Cosmic Wind: Yoshimasu Gozo’s ‘Alice Iris Red Horse’

In 2003 I received an invitation to attend a reading by the poet Yoshimasu Gozo, someone I had never heard of. I asked around, and was told that Gozo was an avant-garde poet who read in a bygone oracular style.

The reading was in a small space in the Lower East Side, which the Japan Society had rented for the occasion. Gozo read in a slowed-down, otherworldly tone, while an accompanying guitarist made barely audible brushes followed by loud skronks. The floor of the space was dotted with piles of dirt and pieces of metal, which I later learned were his sculptures. The translator, Hiroaki Sato, while certainly necessary, was secondary to the spectacle. By the end of the reading I was convinced: while maybe not an actual oracle, Gozo certainly went beyond my expectations for an avant-gardist.

So I wanted to know if what was on the page would capture what I saw that night.

After many years without significant English-language publication, a selection of Yoshimasu Gozo’s work is set for release this September from New Directions. The volume, Alice Iris Red Horse, is edited by poet Forrest Gander and translated by a seasoned team, including: Hiroaki Sato; Eric Selland (of Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat); and Sawako Nakayasu (translator of Chika Sagawa), all of whom are aware of, and exploit, the difficulties of Gozo’s poetry.

On the page, Gozo’s language switches from journalistic prose to heightened speech to phonetic combinations, which appear to have no semantic content. Much of his poetry resists easy typography as it switches between Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese. His words alternate in size and he employs a variety of punctuation marks, which introduce a stuttering effect to the poems.

“Kadena,” probably the most straightforward poem in the collection, features few of these qualities, yet the poem was written in two different Japanese syllabaries. In the English translation, the tension is between a public and a private, coded language, possibly reflecting the poem’s namesake, a small Okinawan town whose “dominant feature is a U.S. air base – in truth, the largest military base in the Far East,” according to translator Hiroaki Sato’s notes.

“Kadena” begins:

Kadena, Kadena,
Thy name is, Kadena –

The instant I stood on Anpo Hill, and had an entire view of Kadena Base
something popped inside me, ….
the landscape had popped, ….
Low hills, foliaged hills. The utaki of Hamakawa-san’s ancestors is moving
In the Kadena Base something has started to move clattering
Something had started to move clattering
It, may have been the sound of the fire of an oar
Or perhaps it, may have been the heart (feeling) of the air striking a rock

Ura (cove), Uruma, …. Ura (cove), Uruma

Kumpon, Kumpon, Ura, Uruma

What looks like pronouncement (“Thy name is…”) becomes a coded language (“Kupon, Kumpon, Ura…”) that most English-language readers might find difficult to understand.

This is even more the case in poems where Gozo uses symbols – some as easy to recognize as an eye for “I,” some more obscure. The symbols lead me to watch, if not comprehend, the spectacle of the poems – much like the performance I saw.

From “、、、、Stones Single, or in Handfuls”:

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In explaining the poem, translator Sawako Nakayasu notes that Yoshimasu Gozo “may try but he cannot write away the too recent memory of the sea and its deleterious assault on the Fukushima nuclear power plant…”

The recent Fukushima disaster haunts a number of Gozo’s poems in this collection. In nearly every poem, formal strategies of disjunction and estrangement connect to a representation of physical and historical events outside of the poem.

In addition to the relationship of the original Japanese-language versions of the poems to their translations, as well as the integration of historical events, interpretation of Gozo’s poetry hinges on the “intertextuality” of the poems, as translator Jordan A. Yamaji Smith calls it.

It’s here that I must confess to being initially skeptical of this collection. Over the years many multiple-translator anthologies have been published, with extremely uneven results. One needs only to look at a number of other New Directions anthologies, where a seasoned translator is placed next to a writer without foreign language skills, and a very suspect version stands in for the original.

But Alice Iris Red Horse convinced me that multiple-translator anthologies can be done better. It even convinced me that it could be a new model for poetry publication.

Preceding each poem, the translator or translators introduce the poem and its language, explain translation decisions, and present other possible contexts, including history and politics, psychology, and religion. What comes through in these introductions is a larger picture of Yoshimasu Gozo and his poetry, but also the different angles from which one can approach his work.

By reading the translators’ notes I gained a clear sense of what each translator was trying to do – his or her methods and also a sense of their poetics, which were not all the same. So it was a surprise how often translators would use the same strategies of translation, and how often they would bring up the same concerns.

Because of the difficulty of Gozo’s poetry, a translator’s note may be necessary in Japanese as well as English. In a number of his poems he refers not only to events, but to specific pieces of writing, to individuals and sometimes their personal relationships with him. Translators’ notes explain who these people are, but more importantly, they further emphasize Gozo’s points. In the end, they explain and become an additional layer of poetry.

For example, Sawako Nakayasu’s notes to “、、、、Stones Single, or in Handfuls” ends with:

a kanji character that means

In the volume, the translators’ notes are on left-hand pages while poetry is on right-hand pages — so Nakayasu’s notes begin before the poem does. While technically preceding the poem, her notes stretch to a fourth page, and this passage from the end of her notes faces the poem’s fourth page. As such it gives the illusion of being embedded in the body of the poem — by giving the Japanese for what is in the translated poem the English-language term “convex.” The notes become written again in the language of the original poem, which would be illegible for non-Japanese readers. This is one example of the “intertextuality” mentioned by translator Smith. The poems and the notes have the effect of contributing to, mirroring and emphasizing each other, and spurring each other forward.

However Gozo, interviewed in the volume, resists the notion that his poetry is merely “writerly” writing, made for the composition of more poetry. He’s not an academic propounding textual strategies, and his work isn’t “only écriture. The Uchu no Shitakaze, or cosmic wind: that’s what I am attempting to convey through my writing.”

Typically, “cosmic” connotes something massive and encompassing, while “wind” conveys direction or force. Here “cosmic wind” seems to be intertextuality on a much larger scale — not only écriture, but something willfully greater than that. As such, Gozo’s poems encompass not only multiple languages and registers, but language and meaning as concepts.

But this is too abstract without an example.

In the single travelogue in Alice Iris Red Horse, “Lamy Station,” written in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Gozo writes:

One language may kill off another. We, are, living fossils. In step, rhythm, step, step, sometimes, a language will kill of another. We, begin, our migration, to another family of words. We are, fossils, of words.

“Lamy Station” appears to be a consideration of the author’s travels and America’s westward expansion, except that he intersperses it with references to Japanese prehistory, animal life, and geology. In the above quotation it is the presence of the prehistoric “fossils” (elsewhere in the travelogue/prose poem it is the Jomon period in Japan) as alive today that demonstrates his cosmic wind: instead of the force of historical progress, it is the force of temporal and spatial continuity. The alien time or place unexpectedly appears here and now. That principle is the same for language.

In one of Gozo’s best-known poems, “The Keening I Long For,” which, like “Kadena,” is also ostensibly about the military occupation of Okinawa, he has the memorable line:

“B,” Boring? or is it “B” bomber?

More cosmic wind: the line demonstrates how a tool of physical force can be deflated by translation (“You said bomber? I thought you meant boring.”). It demonstrates that his poetry goes beyond a message, and cannot be pinpointed as a singular linguistic expression or a material reference. Without “B,” neither “boring” nor “bomber” are connected, here on the knife’s edge of indecision. For Gozo, the poem and not-poem are like this, often falsely differentiated from each other by the same criteria which would separate then from now and here from there — when they are actually cut from the same cloth.

Yoshimasu Gozo’s Alice Iris Red Horse is published by New Directions and will be available from September 27.

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