Nakahara Chuya: Six Poems Newly Englished, Plus a Single Transcreation
Translations from Japanese by Jerome Rothenberg & Yasuhiro Yotsumoto
NOTE. Over a short lifetime, Nakahara Chuya (1907-1937) was a major innovator along lines originally shaped by Dada and other, earlier forms of European, largely French, experimental poetry. In 1997, as part of an annual poetry festival in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi, I came to his grave along with a group of Japanese poet-companions, to celebrate the 60th year of his death and the 90th of his birth. The poem marking that time, “At the Grave of Nakahara Chuya,” appeared a few years later in A Paradise of Poets and included a fake “translation” (a “transcreation” perhaps, as Harold de Campos might have had it) in what I took to be his style, or one of them, that brought some of his work into the domain of popular Japanese music. The six poems presented below are the latest results from a more recent attempt at actual translation, but a part of my earlier poem-song can also appear here as a further homage:
As sportscoats are to toothpaste
as the boa is to scales
as black teeth are to playful ghosts
as seasons are to smiles
As telephones are to toasters
as angels are to air
as wagon wheels are to ups & downs
as horses are to fire
As Buddha is to Buddha
as a toenail is to glass
as the way we make love is tight like that
as ascensions are to cash
As harbors are to hairpins
as napoleons are to joy
as bicycles are to icicles
bones are to a dada boy
Look at this, it’s my bone,
a tip of bone torn from its flesh,
filthy, filled up with woes,
it’s the days of our lives
sticking out, a blunt bone
bleached by the rain.
There’s no shine to it,
innocent, stupidly white,
absorbing the rain,
blown back by the wind,
reflecting the sky.
Funny imagining, seeing
this bone on a chair
in a restaurant
packed to the gills, & eating
mitsuba leafy & boiled,
a bone but alive.
Look at this, it’s my bone,
& is that me staring
& wondering: Strange,
was my soul left behind
& has it come back
where its bone is,
daring to look?
On the half dead grass
on the bank of a brook
in my home town, standing
& looking – who’s there?
Is it me? A bone
a bone stupidly white
& high as a billboard.
POEM: SAD MORNING
sound of a brook
like a stone:
the water running
from a spout
more a grey-haired
crone, her story
I sing through:
o unknown fire
bursting in air!
o rain of echoes
wet & crowned!
clap my hands clapping
this way & that
POEM EVENING WITH SUNLIGHT
hills retreat from me
arms crossed over chest
& sunsets colored golden
grasses in fields
sing oldtime songs
on mountains trees
old hearts remote & still
here in this time & place
I’ve been meat of a clam
a babe’s foot stamps on
here in this time & place
surrender stubborn intimate
arms crossed walking off
POEM: AN EVENING IN SPRING
the tin roof eats the rice crackers
spring now the evening’s at peace
ashes thrown underhand soon turning pale
spring now the evening’s at rest
ah! it’s a scarecrow – is it or is it?
& a horse neighing? – nothing I hear
only the moon shining slimes itself up
& an evening in spring limps behind
a temple out in a field dripping red
& the wheels on my cart lose their grease
the historical present was all I know
the sky & mountains mock me & mock me
a tile has just peeled loose from the roof
now & forever it’s spring
the evening is moving forward & wordless
where it finds its way into a vein
The field until yesterday
was burning now
it stretches under clouds
& sky unmindful.
And they say the rain
each time it comes
brings sutumn that much
closer even more so
autumn borne cicadas
sing out everywhere,
nesting sometimes in a tree
awash in grass.
I smoke a cigarette,
through stale air,
I try & try
at the horizon.
Can’t be done,
The ghosts of heat
stand up or flop down.
And I find myself alone there,
A cloudy sky
dark golden light
plays off now
as it always was,
so high I can’t help
I tell you that I live
resigned to ennui,
drawing from my cigarette
three different tastes.
Death may no longer be
so far away.
“He did, he said so long & then
he walked away, he walked out from that door,
the weird smile that he wore, shiny like brass,
his smile that didn’t look like someone living.
His eyes like water in a pond the color when it clears,
or something. He talked like someone somewhere else.
Would cut his speech up into little pieces.
He used to think of little things that didn’t matter.”
“Yes, just like that. I wonder if he knew that he was dying.
He would laugh and tell you that the stars became him
when he stared at them. And that was just a while ago.
A while ago. Swore that the clogs that he was wearing weren’t his.”
The grass was absolutely still,
and over it a butterfly was flying.
He took it all in from the veranda,
stood there dressed in his yukata.
And I, you know, would watch him
from this angle. Staring after it,
that yellow butterfly. I can remember now
the whistles of the tofu vendors
back and forth, the telephone pole
clear against the evening sky.
Then he turned back to me and said “I ...
yesterday, I flipped a stone over that weighed
maybe a hundred pounds.” And so I asked
“how come? and where was that?”
Then you know what? He kept on staring at me,
straight into my eyes, like he was getting mad,
or something … That’s when I got scared.
How strange we are before we die …
PROSE POEM: NEVER TO RETURN
World’s end, the sunlight that fell down to earth was warm, a warm wind blowing through the flowers.
On a wooden bridge, the dust that morning silent, a mailbox red & shining all day long, a solitary baby carriage on the street, a lonely pinwheel.
No one around who lived there, not a soul, no children playing there, & I with no one near or dear to me, no obligation but to watch the color of the sky above a weathervane.
Not that I was bored. The taste of honey in the air, nothing substantial but enough to eat & live from.
I was smoking cigarettes, but only to enjoy their fragrance. And weirdly I could only smoke them out of doors.
For now my worldly goods consisted of a single towel. I didn’t own a pillow, much less a futon mattress. True I still had a tooth brush, but the only book I owned had nothing but blank pages. Still I enjoyed the heft of it when I would hold it in my hands from time to time.
Women were lovely objects but not once did I try to go with one. It was enough to dream about them.
Something unspeakable would urge me on, & then my heart, although my life was purposeless, started pounding with a kind of hope.
In the woods was a very strange park, where women, children & men would stroll by smiling wildly. They spoke a language I didn’t understand & showed emotions I couldn’t unravel.
Looking up at the sky, I saw a spider web, silver & shining.