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Music, Selected Poems of Tarō Naka Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

Music,  Selected Poems of Tarō Naka  Translated by Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei (Isobar Press)

In his introduction to this long-overdue translation of one of Japan’s most significant post-war poets Andrew Houwen draws attention to the importance of Buddhism and transience. He suggests that Naka came to realise the importance of the impermanence of all things when he was “confronted with the war’s destruction” and points us towards the 1954 poem ‘Scene II’ with its italicised epigram ‘summer 1945’:

“scabs of black memory tear off
the guillotine river cuts up
the city’s torn skin

pushed along in the flow
countless burnt eyes
eyes
eyes”

An echo here points us of course to Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ with its focus upon both the river and the burning and to that poet’s use of Henry Clarke Warren’s Buddhism in Translations:

“All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire?
The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire.”

It was a year after the publication of The Waste Land that William Carlos Williams published Spring and All with its emphasis on the “universality of things” and this later fed that central phrase from the first book of Paterson:

“Say it! No ideas but in things”

The impermanence of things haunts the poetry that Naka wrote after he had returned to Hakata at the end of the war, after Hiroshima, to find that his home and his hometown had been devastated. This was a world where “in the distance burnt shrivelled trees / no longer / have any trace of life”. What remains are the “skeletons of apartments // where the smell of the rocky shore drifts / a cavern – / time’s insides / gone”.
Naka’s first mature collection of poems was composed between 1957 and 1964 before being published in 1965 as Ongaku (Music). Introducing the collection with a Note the poet writes

“Mu is not ‘nothing’. It is the mu of existing things, breathing mu, the mu of writhing waves. It is because music sounds in these things, or perhaps in order to make music sound, that people produce words.”

Words, like music, possess an independence from their creator and this in Naka’s words “allows the creation to exist on its own”. Poems, like music, exist in their own world and the last section of this immensely important new book from Isobar Press is given over to Naka’s 1966 prose ‘Notes for a Poetics’:

“The activity of writing is itself, of course, a visible activity. One holds a pen, faces the paper, and in everyday time moves one’s own hand. However, what one’s consciousness works to indicate certainly does not take place in the visible world, but in a separate, unreal one. In this unreal space, through using those unreal ‘things’, words, one acts in order to reach (an indefinable) something.
The activity of creating poetry is always an escape to this unreal space.”

The 1975 collection of poems, Hakata, possesses a haunting sense of unseen tracks:

“the autumn woman’s skin has a trembling lily’s scent
walking through withered leaves in the distance”

and the poet registers “time’s / footfall” and “the thirst for the far shore of the futureless blue sky”. As Houwen puts it in his highly valuable introduction

“A poem, as a product of the combination of words, depends on the words’ interaction with each other, which is something that, as Naka observes in ‘Notes for a Poetics’, ‘always surpasses the writer” (Naka’s emphasis) and, as words’ associations continually shift with new readings, the poem, like all entities, is in constant flux.

To return to William Carlos Williams and 1923:

“Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains…One thing laps over on the other.”

This first book-length collection of Tarō Naka’s work in English provides an essential addition to the book-shelves of all readers of serious poetry. Thanks again to Paul Rossiter’s fine Isobar Press (http://isobarpress.com).

Ian Brinton 17th August 2018

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