Surrounded by Paris

Yuko Otomo’s ‘PINK’

Cover of 'PINK' and Yuko Otomo, photographed by Donald Martineau-Vega

Yuko Otomo
Lithic Press, 2024, 67 pages, $20.00, ISBN 978-1-946583-30-7

Written in Japanese and translated by the author, Yuko Otomo’s PINK is a paean to Paris, to her revered precursor, Baudelaire, and to her soulmate, the American poet Steve Dalachinsky. As she explains in a generously spontaneous afterword, Steve and Yuko visited Paris nearly every other year for 15 years or so. Written in 2001, PINK was the second in her Paris Trilogy, the first being Night River and the third Window(s) (2004). Another Paris poem, Anonymous Landscape, was published by Lithic Press in 2019.

Inspired by the prose poems of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (1869), PINK is an ekphrastic tour of the historic sites of Paris, including Notre Dame, Père Lachaise, Musée D’Orsay, the Seine, Maison de Victor Hugo, Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre, Versailles, and even “boulevard so & so.” At each stop along the way Otomo reflects on history, humanity, life, and death. Her writing contrasts her native (Japanese) and adopted (English) languages through bilingual orthography; Japanese ideograms are inserted next to italicized words in English. The twin vocabularies often express polar opposites: life and death, good luck and bad luck, light and shadow, you and me. The reader is thus treated to a bilingual, dialectical thought process in situ, surrounded by Paris.

At the Musée D’Orsay, Otomo is drawn to the “images of beauty,” hard-won works of art, while being repulsed by the “sad tasteless ugliness” of “tourist families … packed” into the gallery space, only to call herself into question: “My arrogant but justifiably obsessive attitude of observing the crowd in a critical manner … (where is my mercy?)” Here we find evidence of a layered consciousness wherein the immediacy of aesthetic recognition gives way to social alienation, which in turn prompts a self-critical aside.

She narrates the transition from impressionism (“Bonnard; Villard; Manet; Monet; Cezanne; Van Gogh; Gauguin; Redon… etc… etc…”) to abstraction: “Impressions of things & things beyond them. To pursue the point that surpasses impressions. Brushes; art materials; actions & the liberation from subjects. Concrete presentations of truth. Actualization and its proof.” This narration applies self-reflexively to the text of PINK, a notational record of a sojourn in Paris that doubles as an autonomous work of art.

At the Palais Royale Theatre, we find another series of dialectical pairs: dust & dirt, man & woman, words & life, and moon & cloud, to which are added two literary pairs, Basho & Sora (the 17th century poet’s traveling companion in his Narrow Road to the North) and “Jacques and his master,” a reference to Jacques the Fatalist, the 18th century novel by French philosophe Denis Diderot. In this poem, Otomo demonstrates how supposed opposites tend to collapse into one another in a circular movement that evokes the wholeness of existence. “You & I. A man & a woman. A human & a human. A moon in the after the rain sky; its glow; its light.”

On “boulevard so & so,” she notes the mimetic form of the Japanese character for human, two curved lines meeting at the top, then posits an allegorical ascent to denote transcendence. “To walk erect. 人Human. To become air going beyond human.” In “a secret,” we witness a crisis of consciousness that leads toward insanity. Then, thanks to the insertion of a paragraph break, she returns to the assurance espoused by Diderot in Jacques the Fatalist: “Unstoppable joy. It’s all written up yonder. Repose yourself.” 

While Otomo thinks big thoughts, often adjacent to those of Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot, the prose poems of PINK, like those of Paris Spleen, are all about feeling, e.g., nostalgia, melancholy, and rampant joy. As she explains in her afterword, not speaking French, she experiences a welcome liberation from the constant intrusion of public language.

For some reason, Paris gave me the perfect time/space zone I needed for creation. Writing & thinking in both my mother tongue Japanese & in my adopted language English in an environment where I was not able to decipher the French language was like living in a vacuum of the Tower of Babel. Paris became my sanctuary. I could roam around in my own thoughts much more deeply & freely without the stimulation caused by language.

Frequently, preceding each italicized English word, Otomo inserts the corresponding Japanese ideogram. Sometimes the phonetic spelling of the Japanese is added: 生 <sei> life & 性 <sei> sex. In this case, the coupling signifies similarity as well as difference, where identical phonemes are represented by different ideograms. On a visit to Monet’s house at Giverney, she takes these homonyms one step further. “性 <sei> Sex = 生 <sei> Life. 詩 <shi> Poetry = 死 <shi> Death. Eternity. Reunion.” The multidimensionality of these various schema renders an almost hologrammatic image of life forms and meanings.

As Otomo meditates on duality, she often discovers unity: “& finally to know that to be healthy has nothing to do with brightness or darkness but the equilibrium of them both.” In the pages of PINK, we sense Otomo moving through a multi-dimensional field of meanings, semantics, feelings, maps of Paris, and its public and private places. The affective realm is especially prominent. In Montmartre, she passes through a range of emotions from sadness to desire to awe.

Ghosts at white noon. Changes of colors. A gallery in heaven … The sound of the wind. Secretive murmurs of things past. Something shared by the murmur & the whisper of melancholy. Tiny hard grapes tell us of the coming harvest season clearly. The hill of martyrs accept us quietly. A day of cinema. A poetic appetite. A big heart(y) eternity.

From duality, Otomo draws unity. To man and woman, she prefers human and human. This rejection of the binary may stem from a double source, Japanese (Zen) and French (Derrida). Yet Otomo’s meditations, though learned, are of a wholly original order. Her thoughts are those of a witty and dynamic personality, while also one of strong feelings and opinions and a sense of social, and even animal, justice. At the zoo, she contemplates humans’ relative freedom while other beings are denied the open spaces that are their birthright.

How merciless it is to be forced to resign yourself to a life without dignity in the city of light! Young human children & their tired parents. Young puma cubs & their tired parents. Dried (up) garden of Eden under the afternoon sun. (Sacred) worn out Noah’s ark … Expelled from the garden, we stand on the boulevard. We open a map & look up to the sky. Becoming aware of hunger within us, we leave the caged creatures behind in our consciousness. We become wild in order to fill our own hunger & void.

In “le(s) poète(s) maudite(s),” Otomo extends the melancholy alienation of Baudelaire’s  Paris Spleento all of humanity. She writes of “Le Poète Maudit quality of being born as a 人 human.” As “someone who carries the privilege of being favored by the darkness of life,” she declares peace with her fate, and that of all humans. She uses the nomenclature “(S)he” to represent a non-binary take on humanity.

(S)he is well aware of fate’s direction. (S)he does not fight against it. (S)he accepts unhappiness. (S)he feels quite ordinary sleeping wrapped in a blanket called sadness.

PINK closes with a paragraph entitled “returning,” which narrates a return from deep, vertical thought to simple, horizontal dailiness. 

Turning the street corner, looking up to the sky to become one with the clouds, I welcome my naked self tenderly. Again, being slightly slower & lighter, I entrust myself to the flow of time & space freely. Closing my eyes, I open my thoughts quietly. I listen. I return to accustomed ordinariness, holding the same book

In these carefully wrought pages, Otomo expands the concept of the romantic/modernist artist genius to invest the human being with agency as conscious participant in the natural world. This is why I take Yuko Otomo to be a truly 21st century poet.