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Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

Kotan Chronicles: Selected Poems 1928-1943 by Genzō Sarashina Trans. Nadine Willems (Isobar Press)

On the back cover of this new Isobar publication Eric Selland registers the delight and importance of this translation of poems by the Japanese poet Sarashina:

“Such a rare treat – one of the few examples of Japanese proletarian poetry to appear in English. Sarashina’s work, like that of the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, is a poetry of testimony, one in which he documents the lives of those living in pre-war Hokkaido, often in their own words.”

The comparison with Reznikoff brings to mind of course the four parts of TESTIMONY: THE UNITED STATES, that extraordinary poetic narrative which recorded the social, economic, cultural and legal history of the United States. Robert Creeley commented on the first volume TESTIMONY describing the collection as “an extraordinary document of human event – terrifying, comic, and deeply, deeply moving.” Creeley went on to suggest his admiration for Reznikoff’s ability to locate given instances “sans distortion” and to place his narratives “in the intense particularity of time and place.” In 1977 Milton Hindus published his monograph on Reznikoff emphasising the important role of history in the American poet’s recitative:

“We all belong to history, but we do not all know it…Coming into contact with what one recognizes to be history in the high sense of the term can be an unnerving experience, which inspires to expression those who might otherwise be counted among the voiceless tribes”.

That word “expression” appears in the superb introduction which the translator has added to this selection of Sarashina’s poems. Connecting the Japanese poet with his proletarian peers, Nadine Willems writes

“As Sarashina’s work demonstrates so well, they remained sharp and sympathetic observers of the everyday life of the lower strata of the population in all its mundanity and desperation. The focus was less on engineering an ideal future society than on the expression of real life struggles in a changing and unfair world.”

Between 1930 and 1931 Sarashina acted as a substitute teacher in a primary school near Kussharo Lake and he identified closely with the seventeen pupils, most of whom were Ainu (an increasingly displaced people). It was from these children and the other residents of the kotan (village-community) that he learned the stories which he then re-formed into poetry. In one of the ‘Kotan School Poems’ he acknowledges this debt:

“Fourth-grader Sekko knows what’s not in any textbook
The deep-down layers of life”

The substitute teacher records his own humility and merges it with a sense of LIFE as his pupils ask him those questions to which there are answers before moving their thoughts outwards to ask questions to which there are none:

—What would you like to do?
—Go outside and play!
—OK. Let’s go
—Wow. Really?

—Sensei, what’s this?
—A spring gentian whose flowers are the colour of the sky
—Sensei, and this?
—That’s a dandelion bud
—Sensei, why does the sun shine?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why does it rain?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why are you alive?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Then why do you get angry?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Sensei, why is the world here?
—Because you’re lovely kids
—Why are we alive, sensei?
—So that you can all get along
—Sensei, who did you learn this from?
—From all you lot

—Sensei, Tā-chan thumped me

Nadine Willems’s introduction is a delight to read on account of its direct simplicity as she tells us of the political background to these poems. She points us to central issues concerning the Ainu people and highlights the close connection “between people and nature” which “mirrors the connection that exists between the physical and intangible worlds.” These poems take me back not so much to Reznikoff as to Tolstoy whose 1861 essay on ‘Schoolboys and Art’ makes such a fine comparison with Sarashina’s experience as a primary-school teacher. Tolstoy has taken a group of boys out after school and as they walk through a white darkness which seemed to sway before their eyes one little boy, Fédka, asks the teacher to tell them, again, about the murder of Tolstoy’s aunt:

“I again told them that terrible story of the murder of Countess Tolstoy, and they stood silently about me watching my face.
‘The fellow got caught!’ said Sëmka.
‘He was afraid to go away in the night while she was lying with her throat cut! Said Fédka; ‘I should have run away!’ and he gathered my two fingers yet more closely in his hand.
We stopped in the thicket beyond the threshing-floor at the very end of the village. Sëmka picked up a dry stick from the snow and began striking it against the frosty trunk of a lime tree. Hoar frost fell from the branches onto our caps, and the noise of the blows resounded in the stillness of the wood.
‘Lev Nikolaevich,’ said Fédka to me (I thought he was again going to speak about the Countess), ‘why does one learn singing? I often think, why, really, does one?’
What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital and legitimate connection between this question and our preceding talk.”

Kotan Chronicles is another wonderful production from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press and I urge you all to put the date September 20th in your diaries for the launch:
Isobar Press will be launching Kotan Chronicles: Selected by Poems 1928-1943 by the Japanese pre-war proletarian poet, anarchist, and ethnographer Genzo Sarashina at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on 20 September with a talk and reading by Nadine Willems (translator) and Paul Rossiter.

Date: Wednesday 20 September, 6-8 pm.

Place: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle (entrance facing Regent’s Park), London NW1 4QP. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

Ian Brinton 4th September 2017.

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Woman in a Blue Robe by Yoko Danno (Isobar Press)

Woman in a Blue Robe by Yoko Danno (Isobar Press)

This is the last of my little reviews of the Isobar Press publications but I shall most certainly return to scrutiny of such a fine publishing firm when more titles appear.
In the third section of this compilation of poetry and prose we are introduced to the idea of a dukodemo, a door, an ‘anywhere door’:

‘…a door to wherever you like. But I can’t think of anywhere I’d particularly like to go. Then suddenly a door in my memory springs open. Yes, on that summer day in my childhood, I knew exactly where I wanted to go…’

Imaginative doors can open up new perspectives as Alice discovered when she peered into a garden that she was too large to enter or mislaid the key when she did indeed become the right size. In many of Charles Tomlinson’s poems his art is reflected in a moment of seeing: movement caught in stillness. Many of his poems deal with doors, gates, gaps, stone cromlechs. The eye, itself a window to the soul, reveals the self by studying the intricacies of form in the natural world. In 1992 he published a collection titled The Door in the Wall. The sub-title of my soon-to-be-published selection of the poetry and prose of John Riley is taken from one of the Leeds poet’s late pieces, ‘spring. diversion’: ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’. There is a sense of mysticism here with the arrival somewhere being separate from the journey and this too reminds me of Yoko Danno’s work. The poetry in so much of this new volume has a spiritual quality to it and, make no mistake, this is not some easily achieved set of thoughts: the exploration of what lies beyond the door is caught with humility and grace. Read ‘Snow Adventure’:

‘By midday, warmed
by the piercing sunshine,

trees shed heaps
of snow from their limbs

as if slipping out
of padded
white kimonos,

stand naked
in the slanting rays
like antennas,

ready
for communication

with meteors’

When I first read this I was immediately reminded of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern and the sinews and light of her landscapes. I was also reminded of Charles Tomlinson’s recollections of visiting O’Keeffe in the Winter of 1963. North of Santa Fe and further to the West it was thirty below freezing and it seemed as if a visit to the painter may have to be postponed:

‘But one had failed to take into account the desert sun. Once it was above the mountains, the snow began to melt until it lay only in the shadows, a white geometry at the edges of buildings reproducing gables and rooflines on the shining black streets…the snow was sliding off the roofs…the oranges and reds of the desert were seeping back now through the retreating white. Water sang and flashed through the arroyos under the road.’

Danno’s landscape moves in a similar way leaving those ‘antennas / ready for communication’.
There is a quiet edge of reality to some of these poems and I urge all to read ‘Alchemy Lesson’ which moves between the world of Zeus making love to Danaë in a shower of gold pouring through an open window to Hiroshima, ‘a city burnt / in a flash of light’ followed by a different downpour of ‘black rain’.
The ‘Woman in a Blue Robe’ has been going through ‘a list of my own names I want to discard. I don’t need a personal name any longer’. Names are milestones along a path and the quiet flavour of many of these pieces of writing suggest very much that room to which Riley was referring back in 1977.

Ian Brinton 27th September 2016

Seeing Sights by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Seeing Sights by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Two years ago I wrote a review of Paul Rossiter’s From the Japanese and referred to the quiet grace of the lyrical voice, a measured tracing of pictures in words to which I shall return. It is with considerable delight that I can now revisit that quiet world with this publication of all of Rossiter’s poems up to 1978 (excluding three pieces from 1969 set in Japan and published in that earlier collection which had so attracted me).

One of the influences behind the meditative tones of this poetry is of course Gary Snyder and a quick glance at the second section of ‘Bare Rock’ reveals an interesting comparison with Snyder’s 1959 poem ‘Above Pate Valley’ which opens with the poet finishing a clearing of trail ‘High on the ridge-side / Two thousand feet above the creek’. Snyder notes the small details which accumulate to give a picture of an individual within a landscape and concludes with a far-reaching context which stretches over distances:

‘……I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Of dynamite.
Ten thousand years.’

Rossiter’s precision bears excellent comparison with this:

‘Crossing a pass in late afternoon light,
pitching a small tent at sunset,

busy with guy ropes and sleeping bags
among slabs, boulders and scree;

as the light fails we heat water
over a bud of hissing blue flame,

and sit at ease, leaning our backs against
five hundred million years of stone.’

I am struck by the shift from movement to stillness as present participles settle into an immediacy of present tense: ‘crossing’ and ‘pitching’ has an energy which comes to rest with ‘light fails’ and ‘we heat water’. The movement is kept in focus with the participles becoming adjectives (‘sleeping bags’ and ‘hissing blue flame’) and the relaxation into an awareness of the poet’s place in the world is given quiet emphasis with the drawn out last line ending on that lingering ‘years of stone’.
In Part III of this collection there is a poem ‘after Du Fu’ and again it is interesting to see what Rossiter has done with earlier models of this poem of ghostly presence and absence. William Carlos Williams had translated the poem as ‘Visit’ and the meeting of Du Fu with his friend, the recluse Wei Pa, opened in a formal manner:

‘In life we could seldom meet
Separate as the stars.
What a special occasion tonight
That we gather under the candle-lamp!’

David Hinton’s version, titled ‘For the Recluse Wei Pa’, opened with greater immediacy

‘Lives two people live drift without
meeting, like Scorpio and Orion,
without nights like this: two friends
together again, candles and lamps’

Paul Rossiter’s version, ‘Visiting Wei Pa After Twenty Years’ has a visual quality to it which is missing from both these others and as such it brings alive a presence which, Haiku-like, is here, now and timeless:

‘fresh-cut green spring chives
still wet from the rainy darkness,
fresh boiled rice and yellow millet

each night
Scorpio rises as Orion sets

but tonight we’ve slipped past fate
and sit sharing the light of this lamp’

(Lines 2, 4 and 5 should be indented a little more like a WCW three-ply line and I send apologies to the poet!).

In terms of the reference to Scorpio and Orion one of these constellations sets just before the other rises and hence the delightful leap of slipping ‘past fate’; almost like stolen moments. Rossiter’s poem goes on to mention ‘half our friends are dead, / their ghosts cry out in our hearts’ and this enduring sense of memory and grief is then juxtaposed with the concluding gesture

‘tomorrow
the mountains will be between us

once again
travelling different paths’

The opening poem of this beautifully-crafted volume is a version of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ and once again the poet reveals himself to have a subtle understanding of how words can be like vectors:

‘And now I fashion a tale of my travels,
iron-hard days when my blood
beat like a hammer, and brine-bitter sorrow
drenched this rib-shackled ache of a heart.’

This language, like Snyder’s, conjures up a world ‘worn smooth by water, split by frost’: buy this book, read it slowly and let its quiet, patient intelligence work on you.

Ian Brinton 3rd September 2016

What the Sky Arranges Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

What the Sky Arranges  Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ  by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

The forthcoming launch of Paul Rossiter’s 2015 programme of books from Isobar Press, details of which can be found at the foot of this blog, has prompted me to recall an Isobar production from last year: the meditative, witty and long-lasting short poems by Andrew Fitzsimons gathered from a reading of Kenkō.

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

There is a refreshing sense of whole attention in these poems and a quietness of reflection that glimmers long after the little book is closed. There is a merging of closely observed detail with a background that offers years of support:

‘What is bad taste?
too many knick-knacks about the place
too many brushes in the ink box
too many Buddhas
too many shrubs and plants in a garden
too many rooms in a house
too many words on meeting someone
a ledger all plus and no minus?

Myths, tales, stories tell us something about who we are and the American poet, Robert Duncan’s autobiographical essay, The Truth & Life of Myth (House of Books Ltd. New York, 1968), referred to a sense of ‘universal humanity’ which is open to being discovered in the ‘mixing-ground of man’s commonality in myth’:

The meaning and intent of what it is to be a man and, among men, to be a poet, I owe to the workings of myth in my spirit, both the increment of associations gathered in my continuing study of mythological lore and my own apprehension of what my life is at work there. The earliest stories heard, nursery rimes and animal tales from childhood, remain today alive in my apprehensions, for there is a ground of man’s imaginations of what he is in which my own nature as a man is planted and grows.

Duncan’s book was subtitled ‘An essay in Essential Autobiography’ and the poet recalled sitting with his sister, ‘my mother between us’, looking at pictures in a book ‘as my mother reads aloud’:

‘The picture I am looking at is of three young men sleeping on a mat. One of them, the poet Basho, has awakened. Their naked feet are uncovered where they have pulled the blankets up around their necks in the cold. There is a poem that goes with that picture on the page. But this is not the poem that comes to mind even as I see the picture. For as I remember that moment, there is another scene superimposed, a double exposure, in which the very plash of a frog jumping into an old pond appears as if from actual life itself, but this vivid impression belongs to one of the most famous of all Japanese hokkus

In the poem ‘WORLDS’ by Fitzsimons the old world is washed by the new as if the lenses of the eye were being cleansed by focussed attention upon the new moment. When J.H. Prynne, at that time Director of Studies at Gonville and Caius, put together some ‘Tips on Practical Criticism for Students of English, 2006’ he associated close and broad reading skills in a way not dissimilar to this image of one world washed by another:

‘In fact, and in practice, however, close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers. One hand washes the other. Principles and foundations of a distinctive personal judgement begin to appear, together with increased range of response and cogency of evaluative judgement, supported by explorative argument within awareness of differing views and opinions. Step by step, as a reader, you begin to tune in and wake up.’
Read What the Sky Arranges and dwell for a moment upon ‘DATES:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones.’

Isobar books are published to a very high standard and it would be worth going to this launch just to buy a copy of Andrew Fitzsimons’ poems let alone the new publications which include Peter Robinson’s poems from his time in Japan.
The London launch of Isobar Books takes place this Friday, 3rd July upstairs in the Rugby Tavern, Gt. James St. WC1N 3ES at 7.00.
Ian Brinton 29th June 2015

Three books from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press

Three books from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press

From the Japanese by Paul Rossiter

What the Sky Arranges by Andrew Fitzsimons

Arc Tangent by Eric Selland

These three books from Paul Rossiter’s recently founded ISOBAR Press are a delight to see, hold, read, re-read. These are publications of a very high quality indeed and they sit in the hand likes works of art. I am struck by a sense of cool distance, things seen from afar and I read Eric Selland

‘Everyone carries a room inside him. Yesterday I ran into C for the first time in many months. He had returned in September from a research trip overseas but was now despondent, insisting to me that he should have stayed. It was at this moment that I realized my experience of returning to this country after years living abroad had been much the same. And now I see that a part of me never truly returned. In effect, I have lived out much of my life as if I were not actually here. In a way, I was never wholly present. But on the other hand, perhaps one is never wholly present in the world. The very notion of turning back.’

When I read this I was immediately put in mind of an eerie Henry James tale from 1892, ‘The Private Life’, in which Lord Mellifont only seems to exist when someone places him as the centre of social conversation, a place he would expect to be. If you were looking for him (unknown to him) you would discover that ‘He was too absent, too utterly gone, as gone as a candle blown out…’. As the narrator suggests, there was a peculiarity about Mellifont ‘that there could be no conversation about him that didn’t instantly take the form of anecdote’. It is as if we are made up of the stories people tell about us; as if we are a gilded obelisk, the external and crystallised surface of a buried life!

Or, as Selland puts it elsewhere in this fascinating pair of prose-poem sequences ‘Like an object abides in the plasticity of an aspect. A setting that determines coordinates’.

What the Sky Arranges is a collection of wise, witty, compassionate and, occasionally, cranky ruminations on the business of living by the monk, Kenkō (c. 1283-c. 1350). It is wonderfully illustrated by the photographs of Sergio Maria Calatroni. There is a clear simplicity to these poems such as the carpe diem of ‘DATES’:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones’

And, as if in response to Pascal, there is ‘WORLDS’:

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

In From the Japanese Paul Rossiter’s own poems range from a version of a prose poem by Basho (completed in 1969 before he went to Japan) to a letter from the city of Ishinomaki, severely damaged in the tsunami of 2011. There is an echo of Gary Snyder, whose poetry I rate very highly, in the merging of precision and spiritual possibility:

‘wave pattern in raked sand
very particular pine trees
we climb stone steps to the hall’

There is a quiet grace in these poems, a measured tracing of pictures in words which I know I shall return to time and again:

‘eyes down to search for tokens
loving this shell and this one and this one

the grace of these anonymous sarcophagi
each an emblem
of a life’s urgent spiralling to order
licked clean by the sea’s salt tongue
haunted by echoes, empty as light’

ISOBAR PRESS

14 Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, London NW3 2XD http://isobarpress.com

Ian Brinton 10th September 2014

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