The Argotist Online
Louis A. Sass wrote that Daniel Paul Schreber, author of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness:
seems to be writhing in the coils of an epistemic/ontological paradox—endlessly shifting between two interdependent yet incompatible visions, the experience of his own consciousness as both a constituted object and the ultimate, constituting subject (Sass, The Paradoxes of Delusion, p. 77).
moved to Japan with the idea that the destabilization that I expected would lead
to a new sort of stability, or new type of instability, in terms of the way I
looked at and felt about things and the way I wrote.
course over the years the local language culture literary history art landscape
sensibilities and daily experiences et al here have crept into my English
language poems (I write poetry in Japanese thus far only as an exercise, not for
publication) though at the same time the work I do retains western
characteristics, as I write in English and continue to read western writers as
well as learn about eastern ones.
culture shock experiences gave way gradually to a new hybrid self/lifestyle/existence, being an exile on numerous levels (non-Japanese, feminist, vegan,
liberal, relativist, environmentalist, poet, etc.) now feels normal, the poems I
write now are hybrid, though what the reader gets from them (I am sure
specifically Japanese references can't of course always be detected by
everybody, though some references may be relatively obvious) may be something
like the partial image a Japanese stranger may obtain by sight alone when
encountering my conspicuously Caucasian self on the street (I live outside the
major cities where conspicuously non-Japanese-looking people are more of a
rarity than in say Tokyo).
I've become somewhat increasingly obsessed with some of the more traditional
forms of Japanese culture, art and literature. The last work I finished is a kind of haiku sequence, something I have
been publishing piecemeal in various journals though the portion below is newly
written and unpublished:
a sealed cave
cup of miniature
one has used
which stars multiply
found on the carpet
a broken drawer
a long stroll
sliding of angles
girl in sparkly clothes
call my name
merges with buildings
an empty street
sky becomes language
poetry of course includes various formal types as well free verse, avant-garde
work, and prose poetry (a volume in English titled Japanese
Prose Poetry by
Yasuko Claremont may be of interest). I
started writing a fair number of prose poems in recent years, both influenced by
Japanese prose poems and by Western writers.
is the most recent one:
The shop was a mess of confused color and noise. The day will shine.
Cherry blossoms unmasked hidden wounds in the tired metropolis. So I
jumped out and ran across two intersections. In the middle of your bursts of
laughter. My favorite tree lived in the park.
Cherry blossoms unmask hidden words in the tuneful metropolis. Critique is
respectful. Ideas lead to the
fractured I and the dissolved self.
is no love which does not begin with the revelation of a possible world.
The more consciousness the more despair is always merrier. Critique
This culture happened by accident. We don't expect the aid of a waking for
this is not a dream. Having a self and an eternal (fractured) self. Ideas lead
us to a fissured metropolis hidden by laughing trees.
A person's resiliency can be measured by the power to forget. Full of
screams and crying. Yours was. The park was a mass of conflated
The dark will triumph. So I slept in and waited for the power to forget. Full
of dissolves and scrapings by. This resiliency which never happened.
There is no word which does not begin with the improbability of love.
original impetus for this work was a line in a poem by 20th c. poet
Mitsui Futabako titled “Kizu Hiraku” (open wounds; see my 3rd line above)
but this poem contains references also to European writing such as work by
Cixous, Deleuze, and Kierkegaard among others.
viewing) season in Japan as I write this in spring 2013.
I can't dislodge the concept of cherry blossoms from my archetypical
image of Japan, any more than I can Hello Kitty or Miffy who have appeared in
other of my poems. A poem I wrote called "The Lighthouse" (thanks both
to the publisher Two Ravens Press of the anthology Entanglements:
New Ecopoetry and
to White Sky Ebooks for publishing it) is as follows:
Though my eyes are scattered I can hide the emptiness within with a
coat and blue eyelashes. No one will notice that Milton's
has dimmed. I put a verb under every umbrella in case you feel
running. The temple is supposed to mean something but nobody
sure. I thought the cherry blossoms though torn and
would last all year but the wind swept through the
knocking over father's funeral photograph. I know
am supposed to stay under a heavy object such as a major
If you pluck a grey hair by its roots doves appear the
day. But that is the ending to last year's story. Even if a wound
like a freshly ploughed field I cannot feel responsible for your
baggage. The truth is I am allergic to everything red and blue, and
anti-depressants will ruin the sun's melancholia. But I could still
it from afar while pretending to smile. I hope the sea may be colder
ever and know once I submerge my toe in it it won't come
Silly to believe birds know the best way to fly to the beach. Skin
is the goddess' revenge on the vain and foolish. Just because
said it doesn't mean it's not true. Sunlight tries to squeeze
every room but fails. The house I grew up in was a dark
even though my parents were wealthy. The dog was let out every
How foolish to return. I am more afraid of happiness than I
of the sun's anger. I would like to liven up each house with a piece
rotting fish stolen from the temple. If the lighthouse is painted pink I'll
longer be allergic to it and when the sun resembles caramel latte I'll
I'd suggest birds prefer the sea to the sun but the wind would argue.
if I am a man so old I can scarcely carry the newspaper to the trash bin.
the drum is beaten with a stick somebody will answer the telephone though my
slippers are missing and none of this is actually visible from the lighthouse.
wrote the poem above upon the death of my (Japanese) father-in-law while in
Yokohama for the funeral; it contains a mishmash of Japan (often deliberately
distorted—you are unlikely to find rotting fish in temples here nor old men
with blue eyelashes; I've also mixed up the seasons; there are references to
3-11, etc.) and the west (e.g. Milton's sonnet, and for me Hopper's lighthouse
paintings, etc.). Oh and I did not
grow up in a dark cave, which is also the image that begins the “haiku”
philosopher Nishida Kitaro wrote about "contradictory self-identity"
as well as "absolute nothingness" which I believe occupy a central
place in my poetry (see in English for example a book titled Japanese
and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School
for some information about Nishida and his group); of course the Kyoto School
philosophers are themselves offspring of a kind of marriage of or conversation
between eastern and western philosophy.
One thing that is remarkable is that the very fact of my existence is never for me, as you observe in yourself, the object of serious doubt; there always remains something of myself, but it is very often poor, clumsy, weak, and almost suspect (in Selected Writings ed. Sontag, p. 47).
all identities are unstable: the identity of linguistic signs, the identity of meaning and, as a result, the identity of the speaker (in Dana Cavallaro's French Feminist Theory, p. 78).
is not actually the 17th c. Japan depicted in Derek Mahon’s “The
Snow Party” but for someone born in the U.S. where this week the NRA is
proposing armed guards in American schools, the relative peacefulness of Japan
even today, oftentimes not entirely unlike the image in that 1970s poem (I’ll
leave aside for now the matter of possible interpretations concerning the “silence” in the final stanza of the poem) is noteworthy. The note to the line “Two tongues for Japan” in Mary E.
O’Donnell’s poem about FGM titled “Excision” (in the book Pillars
of the House, p.
157) claiming that while Japanese women can only use “women’s language”
men here can use either is not entirely correct.
Gender (in)equality will remain outside the parameters of this essay for
the most part but I can add that within Japanese poetry are a great many women
writers going back to early times; one recommended book might be Hiroaki
the possibility of and/or desire for a sense of meeting, even if fleeting and
across unstable boundaries in a decentered landscape in flux, is captured by the
ending of Helene Cadou's poem "A coeur ouvert..." (published
bilingually in the book Women's
Poetry in France 1965-1995,
pays sans frontičres
you reach me
a boundless land
copyright © Jane Joritz-Nakagawa
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of over a dozen poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Poems: New and Selected (Isobar, 2018), <<terrain grammar>> (theenk Books, 2019), and, as editor, women : poetry : migration [an anthology], also with theenk, 2017, which includes the work of 50 female poets currently living in a country other than that of their birth. She is particularly interested in poetry and essays by ex-pat writers, as well as feminist avant-garde poetries, disability poetics and ecopoetics. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.