Get out of my sight! Sun·moon·star·torchlight holding each and every radiance projecting my black shadow-man….

Given the maturity and audacity of Hirato Renkichi’s writing — a poet who is generally described as the major Japanese Futurist and progenitor of various later Japanese avant-garde poetry groups — it is difficult to assimilate the fact that he died at the early age of 29, after having long suffered pulmonary disease. But in the pages of the English language edition, Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi, recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse, one recognizes that this is, after all, the work of a young man, even if he seems to have almost come to maturity in his techniques.

The gatherings written before World War I are filled with poems, as translator Sho Sugita describes them, with issues of “nature, nostalgia, and the sublime.” “Spring! Spring!” for example, begins with a gush of youthful excitement,

Spring gushes out of there
From the body of the stalwart man
From the beads of sweat plopping out to scatter
Like a burbling fountain gushing out

and results in what comes near to a swoon,

O, confusion     confusion
Beautiful confusion

Spring! Spring!

In “Yesterday There” the poet attempts to imagine what it might be like to be young soldier, leaving his family to go off to war:

Yesterday there—a youngster—a youngster like me
threw his pen away and fought. Left the wife, children
and house and fought.

Yesterday there—separation—tears—the tears I’ve
never known
Became known to the girl’s heart. Soaked into leaves of grass.

Bemoaning his own lack of experience, all the poet can do is to call up in ironic sympathy the fact that “on the other end of the world,” “Just once I had seen a wounded Czechoslovakian soldier.”

Other, slightly later works, remind one of the hundreds of poems written by poets early in their careers (Americans as varied as Marsden Hartley, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, and Hart Crane, to name only a few, tried out the same genre). Hirato writes:

“A Caricature of Early Dawn”

Train sending off many carts, married lady, giant watch store,
the pedestrian walk lasting quite a ways away, a flowery
scene. The flowerpot under the willow is a memory of the
past, a Fugi dawn violet.

The streets of Ginza increasingly panting like infected
pustules. The stench of gas, a strange lady standing in

Already in the three short volumes which Hirato had hoped to publish, but for which he was unable to raise money, we see a growing tendency to break up the language and images, abstracting them into a pulse of pure energy that conveys the meaning rather than simply expressing it. In his “Speck, Fishhook, Crest, Antenna, Hoof,” for example, Hirato demands that the reader

Look, all around
The specks shimmering in blaze
Passing verse,
All the hues clouding.


By the end of that same poem, the poet has turned to the F. T. Marinetti-like language of machine, war, and power:

Listen to the sound of the gun,
Gears, belt
Roaring steamer
Shadows ringing fishhooks while running
Women and their ornamental crests.
The ferocious beasts
In the city fighting and wiggling in packs.

There is almost a ring of Eliot in the passage.

By the time we reach the later poems collected after Hirato’s death, mostly from magazines of the period, we have already encountered a very Japanese blending of Italian and Russian futurisms:

Excerpt from “Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems” (Screenshot by the author)

“Ensemble,” for example, is a very potent mix of Marinetti’s “words in motion” with the vocalizations of the Russian zaum poets.

Excerpt from “Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems” (Screenshot by the author)

In Hirato’s “Manifesto of the Japanese Futurist Movement,” which he passed out in printed form in various Tokyo parks, we can hear Marinetti’s voice whipped up in the Japanese poet’s own conceits:

We rise within powerful light and heat. We are the
children of powerful light and heat. Our very existence is
powerful light and heat.

Intuition must preplace knowledge; the enemy of Futurist
anti-art is concept. “Time and space have already died, and
we already live in the absolute.” We must quickly take risks,
advance in defiance of danger, and create…….

Most graveyards are already useless. Libraries, museums
and academies do not even amount to the sound of one
automobile skidding on the street. Try sniffing the stench
behind the piled books; the superior freshness of gasoline
is manifold.

Scholar Eric Selland’s afterword summary nicely bookends Sho Sugita’s informative introduction. In all, this book is a compelling portrait of Hirato, Japanese Futurism, and their internationalist connections.

Hirato Renkichi’s Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems (2017), edited and translated into English by Sho Sugita, is published by Ugly Duckling Presse and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press, and later...