Reviewed by Alecs Mickunas
"Spirits wrapped in a skin of green. Each one lushly growing, a hanging drop of a thunderstorm!" Takashi Hiraide's collection of prose poetry For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut is a multileveled and labyrinthine exploration of how things small in scale have the potential to transcend their physical, temporal and existential boundaries. Expressing encouragement for this motion, Hiraide inspires confidence in the subjects of his work by illustrating ways that great accomplishments can be achieved through seemingly inconsequential actions: "Come see how the dust rises when you say it again, right here, hey you, say it again." In its directness and frankness with its audience, his work functions with an understanding of how the individual pieces making up its existence form a whole.
For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, originally published in 1982 to critical acclaim, is only the second of Hiraide's works to be translated into English—following Postcards for Donald Evans (Tibor De Nagy, 2003). Selections of the poet's work have also been published in such publications as the translation journal Factorial as well as in the long-out-of-print Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Poetry (Norton, 1993). Although still largely unknown in English-speaking countries, Hiraide is a prolific writer and the recipient of many literary prizes, with over a dozen works of genre-defying poetry and nonfiction in print in Japan. Hiraide's translator Sawako Nakayasu calls his work "ineluctably contemporary," iterating his position as one of a group of poets born afer the war who do not reflect on late imperial Japan, and writes that in For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, "lyric, phenomenological, faux-scientific, rhetorical, abstract, descriptive and observation writing are blended with a subtle humor." Indeed, this is a work in which many types of writing coexist; as one poem reads, "tied together, the bells which report their whereabouts dance, and between these dancing bells, look, the swirling has started after all."
Hiraide thematically introduces several points of departure throughout the collection, points which later reappear in tandem, intersecting or diverging. There is the city poet's narrative—an amphibious Paris Spleen in which the flaneur traverses Hiraide's "radiant subway" where "small white explosions occur here and there." These "small white explosions" are "the sounds of our joints popping, the sound of an all-too-convenient despair fading away." The poet writes at another moment that, "verse finds strength in being segmented." Just as our own joints enable us to move freely, it is through the interconnectedness of the individual prose poems that the work as a whole finds its strength and flexibility. Another theme examines the lives of things such as walnuts, plums and small animals from the moment of their conception till death, or rebirth by means of "a courage that exceeds the imagination, a despair that compels the imagination."
This edition is presented bilingually, and has been beautifully translated into English by Nakayasu, the esteemed poet and the editor of Factorial. A further connection is added, then, in English translation, as Nakayasu not only separates and ties the individual threads of Hiraide's work back together, but it is also through the process of translation that the two poetic strands—the text written by Nakayasu and Hiraide—are intertwined. Thus the original work is further strengthened through the process of translation.
To illustrate this connection, the Japanese text, rather provocatively, begins on the opposite side of the binding from its English translation, and the translation mirrors the original work until the two texts meet in the center. As a result, Nakayasu's translation does not stand beside the original as though anticipating or even inviting scrutiny. Instead, like a walnut, the original work and the translation form two halves: Hiraide and Nakayasu's texts have come together in this edition to form one transcendent new work.
In explaining the layers of meaning in the book's title, Nakayasu writes that the walnut suffers, "not only in poetry, but also in translation." The word walnut in Japanese is kurumi, and shi, which could alternately mean either "poetry" or "death," is inserted into the walnut, making the word kurushimi—or "suffering": the walnut suffers in poetry. It is sometimes thought that poetry suffers as a result of translation, but here the translation can be understood as an act of compassion. And even this compassion is neither an invention of Nakayasu's, nor a by-product of translation, but simply an accurate translation of a work she calls an "utterly compassionate book." This compassion is an essential component to all successful translations, and through Nakayasu's translation of Hiraide's work, the role of the translator is renegotiated and redefined.
In her translator's note Nakayasu writes that For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut represents a turning point in Hiraide's writing "…in which he begins his lifelong explorations of prose as the Idea of poetry, extended syntax and a poetics of the grammatical line." A variation of these same explorations are most apparent in Nakayasu's own 2004 poetry collection, Nothing Fictional but the Accuracy or Arrangement (She), in which Nakayasu uses the personal pronoun "she" to connect individual prose pieces into one narrative structured around an extended exploration of poetics.
In For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, the extended syntax is represented visually as the meat inside a walnut, a system of subway tunnels, or arms outstretched; this extension is compassionate, as one poem reads, "admitting to a beautiful shadow outside itself…," the metaphor of the reach is the guiding impulse behind the text. Furthermore, in the context of Hiraide's prose, this shadow is proof of the work's existence. This shadow can be understood as translator or the translation itself. This shadow, a sort of inverted reflection, is often referred to with the feminine pronoun "she." The lines "she who will one day be forced to approve of my existence" thus strike a resonant chord with Nakayasu's own poetic project. With the publication of For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, the explorations of two highly experimental poets have met and the result is an act of compassion and an extension of the Japanese text to an English-speaking readership.
Alecs Mickunas will graduate this May from the University of Iowa with a B.A. in Asian Languages and Literature, and has studied Japanese at Toyo University in Tokyo, Japan. Following graduation he hopes to pursue work in the field of contemporary Asian art. He currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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