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from the December 2014 issue

Sakutarō Hagiwara’s “Cat Town”

Reviewed by John W. W. Zeiser

It is a shame that the poet Sakutarō Hagiwara was unable to sustain for more than a few years the creative energies that rocketed him to fame in Taishō era Japan (1912-1926). His first collection, Howling at the Moon, opens on a such a startling note that it leaves the reader with little time to come up for air:

At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging.

In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
soft vernal grass-stalks beginning to flare,
rat’s nest beginning to flare

As brief as Sakutarō Hagiwara’s flame was, it was bright. In 1917, Howling at the Moon launched a salvo that combined the literary language of the Symbolists and the Japanese vernacular into a uniquely compelling poetry. In addition to Howling at the Moon, Cat Town collects the complete texts of Blue Cat (1923), Hagiwara’s prose poems from 1935, as well as a sampling of other poems from his career, all translated by Hiroaki Sato, whose translations deliver to readers an accessible, aesthetically genuine introduction to one of modernism’s groundbreaking poets.

Hagiwara once described his poetry as expressions of his “soul’s nostalgia” for those moments in life that inspired him to write. Throughout Cat Town, there is a struggle to give substance to this wistful feeling. Grasping backwards for moments of inspiration, he has to accept that his poems are only imperfect records of those moments. While it must have been a constant frustration for Hagiwara, the results are memorable, nearly palpable documents of this writerly conflict.

In Howling at the Moon, the repetitive, hypnotic language draws the reader into Hagiwara’s melancholic perspective. Sato faithfully preserves Hagiwara’s language, treating verbs and adverbs with special reverence. In “Tray Landscape”:

a thin waterfall flows,
a waterfall flows,
and coldly fish and clams go down.

Hagiwara’s syntax subverts our expectations about language. We’re lulled with repetitions only to find that “coldly” doesn’t precede the verb “go” immediately. Instead, Sato’s translation forces us to wait. In “Love-Pity,” which was censored for “disturbing social customs,” we get verbs and their auxiliaries broken apart “ah I on my part will pierce you through with love, / will on your beautiful skin, smear blue grass leaf juice.” In this way, Sato resists the urge to make Hagiwara’s poetry “musical.” He prefers instead to stay close to the original in order to have Hagiwara’s vision realized “through singular and precise images.”

But these images, and the sights that inspired them, are only fleeting. Poems brim with images of things that have fallen away, tears, rot, melancholy, blood, quahogs and dead frogs and broken skylark eggs. In “Solitude” he writes:

Standing in a lonely country sun,
what are you looking at,
trembling, my soul of solitude?

On the face of this dusty landscape,
a thin streak of a tear.

His soul searches for something he can no longer retrieve, and he is left forsaken, alone. He alludes to this again in the poem “Fear of the Countryside,” in which he observes: “the countryside is a pale fever dream.” A dream is already one of the most ephemeral human experiences, but by referring to it as the result of a “fever” he may have been hinting at more than just feelings of melancholy. In an introductory note, Sato explains that Hagiwara’s most fertile period of creativity coincided with a mental disorder that reached its climax in 1915. Hagiwara was perhaps aware that his inspiration could only be sustained so long, for as his health improved, his poetic brilliance would also fade. By 1919, he began his gradual retreat from poet to critic of poetry. The differences between Howling at the Moon and his next collection, Blue Cat, serve to highlight that transition.

By 1923 Hagiwara’s eye had narrowed. Poems become more confessional and resort to a more mundane syntax that undoes the dense, symbolist aesthetic of Howling at the Moon. This is not to say that Blue Cat is unworthy. Far from it, but the thrill of his earlier work is lacking. A few lines from “Crumbling Flesh” illuminate this shift:

I watched a pillar of crumbling flesh
it trembled lonely in the evening darkness
smelled raw like dead-man’s grass that flutters at a shadow
and was as ugly as rotting meat with throngs of maggots crawling on it.

The simile is unique and exquisite: “darkness / smelled raw like dead-man’s grass that flutters at a shadow.” But where formerly he might have simply allowed the power of that line to stand on its own, he undermines it with a more expected image of death: rotting meat covered in maggots. It’s as if he’s uncomfortable with too much literary language and feels obligated to bury it with a more prosaic description. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, which sums up Blue Cat, considered to be his last major burst of poetic creativity.

Hagiwara’s shift in style and subsequent failures to live up to his early work can be chalked up to several things. For one thing, the poetic fugue that gave rise to his early creative burst was long behind him. Second, after Howling at the Moon was published, he stopped writing poetry for several years, preferring to focus on short essays which he called aphorisms. When he returned to poetry, his style had not grown with him.

Hagiwara would also struggle with the increased expectations and demands from a literary world dazzled by his initial success. Howling at the Moon was self-published, but Blue Cat and all his subsequent books were put out by a commercial publisher. Fame meant everyone wanted a piece of him and it drained his creative energies. Hagiwara himself referred to one of his collections as “stupid literature scribbled without interest, pressed by journalistic demand and obligations.” These demands led to such unfortunates as his only war poem, an uninspired piece commissioned by the newspaper Asahi Shinbun to commemorate the brutal sacking of Nanking in 1937.

While it would be easy to rue what could have been, what we have in Cat Town is an interesting, carefully selected cross-section of Hagiwara’s most important works as well as a reminder that success does not always breed success.

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