cliff
Then separates from it
Ahh… I think to myself
Think I'll pack it in, and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A.
Mother started to sing in a key way too high for her
Ahh… Think I’ll…
A tangle of karasuuri flowers and fruits
Ahh, Think I’ll…
A flourishing bunch of worm-eaten leaves
A scarlet flower is blooming
It must be a garden species that escaped somebody’s terrace
In the shade of the plants, a large white flower is blooming
A flower pale and white
That can’t be a garden species
It’s so pale because it’s in the shade
Another car comes
We pass each other
That car must be coming back from the hot spring
All fixed up, the driver must have fixed his skin trouble
And come back, thinking this, I try to get a good look
But it disappeared into the distance in a flash
Much further and we’ll be at the seashore
The seashore facing west
Doesn’t look like there is a hot spring
Beyond this is the pure land, Mother said
The dog noticed the smell of the sea
It stuck its nose out the window, howling for the sea
We should’ve crossed a large bridge, Mother said
I forgot the name, but it’s a large bridge
There were big floods there late in the nineteenth century
And again in the mid-twentieth century
Lots of earth, sand, and drowned bodies caught on the bridge
‘Cause of that bridge, the floods downstream were even worse
We screwed up when we missed that bridge
All the water we’ve seen has just been small streams
We’ve definitely gone the wrong way, Mother said
We’ll never get there if we keep going like this, Mother said
The dog howling for the sea rose up in the rear seat
And walked across my little brother
Alexsa shouted
We’d better start all over, Mother said
She must have given up
My brother let up a sharp cry
You can’t give up
Is that the only option?
Shut up, Alexsa shouted
I told you, I told you, my little sister wept
The dog barked
Lots of dogs barked
Alexsa shouted, I can’t take it anymore, I can’t, I can’t
No one ever listens to me, she said
She sunk her face into her thighs, curled up, started to sob
Her voice grew louder, more childish than brother’s
More infantile than sister’s
Cried on and on, on and on
Nothing else
On and on
On and on
We should have turned around
But if we did, we’d just get more lost, mother said
Let’s keep going down the hill to the sea
Then go home round the cape
So that’s how we got back home
Nothing fixed
Nothing found
We failed
It’s no good
It’s all over

NOTE.  The 140-page narrative poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank (Kawara arekusa) represents Hiromi Itō’s dramatic return to poetry after several years of writing primarily prose works.  First serialized in the prominent Japanese poetry journal Handbook of Modern Poetry (Gendai shi techō) in 2004 and 2005, Wild Grass was published in book form in 2005. ... The critic Tochigi Nobuaki has said that in Wild Grass, “We, Ito's readers, are witnessing the advent of a new poetic language that modern Japanese has never seen.” Wild Grass explores the experience of migrancy and alienation through the eyes of an eleven-year old girl who narrates the long poem. In the work, the girl travels with her mother back and forth between a dry landscape known in the poem as the “wasteland,” a place that resembles the dry landscape of southwestern California [where Itō now lives], and a lush, overgrown place known as the “riverbank,” which resembles Kumamoto, a city in southern Japan where Itō’s children grew up and where Itō still spends several weeks each year.


NOTE ON THE SUBTITLE: Michiyuki are lyric compositions that feature prominently in bunraku and kabuki dramas of the early modern era. Typically, they describe the scenery that characters encounter while traveling—sometimes while eloping or traveling to a site where they will commit suicide. For this reason, michiyuki typically come at the climactic moment of a drama. In Itō’s poem, however, the michiyuki sequence is profoundly anticlimactic as the characters travel and travel in search of a place they cannot find. This chapter contains quotes and passages loosely based upon the lyrics of Neil Young’s song “Harvest” from 1972.