Takahashi Mutsuo: 'This World, or the Man of the Boxes,' dedicated to Joseph Cornell

Translation from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles


[This posting was immediately dropped from Jacket2 Commentaries when I first posted it, so I’m reposting it now. (J.R.)]


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 stars




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 world

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 usual

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 KawamuraMemorialMuseum 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: http://kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp/en/exhibition/201004_cornell.html.


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 2006 Irish publication On Two Shores: New and Selected Poems, translated by Mitsuko Ohno and Frank Sewell(Dedalus 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, was recently published by University of Minnesota Press.