Once when I was breaking up with a girlfriend, she told me, “You act like a nice guy, but really you’re not.” Or maybe she said, “You pretend to be a nice guy,” I can’t quite remember. Anyway, I was taken aback. Would it be better to just habitually act like an asshole, rather than trying to do so as little as possible? Although I know my capacity for niceness is, like everyone else’s, limited, I try to cultivate my better qualities to the extent that I can. But then, what if, as a result, someone mistakenly comes to believe that I am nicer than I really am? Does that make me a bigger jerk than the guy who’s just self-evidently a jerk on the surface?
I know that book reviews about poetry should not be a platform for seeking self-help advice — that would be the behavior of some kind of egomaniac — but maybe this story explains why I identify, just a bit, with Araki Yasusada. Yasusada, as you may remember, is someone who in the 1990s seemed to be acting like a Japanese poet who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima, or maybe I should say, pretending to be one, but really he wasn’t. That wasn’t very nice. Some who had been taken in, or felt that they had been taken, reacted as betrayed lovers. Arthur Vogelsang, whose American Poetry Review published work under Yasusada’s name in the belief that he was a real historical individual rather than a poetic invention by an unknown hand or hands, called the imposture — if that’s what it was — “essentially a criminal act.”
Be that as it may, Yasusada is still with us. And the writings ascribed to him, with their unsettling mix of Surrealism and Jack Spicer, tanka, and language poetry represent, perhaps, a wound that has not healed. (They are currently available in two books, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, 1997, and Also, With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English, 2005.) The publication of a new collection of essays on the Yasusada phenomenon — and they do attend to the phenomenon more than to the poetry itself — shows as much. Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada presents nineteen texts both new and previously published by eighteen poets and academics—the first and last are by the editor, Bill Freind, a man whose name is anathema to all computerized spell-checking. Following Freind’s introduction, the first four essays (by Eliot Weinberger, Marjorie Perloff, Forrest Gander and Mikhail Epstein) date to the early days of the Yasusada controversy, as does a fifth text that comes later on in the book, by David Wojahn. Although some of these are still among the most thoughtful considerations on Yasusada, I am not sure they should have been included — unless this “historical” section had been expanded to become a virtually complete casebook on the initial reception of Yasusada, ideally with a full bibliography. While Perloff’s essay, and to a lesser extent Wojahn’s, express some ambivalence toward Yasusada, none of the real detractors’ views have been included except indirectly through brief quotations.
To a great extent, the question of Yasusada has been understood as an ethical one. Is the initial success of the work to be understood cynically, that is, as evidence that the American poetry world prefers the false to the true, as implied by Perloff’s charge that “even as Yasusada’s poetry satisfies an American reader’s demand, his work makes no demand on us”? Or is it rather, as Epstein writes, that “in Yasusada’s poetry there exist as many potential authorships as there are individuals in the world who are aware of Hiroshima and can associate themselves with the fate of its victims and survivors?” It has been almost impossible to address the writing ascribed to Yasusada on a primarily aesthetic/formal level and for very good reason, that the destruction of Hiroshima by the American atomic bomb “Little Boy” on August 6, 1945 remains an event whose consequences, ethical and otherwise, remain indeterminate and irresolvable. It is not irrelevant that one of the B-29s that took part in the bombing mission — not the one that dropped the bomb — was subsequently given the name “Necessary Evil.” Here is a conceptual knot that would undoubtedly take millennia of theological disputation to untangle, but even then only through reflection on the bad faith and self-exculpatory fatalism inherent in the phrase.
There’s another reason, as well, why primarily aesthetic/formal responses to Yasusada have not been forthcoming. Such readings presume that one can “start with the text,” with the words on the page in isolation from wider social, historical, or biographical contexts; they appear to work from the inside out. But Yasusada reminds us that the hermeneutical circle is a vicious one: It turns out you can’t really do a close reading until you have some kind of controlling context for it, however vague. In the case of Yasusada, we think we know who wrote the words — most people believe it is the American poet Kent Johnson, also a contributor to Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums, who however acknowledges himself only as the “caretaker” of the Yasusada texts; and in any case they clearly seem to have been generated in the 1980s and ‘90s rather than in during Yasusada’s alleged lifetime, 1907-1972 — but with what intention they were written remains (to use what in this instance may be an uncomfortably biased term, though I believe a semantically exact one) inscrutable. For Alex Verdolini, in one of the most subtle and fluent essays in the present volume, this shows that “identity—which usually features outside the text, as a prelude or precondition, or within it, as a theme — becomes the very medium” of the text. The proposition is seductive, and yet I resist it. The reason is, simply, that while plumbing the significance of pseudonymity and anonymity and what some of these writers call “hyperauthorship” is an effort worth pursuing, for me, anyway, the rhetorical complexes of identity are of interest for the poetry it enables; to pursue poetry for the identity-effects it generates seems by comparison a relatively barren effort. To some extent, Verdolini’s approach — which is more or less that of most other commentators on Yasusada — is like undertaking the analysis of a character in a novel, but in this case a novel that remains mostly unwritten, known in fragments. Imagine if we had Pasternak’s “Poems of Doctor Zhivago” along with just a bare-bones summary of the big book to which they are an appendix.
The essays here tend to spend more effort on unpacking other, previous commentaries on Yasusada’s poetry than on the poetry itself. One way to interpret this fact is to consider that it reflects an inherent weakness in the poetry — that it is less rewarding to think about than is the whole penumbra of commentary around it, and that as this penumbra dissipates with time and emotional distance, the phenomenon will play itself out — old news rather than news that stays news. In another essay, Eric R.J. Hayot calls Doubled Flowering “a text whose major intellectual question is not, ‘Is it any good?’ or ‘What do the poems say?’ but rather, ‘whodunnit’” — to which one can only respond by paraphrasing Edmund Wilson who famously asked, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” Who cares who wrote Yasusada unless the poetry published under that name is good, that is, has something more to say than that one doesn’t know who wrote it? And in fact, Hayot does eventually offer something like a reading of some lines by Yasusada, but only after a long, oblique approach. Just as one cannot know, really, what the poems might be saying without having an idea about who wrote them and why, so the reverse is true as well. Finally we don’t know who this Johnson or whoever it was who apparently wrote Yasusada’s poetry is until we know what the poetry is saying. And this involves us in a dizzying spiral of truth and falsity that the poetry of Yasusada has already anticipated: “How could a picture of a horse be a true picture unless it were a false horse? Or an image of a man in a mirror be a true image unless it were a false man?”
Of course, not every false man is a true image. What Yasusada is remains to be seen — or rather read. Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums represents the beginning of an effort at reading, but only a beginning. If the ecstasy of speculation continues to take precedence over the pleasure of the text then it can be predicted that Yasusada is fated to be forgotten except as one more anecdotal passage in the history of literary forgeries. But me? I think there’s real poetry there, no more feigned than any other. That’s not to say it’s not sometimes creepy, but rather that part of its creepiness is more subtle and interesting than the simple unreflective dismay it’s easy to feel at the idea of a white citizen of the nation that bombed Hiroshima attempting to ventriloquize a man who’d witnessed the catastrophe and lost much of his family to it. Against this dismay I would propose that on second thought, nothing is in principle off limits to the imaginative writer — provided that the imagination and the writing and also (since it may not be possible to be perfectly ethical in art any more than in love) the sense of irony are adequate. When I read a text in which
Language on the window is backwards here, and inside
the glass the small cries or clicks of things might be taken as the
spirits of the flowers, in the Garden of the Ungathered …
— in that case I am willing to think that it is possible even for a white man to write poetry after Hiroshima.
As for my ex-girlfriend, we are friendly now, though the last time I saw her she told me that I had failed to recognize her on another recent occasion when she came to an event at which I spoke. I don’t remember any such thing.
Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada, edited by Bill Freind (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books), is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.