[from EASY LESSONS IN READING]
[Prompted by a friend’s posting of X OX by chris cheek, a disturbing, haunting depiction of an individual’s inarticulation provoked from without.]
HOUR OF RUMOR
The poet who does not speak
The truth will not be executed
The poet who does speak
The truth will be executed
. . . / . . .
[Excerpt from Part 6]
Several hours later I awoke, naked and cold, my hands and ankles tied loosely to the legs of the table I suddenly remembered the poet had been lying on. I could hear the sound of gurgling, choking, melodious sobbing. The poet was still on the table.
He was alive.
I felt something wet and cold on my stomach. With great effort I raised my head to look.
I fainted . . .
. . . only later to see what it was . . .
(in a cry of lament)
—— the poet’s tongue.
Item, The full version of Hour of Rumor was published in the 1996 French edition of Easy Lessons in Reading.
Item, One of my few works that have “begged” for reworking and interpretation over the years (as opposed to letting something be or discarding it altogether).
Item, The intuitive sense of knowing when it was first written in the early 90s that it would dog me until I had completed a satisfactory version of it.
Item, Still no promise that I will finish it or that it has value outside of what it has prompted me to recognize in other works.
poet, item, truth, rumor, something, reading, tongue, lament, cry, hour
#7. The Head Apollo is about to return. St Sophia is going to be born again; she was not acceptable before. The Buddha is in the park. Siddhartha sleeps (but is going to awaken). The time you have waited for has come. — Horselover Fat [from Valis, Philip K. Dick]
I have just been released.
Keywords — company, dictation, guests
I wanted to remind you.
There are goods in the pantry.
Items — breads & cheeses, fine wines, ghosts
Forgive my present anxiety.
Make yourselves at home.
I shall return shortly.
Metadata — hope
[Continuing speculation On Existence, Time, and Space]
19. Of their own accord, three non-existent parts create the three fundamental elements of existence.
20. Of their own accord, these three non-existent fundamental elements of existence, the three of them together, make up a certain existence.
21. Should one of these three fundamental elements disappear, so then would the three together disappear. It follows that should the “obstacle” disappear, then this part and that part would become uniform and continuous and cease to exist.
22. From the existence of our universe arise three “nothings” or, independently, of their own accord, three non-existent “somethings”: space, time, and one other, which is neither time nor space, generates three ‘nothings’ or, separately, on their own account, three non-existent ‘somethings’: space, time, and something else which is neither time nor space.
23. Time, of its essence, is singular, homogeneous, and continuous. Ergo, it does not exist.
24. Space, of its essence, is singular, homogeneous, and continuous. Ergo, it does not exist.
Item, On this day, two years, ago, a return to the Black River, Chernaya Rechka, not far from where Alexander Pushkin lost and two days later died from a duel with his brother-in-law, Georges d’Anthès.
Item, Things piling up, one after another.
Item, Place the top brick first, then fill in the space between top and bottom.
Item, Horizontal stacks.
Item, “A heap of language.” Robert Smithson
Item, From file Stacks_+_Memorials
brick, heap, item, Pushkin duel, Black River, stacks, top, word
[from A Certain Distance, 12]
I remember little of the months that followed accept for isolated images of the daily effort to stay alive. In my mind’s eye I can see the veranda overlooking the garden, and now suddenly it is fall, and the lone persimmon tree is laden with fruit, the dull orange color of the persimmons doing little to relieve the landscape of its essential barrenness. I remember the conversations with Mrs. Hagiwara and the other boarders seated on the tatami mats in the large public room, the shoji – the sliding paper doors – open onto the veranda providing a view of the garden, and the persimmons, now picked, and several of them placed on a small oval tray in the center of the table and arranged as if in imitation of a painting, provided the accompaniment to afternoon tea. It was nearly impossible to get one’s hands on a decent package of green tea so soon after the war’s end, but Mrs. Hagiwara had stocked up on a good supply of basics long before things got so bad, and stashed them away in the cavernous pantry of the old country house. I look back on these afternoons with a certain nostalgia. We had little but friendship and a cup of green tea, and our talk had as its inevitable background the devastation that was now Japan’s unavoidable reality. And yet there was a human warmth that would become more and more rare as time went on and the country became increasingly prosperous. Our conversations were punctuated by periods of silence, but these silences were more meaningful than words can express.
Few of us were left at the boarding house by the end of the year. Those who still had hope of finding family members somewhere, whether in Tokyo or in the countryside, had all left, and there were only a few men like myself who were either bachelors or had lost all of their family in the war. First there was Taka, younger than the rest of us he was still energetic. There was a certain youthful quality about him and he had what was a rare asset in those days – hope. More aggressive than the rest of us, he managed to score a carton of Lucky Strikes at the black market in town. It was these that we held ruminatively between our fingers during our lengthy conversations at afternoon tea, drawing the tobacco in leisurely, taking the acrid smoke into our lungs and watching as it was dispensed, rising toward the ceiling and circling around the vintage 1930 lamp. And then there was Tanimura-san (nobody knew his first name or much of anything about him) who was one of those who had suffered so many personal losses during the war that he had been rendered speechless, a vague look of absence in his eyes which, despite the emptiness there always remained wide open. Despite his suffering from the widespread condition of exhaustion and despair, Tanimura-san could be quite gentle and responsive to the needs of others. He was always available to help around the house, and would be the first to jump up from the table and refill the teapot with hot water, then in an almost ritual gesture refill the cups of the other guests. Apparently, he had lost his wife and daughter in the bombing. He had lost his house and all of his belongings save the clothes on his back. There were rumors of a son serving in the imperial army, but he had no idea where he was or whether he would ever return.
Within days after the surrender the black market opened just outside the main exit of Shinjuku station. There was ample space available for building since the bombings had left the area completely barren. So the Yakuza gangs moved in and set up corrugated iron shacks and stalls which could house vendors selling their wares. It wasn’t long before we got our own local black market in Machida set up adjacent to the train tracks just outside the exit from the station. And along with the stalls built for vendors came the inevitable bars and food stalls – everything from ramen noodles to grilled chicken (though more often it would be fried innards with onions or sweet potato steak). Most often tucked away in the narrow, labyrinthine back alleys, right next to the stalls where grandmotherly old women sold vegetables and sundries would be the neighborhood brothel.
When the war ended it was like a movie suddenly switching from black & white to color. Strangely, despite the cynical and even dangerous aspects of the black market and its collection of adjacent bars and brothels, the thing was that they had lights – electrical lights went up around the market, and there were signs in front of the bars that lit up at night. Some of the lights were even colored or would blink on and off, a precursor to the famous neon signs that would later line the streets of the Ginza and Shinjuku. Color, in all its beauty and irony, had returned to the ashen landscape which until now had been nothing but a vast, empty expanse of grayness and destruction.
Japan was completely defeated. Its cities lay in ashes and the men who had exercised absolute power over us were gone. And yet the strange thing is that now, though we had nothing, and almost nothing to eat, it was only now that for the first time we experienced life completely.
As any keeper of a diary — public or private — I run the risk of turning in circles and speaking too often too much about and to myself. This should not become a matter of your concern. I think we all have had our fair share of me.* Enough is enough.
Thus begins my revamped blog. Welcome.
At present UNFINISHED INTERRUPTIONS consists of a number of separate works: Entire Days, Essays Within Earshot, Persona Parts, Brief Commentaries, Fundamentally Simple, Easy Lessons in Reading, Adaptations, Sets, Brief Études, Biographies, Reflections . . . Disasters of Mind, Weather, & War. . . . Each has its own structure and rules. Most often, an entry in my journal will fall into one or another of these constructs. Frequently, however, what falls is some alien structure, unsure of itself, one of the Fits & Starts, the Clutter, the Occasional Bursts, most of which borders on Embarrassing Trash. That is the price I pay for this project (and my fabulous idiocy). I do my best not to involve others in these mishaps. Knees do bleed after all. But sometimes from Trash Truth rears its ugly head and becomes the Beast-Not-to-Be-Denied. That is what I-as-Author must give Name to.
The blog UNFINISHED INTERRUPTIONS is not intended to be the book by that same title, but it will offer brief previews of many of its parts. Order will be determined by what the day dictates. Perhaps noteworthy or useful remains of me (or my activities) will be listed in ITEMS LOG or METADATA.
*On Thursday 12 September 2013 I began a writer’s journal slash web log housed at TSE, currently under reconstruction. Archives of its first two years (12-09-13 to 12-09-15) are forthcoming on the rebuilt site.
Meanwhile, I begin year three with a working title, a shift in purpose, and a new format. I hope to share with you some information, a few useful functions, and a lot of form.
Content is moral or has no need to exist.
Item, In More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon introduces the fabulous idiot.
Item, Author is wary of what social media and web-publishing ventures such as Medium are presently doing to noble contents, hence his parting remark.
Item, Author is wary of human beings in general, not the least of all himself, though still somewhat optimistic given recent news from outer space.
Item, Author is a pseudonym.
Item, Words associate with no one.
Item, Noble content does not lead to shopping.
web log, diary, journal, noble, persona parts, the second embassy, fundamentally simple, essays, sets, item, gestalt, entire days, easy lessons in reading, étude, author, information, function, form, content, artifice
Mrs. Hagiwara always insisted on calling me professor. It was a little embarrassing, but I suppose it was the only way she could make sense of why it was I had read so many books, or why it was I had so many writer friends. And of course, it was a show of respect. Part of traditional Japanese culture. And in some ways it was actually kind of refreshing after all the years I had to hide the fact that I was an intellectual. You didn’t want to seem like someone who knew too much in those days when simply having a foreign book on the shelf or owning a few jazz records could get you carted off to jail for an intensive interrogation by the Thought Police.
Sensei! Everyone! Come downstairs!
It sounded as if the entire neighborhood was assembled in the large tatami mat room on the first floor. All sat captivated by the only radio in the entire district, powered by a compact electrical generator.
First Kimigayo, the national anthem, was played and then the announcer said in a solemn voice that we would now hear some words from the Jade Voice (the emperor himself). Some people stood at attention, some prostrated themselves. I stood apart near the radio where I could hear better.
History is so unreliable. It all depends on how you tell the story. For some on that hot, humid day in August, the cry of the cicadas in the background, the world seemed to collapse beneath them. But most, like myself, were simply relieved. The sound of the emperor’s voice seemed oddly familiar to me. It was only much later that I realized he had delivered his speech as if reciting a poem. For some reason, I don’t know why, this one phrase sticks in my memory – we must endure the unendurable.
Mrs. Hagiwara was unusually plump considering the lack of provisions in the final months of the war. At least it seemed so in comparison to the emaciated look of most of the others. We lived on vegetables she grew in her garden. She didn’t charge much for rent, as long as we were willing to help out with chores around the house. Occasionally a small sack of rice would arrive from one of the nearby farms. It wasn’t polished rice which would glisten all fluffy and white in your bowl. It still had the husks on, but we treated it as a highly valued treasure, and made it last as long as we could. But most of all we lived on Japanese eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. Lots of potatoes. Modest fare, but we ate better than most because of the garden. Mrs. Hagiwara seemed to know everyone in the little town, as well as the surrounding farms, so she had ways of getting her hands on things.
SET_0.1_SORRY FOR THE DELAY (Settings for Five Characters)
Figures wander in and out of the waiting room. A man suspiciously resembling M Houlot cannot determine if it is safe to enter. Yuharu Atsuta crouches in one of the aisles looking from floor to window and down again. He takes a reading from his light meter then writes something in a small notebook.
No one knows from whence I derived.
I was raised in silence by a gardener
Who mistook me for a basket near a well
At the foot of the great mountain.
As a young man I traveled far and wide.
I was trained to become a shadow
By a conference of ghosts and veils.
I returned to find an artificial grove.
I did not want the dying man
To trespass in utter darkness.
I shall bathe him in light
When his time comes that will be good.
He is already heading toward his plot
Near the sweet potato and turmeric.
The voice of Anon lingers in the waiting room.
. . . / . . . [One of five from SET_0.1_Sorry for the Delay (Settings for Five Characters)]
6 September 2015
Personal blog at TSE down since yesterday, trouble with DNS recognition as I play the would-be fixer. The site should be up again soon (and may already be in some browsers). Meanwhile, I will continue posting partial daily entries here when applicable. Full entries on TSE forthcoming.
[from A Certain Distance, 10]
Eventually I was able to afford a modest house just down the hill a ways from Yotsuya in a quaint old neighborhood called Arakicho. The main boulevard, which ran the rest of the way down to Shinjuku, was lined with affordable public housing units for middle class families. My job was to handle shipping documents, write business letters (occasionally in English), and to translate. In a word I was a paper shuffler. I would place my official seal on each document, firmly pressing the ivory onto the vermilion red ink cushion, and then carefully apply the stamp in the space made available for it next to my name. Then the document would be sent on its way. Life was fairly uneventful. The morning paper brought news of the geopolitical posturing going on in the world, but it all seemed rather distant and somehow unreal. Artists and writers could still pursue their activities more or less unhampered as long as it was not overtly political. I could still enjoy the city more or less the way I used to with only a few restraints. Occasionally I’d drop by the Lupin for a drink with my old writer friends, but gradually that part of my life grew more distant. Mostly I’d stick closer to home, in Arakicho. The neighborhood seemed to have everything I needed. In 1935 I published a thin volume of surreal poems, but all in all I had come to accept my new role as a failed writer.
I love this city – its endless turns and sudden shifts, dead-ends and narrow, meandering back streets. Its circularity. Endlessly frustrating and fascinating, the city’s shape was formed by two opposing forces – the need to keep things out, mainly potential dangers to whoever was in power at the time, hence the castle walls and the system of inner and outer moats, the puzzle of streets, canals and thoroughfares via which there is no direct route to anywhere since all ways must avoid the forbidden core of the city; and yet the need to promote trade and communication on these same routes, requiring a vast web of increasingly complex means of transportation including the trains and subways which would appear along with the sudden shock of modernity. The main boulevards form a series of concentric circles around the palace (routes which, if followed, always bring you back to the same place), and then finally, once outside this maze, for the first time you hit a good straight road, one of the traditional trading routes which take you out to the provinces. But here still there are limits, for the old trading routes ran unimpeded only through the territory of the shogun’s most loyal vassals, and oddly enough, these same routes and these same limits still exist in modern times.
Tokyo was destroyed twice in one century. First in the earthquake and fire of 1923 and then in the firebombing of 1945. Each time it rose from the ashes like a phoenix and each time it retained its traditional shape and its traditional limits. The upper class occupies the same neighborhoods – the hills encircling the palace moat – which it did during pre-modern times, and in one of the horrible ironies of that century of violence, the homes of the wealthy and powerful largely escaped the worst of the destruction. General Curtis LeMay’s strategic incendiary bombing targeted the working class districts along the Sumida river, and was designed to create a firestorm so that the raging fires would do the rest of the B-29s’ work. Over 100,000 people died in one night of bombing, most of them old men, women and children, most of them poor or working class. It was the most lethal of any of the bombings during that war including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Most of the city lay in ashes after the war, but its basic shape remained. Structures like the elevated girders supporting the main commuter train lines had survived, and it was beneath these where the first yakitori stalls and bars opened up. At first there were only corrugated iron shacks and encampments dotting the landscape, but soon new neighborhoods and settlements began sprouting like weeds.
A winter light creeps in. The form of the pink Sun
just above the rooftops.
Bacteria are forgotten.
Olivier is dead.
It is atrocious.
Olivier aka Pronto Rushtonsky is dead.
The police report finding him, his arm broken, at 22 hundred 20
25 October nineteen ninety one,
that he lay inert next to the train tracks
at the Quai de la Gare
his arms forming a cross.
That is all the police have to say. They want to see.
Olive branches come to mind.
The first state is absence.
[Six more in progress from On Existence, Time, and Space, adapted by Anon]
13. The obstacle shows up as maker to create a “something” from a “nothing.”
14. If this part, alone, is a “nothing” or a non-existent “something”, then the “obstacle” is likewise a “nothing” or a non-existent “something.”
15. It follows that there must therefore be two “nothings” or two non-existent “somethings.”
16. Should there be two “nothings” or two non-existent “somethings”, then one of them must be the “obstacle” for the other, which then breaks the other down into parts, itself becoming one of these very parts.
17. Likewise, the latter nothing or non-existent something, as obstacle for the former, splits this former into parts, itself becoming one of its very parts.
18. Thus, of their own accord, non-existent parts are created.
[from A Certain Distance, 9]
They were the best years of my life. I was making a living as a freelance writer and partaking of the life of the city. You could listen to Jazz at places like the Zebra club or the Blackbird, stroll along the wide boulevards of Ginza or in the evening go out to one of the dance halls. The first subway was completed in 1925 running from Asakusa to Ginza and since the rebuilding after the earthquake and fire of 1923 there were numerous examples of the latest architectural styles such as Art Deco and Modernism.
I used to go to the writers’ hangouts like the Lupin in Ginza. Writers like Kafu Nagai, Yasunari Kawabata and Fumiko Hayashi were regulars. I learned a lot and got contacts for writing jobs. Even painters and theater people would come by so I had the opportunity to mix with a whole cross-section of contemporary artists. You never knew what might be around the next corner in those days. You might run into a political demonstration or stumble upon a street performance by anarchist artists. But then after the stock market crash of 1929 things got to be pretty tough. That’s when I moved to Nakameguro to cut down on expenses.
I don’t believe in work. I’ve always been against it. But then again, one has to pay the rent, and to eat. And then there are all those nasty habits to support. I needed to keep up my supply of good tobacco and good scotch, my visits to the bars and cafes and of course, serve certain baser instincts. A couple of years went by and things were changing.
How can I describe the climate then… the Manchurian incident took us completely by surprise. I realize it seems strange now, but even we intellectual types were not very aware of what was going on as far as our own country was concerned. It seemed like all the writers in those days had an opinion about the Spanish civil war, but our own government and what it might be doing was a blank slate. An eerie silence hovered over our lives and then in a day or two things seemed to get back to normal. The main concern was finding a job.
The other reality that was just beginning to sink in was that I was now over thirty and wasn’t getting any younger. I needed something that would give me some employment security and yet still leave me enough time on the side to write. One of my old college friends had been pushing me to get an office job for a while, but I always brushed him off. I preferred to remain independent, and besides, it just wasn’t me. I couldn’t imagine myself as one of those clean upstanding members of the new middle class dressed in a perfectly tailored suit, riding the crowded trains each day to the office, and then back to that perfect little house in the suburbs attended by the perfect little wife always dressed properly in kimono. And then the children! Forget it! But then I got a call one day from my old friend.
Look, Arai, this is the last time I’m going to bug you about this. I just wanted to let you know that we could use someone who can handle foreign language shipping instructions down at the office. Things are starting to pick up again and, well, you know, let me be honest, it’s more like just a clerk’s job, but I thought you might actually prefer that. It’ll give you more time to write.
Of course, I suppose one of the ironies of that decade was that as Japan advanced along the road that would lead ultimately to its own destruction, employment actually increased, especially for general office workers, both in the huge zaibatsu conglomerates and in the government bureaucracy. So the next thing I knew I was on my way to an appointment at the offices of Mitsui & Co. in Marunouchi, right outside Tokyo Station and just a stone’s throw from the imperial palace.
Those were strange times. The 1930s were filled with so many contradictions. I suppose I managed to eventually adapt to conventional society, though after years in the corporate world and just watching how people changed as the events of that period unfolded, I’d say my suspicions were merely confirmed.
In Bunraku, the traditional puppet theater, the puppet masters wear black robes and black hoods as they operate the puppets on stage, unhidden from the audience. The black dress of course indicates their symbolic absence. To the uninitiated, these men in black stand out like a sore thumb. But for those who have become a part of the puppet culture, they are invisible. They no longer see them because there is an unspoken social agreement in which it is understood that they do not exist. Society itself is much like this – the truth lies hidden in plain sight . . . and those who know the truth will not speak of it.
[from A Certain Distance, 8]
We speak of time . . . but what is that? I cannot touch it, but it touches me. I grow old and time escapes me. And all I can do to mend the rift in my existence is to tell the story – to talk, to write, to bring together if only for a moment the broken fragments of a life, of lived time.
It came as no surprise to me when the postcard arrived in the mail announcing that I had failed the entrance exam of the Imperial University in Tokyo. Besides, I had lost all interest in pursuing medical studies long ago. I had my sights on Waseda University whose Literature Department had become legendary because of the great writers who had taught there in the past. So I remained in Tokyo to study for the test, boarding in a rooming house for prospective students like myself. My father was disappointed by my failure, but he was still insistent that I get a college education, even if it had to be at a private university, so I had no problem convincing him to pay for my room and board. The only problem was that the more determined I became to write the less time I spent with my studies. And then there was the city itself which offered so much. I seemed to spend more and more time in the cafés talking with other students, and of course wherever students gathered there was a hotbed of radical thought.
I managed to pass the test by the skin of my teeth and moved into the student dorms, but it was impossible to concentrate. There were always people around talking and smoking, shouting in the halls, debating various subjects, especially politics. The only time there was peace and quiet was in the middle of the night, and even then you were lucky if it quieted down. Waseda was a major focus of leftist activity. There had been student riots a few years before I started, and now it was a stronghold of the Communist Party. There was also a group of rightist students and then anarchists who tended to be less interested in organization. But I just wanted to write. I was interested in all the ideas and in observing what was going on, but it seemed like joining one of the political groups was much like being in a religious cult. As soon as a person joined, you could see how their thinking would become narrow and dogmatic.
But there was another reason I needed the quiet and privacy. I had started to get writing jobs. No big deal. Just hack writing. An article here and there. It all started with something I wrote for one of the new women’s magazines. It was a travel article about Paris. I hadn’t even been to Paris and here I was writing about it as if I were an expert. I just threw together a few observations from the letters of my friend who was studying in Paris along with my own wild imagination, a bit of fake French and voilà! The editors loved it, and I guess news got around, because now suddenly I was in demand. There were lots of new women’s magazines those days catering to the interests of The New Woman, or sometimes it was for the sophisticated married ladies of the new middle class. It was either fashion, food, sex or travel. Take your pick. Obviously I wasn’t going to write about fashion.
For the time being my father was willing to raise my monthly allowance so that I could rent a small room not far from the university. This was of course done on the assumption that I needed the quiet in order to study. Little did he know I was actually spending more time at the literary hangouts in the bars and cafés. And when I wasn’t doing that I was hammering out another titillating piece about the private life of Tokyo’s New Woman – all of it completely fiction of course.
[From Venezia Central by F.J. Ossang, Le Castor Astral, 2015. Pronto adapted into English by Anon]
This is an ode.
An ode to Pronto Rushtonsky.
Rather vague an ode is. It is a color,
the wavelength of a color washing up on the river shore
where ash coats gray and green water.
The faint smell of odors and smoke that stretches
from the Sun as it sets.
The lapping waves that surround a burial boat
as it heads toward the black bow
of haunted ships.
But I shall tell, tell all finally,
the desire and the regret of sleeping in the light
so bright where all is extinguished.
Pronto, pronto, he said.
We shall see Olivier no more.
We look at the light. It is the 26th, four p.m.
[To be continued.]
[Another six from On Existence, Time, and Space, Kharms adapted by Anon]
7. I shall depict the first part as this and the second part as that; I shall depict the transition from this part to that part as neither this nor that.
8. I shall depict neither this nor that as “the obstacle.”
9. Ergo, at bottom, existence is founded upon three elements: this, the obstacle, and that.
10. I shall depict non-existence as nil or one. It follows that I must depict existence by the number three.
11. Ergo, by breaking a singular void in two parts, I arrive at a trinity of existence.
12. So then, a singular void, upon encountering one or another obstacle, splits into parts that make up a trinity of existence.
[Allowing for différance — to differ and to defer — this being six parts of sixty to come, adapted from various source languages by Anon.]
ON EXISTENCE, TIME, & SPACE
1. A world that is not cannot be said to exist, because it is not.
2. A world that consists of a uniform thing, homogeneous and continuous, cannot be said to exist, because such a world would have no parts, and without parts there can be no whole.
3. A world that exists must be heterogeneous and consist of parts.
4. Any two parts will always differ — because one part must be this one, and the other must be that one.
5. Should this one alone exist, then that one cannot exist, for, as has been stated, this one alone exists. But this one alone cannot exist, because for such a one to exist, it must be heterogeneous and consist of parts. And if it consists of parts that means that this one and that one exist.
6. Should this part and that part exist, this means that not this one and not that one exist, because if not this one and not that one do not exist, then this part and that part would be uniform, that is, homogeneous and continuous, and therefore could not exist.
[More parts to come.]
[from A Certain Distance, 7]
I searched for the area where I used to live. It was just off Yamatedori, the main boulevard, one of the major arteries following along what had once been the outer edge of the old castle town of Edo. I no longer remembered the address, but I knew it was in the 3-chome section. The destruction wrought by the bombing of Tokyo during WWII was so total that in some areas, such as the old working class Shitamachi district by the Sumida River, there were neighborhoods that were wiped permanently off the map. The names of the places have disappeared forever along with the nameless people who once inhabited them. It was already years since I had lived there, but my old neighborhood in Nakameguro took a hit as well. So I didn’t expect any buildings to have survived. I just wanted to see how the area had changed.
I followed the maze of narrow streets winding through the neighborhood which was now 3-chome, but it was impossible to identify the spot where my rooming house once stood. Many of the streets merely ran into dead-ends, or circled around so that I would finally end up where I began. The labyrinth of postwar rebuilding was so complex it was impossible to navigate.
Her name was Akemi. I hadn’t noticed her because the post office uniforms were so drab, designed in a way so as to hide virtually any suggestion of feminine beauty. But apparently she had noticed me. I dropped by the post office fairly regularly then to send letters and packages to a friend who was studying in Paris. The letters written out carefully in black ink with a fountain pen spelling out the foreign address piqued her interest. Words in French and English were very popular in those days. You’d find them popping up all over the place, not only in names of cafes and advertising, but even in the new poetry that was all the rage. Using foreign words was hip and modern.
I don’t remember exactly how it all got started now. I never would have been able to initiate a conversation myself. In the 1920s there was a sudden surge in the number of young women on their own in the big city. Not something one would have seen during the previous generation. People were leaving the country for Tokyo in search of work and there was a huge population of young people who were far from home, unattached, like immigrants in their own country.
[from A Certain Distance, 6]
More and more now when I look in the mirror I see my father’s face. It seems the resemblance increases as I grow older. The first time I noticed this it came as a shock. Resemblance is one thing, but it was as if a different person, something wholly other, was staring back at me from the reflection.
Starting a few years back I began to feel the need to retrace my steps, to go back to the places I inhabited during earlier times of my life in hopes perhaps of reliving those times, or if not, at least to reflect on my life and who I am, who I’ve become. And I was curious what some parts of town looked like now in the 1960s compared to what they were long ago.
Recently I found myself walking along the Meguro River not far from the area where I lived for a short time in the mid-1920s. It was January and the winter cold was accentuated by the gray stillness and the barren branches of the cherry trees lining the river’s banks, now covered in concrete to prevent flooding. At some points the concrete retaining wall was so imposing it produced the feeling of a prison, some kind of limiting authority from which the viewer instinctively recoils, and added to the depressing atmosphere of the overcast day. Only the shape of a stairway installed for maintenance removed some of the drabness from the image, drawing a diagonal line along the concrete face like one of those Escher prints which create a sort of optical illusion.
It was getting darker as I approached Nakameguro where I roomed for a short time after leaving university. Why here I don’t know. It was across town from Asakusa and Ginza which were the real happening neighborhoods in those days and where most of my friends hung out. Perhaps it was simply because something had become available and it was cheap. It was a cramped room in a decrepit building. The ceiling sagged and mildew grew in the corners, especially in the entry. There was of course no private bath or kitchenette – refrigerators would become common only some years later in the 1930s. All it provided was a few aging tatami mats on which to sleep. The nice thing about it was it had a window that looked out onto a small interior garden where ivy and nasturtiums grew and an unidentifiable tree, possibly myrtle. The public bath and the train station were a ten-minute walk away. The narrow street adjacent to the station was lined with nagaya – flimsy wooden tenements which housed the working class and poor. The very sight of these fire traps made one think of illness, the slow wasting away of tuberculosis. Further along were the shops selling daily necessities, and restaurants serving grilled chicken or fish. There were a few bars located under the tracks on the other side of the station and on a street corner was the post office. Not much here to elicit feelings of nostalgia one might think, but in fact, this was the site of my sexual awakening. In a way it’s a funny story. You see, I was seduced by the postwoman, who delivered to me something I had never experienced before.
[from A Certain Distance, 5]
I remember when I was a boy of maybe five or six, my father would take me to the candy store. There were candies of all sizes and shapes in colorful wrappings. You could get a piece of rakugan sugar candy for 1 sen. And there were toys too. Miniature cars and locomotives; wooden dolls and other figurines. At another shop they sold traditional Japanese sweets like daifuku – sweet bean paste wrapped in pounded rice. This was a real treat. The rice paste was smooth and silky, and pleasantly chewy.
Even as a high school student I would often drop by the candy store for old time’s sake. By that time I was studying for the college entrance exam, though by then I had doubts about making it into medical school. I remember walking home in the twilight of early evening, the eerie rust-red glow of the wooden buildings in the fading light, and the sound of my wooden sandals on the road. I remember the feeling of anxiety I would often have for no particular reason, the sense of being absolutely alone.
It was 1918 and Japan had become industrialized almost overnight. The world war had left Europe deeply damaged, but Japan had become wealthy from all the new business opportunities. A major migration was taking place from the country to the city where there were jobs in the factories and offices.
I’ve never felt all that nostalgic about my childhood or the place where I grew up. I was always more nostalgic for times I had never experienced, for places I had never been. Soon, I too would be headed for Tokyo.
[from A Certain Distance, 4]
It was 1912 and a new era had arrived, the Taisho era, and I was ready to advance to middle school. It was an idealistic time. People talked about democracy and individual rights. One of my teachers was a Christian, but I don’t recall him ever talking about religion. His concerns seemed to be more social and political. He talked a lot about the uniqueness of the individual and how one goes about developing an independent mind. Most of my teachers were progressive, interested in the new ideas that had reached Japan.
It was around this time I became interested in literature. I had always enjoyed learning how to write with the brush when I was in elementary school, and I was also taught how to compose haiku poems since it went hand in hand with calligraphy. Now I found myself receiving praise from my teachers whenever there was an assignment involving writing.
I read everything I could get my hands on. For the first time I had friends my own age. It was still unusual for someone of my background to go onto middle school and high school then, but the number of middle schools had increased. The old temple school in our town had been made into a middle school under the new curriculum.
I suppose I should have been more appreciative of all this since a shop keeper’s son would normally be unable to enter a college prep school. But my father insisted that I get a college education, and now he had the money to send me to a good school.
With my new found friends I read and discussed all the latest novels and poetry, including translations of European poetry. And we read philosophy too, including Marx and Nietzsche. The more I read and pursued my own interests the less likely it became that I would follow in my father’s footsteps. Besides, I wasn’t very good at math and science.
Things were changing fast then. My friends and I were excited about everything new, especially things introduced from the West. Foreign languages were an important part of our curriculum. I studied both French and English as well as some German on the assumption that I would be studying medicine. I loved the sound of French and like everyone else loved Baudelaire and his Paris, but I did best in English. It wasn’t really that strange or difficult studying foreign languages since Japanese itself was like a foreign language. We had all grown up speaking the local dialect, and now we had to master the new standardized Japanese. At the same time, we still had to familiarize ourselves with the old style of writing, as well as classical Japanese and classical Chinese as used in Japan’s own tradition of writing poetry in Chinese. None of this had anything at all in common with the language we grew up speaking.
I would spend hours with my new friends after school discussing literature and philosophy. A European style café had just opened up in our town. It made us feel so civilized! We would hang out in the café talking and drinking coffee. Occasionally one of our group would produce a pack of cigarettes and we would have a smoke. This made us feel especially sophisticated, but cigarettes were expensive for students (even the cheaper brands were at least five sen for a pack of ten) so this was reserved only for special occasions. The topic of girls began entering the discussions as well. Sometimes a group of students from the girl’s school would visit the café. This always created an air of excitement, but we were too shy to talk to them.
[from A Certain Distance, 3]
I grew up in a provincial city. One of those places that’s too big to be a small town, but not big enough to be a real city. Far from Japan’s cultural center in Tokyo, it was horribly backward – a cultural wasteland. From the time I was in my teens I dreamed every minute of escape.
My father was a pharmacist. A true Meiji man, he believed in science and progress. His was the first generation of western-trained druggists. Of this he was very proud and he hoped that I, his only son, would someday attend the Imperial University in Tokyo. My failure to do so was only the first of his many disappointments.
In those days the druggist had to mix many of the medicines himself, so my father had a laboratory in the back of his shop stocked with mysterious jars, tins and bottles of all shapes and sizes containing the basic ingredients required to mix commonly used medicines. I used to help in his shop.
I loved the mystery of the little jars and the antique cabinets with the myriad drawers made to store the medicines. My father’s desk too was fitted with numerous drawers of every size and small shelves and alcoves, each holding its own secrets. Long narrow strips of paper were pasted here and there, dangling from the edge of shelves or the top of the desk’s hutch. On them were written instructions from doctors or my father’s notes written in brush and Japanese ink, using difficult Chinese characters which I had not learned yet in school.
I spent hours in the back of my father’s shop. The storage room held endless revelations. Here I discovered where my father kept his pipe tobacco. Stashed away in a dusty corner was a package wrapped in colored paper. My curiosity got the best of me so I removed the wrapping to reveal a strange white powdery substance. Much later I learned that it was opium used as a medicine in the old days and was now banned. But I was more interested in the wrapping itself. It was a woodblock print with erotic images. I returned to the storage room many times after that, captivated by the images of human bodies twisted into unnatural positions and the exaggerated displays of genitalia.
I mostly played alone as a child. There were no boys my age in the neighborhood, and my older sisters were devoted to tormenting me. The house was the exclusive territory of my mother and sisters. There was little affection available from my mother who spoke with a sharp tongue, always scolding or issuing commands. Perhaps this was as much a reason for my father spending long hours in his shop as the belief in hard work, but in any case it eventually made the family moderately wealthy.
[from A Certain Distance, 2 (August 15, 1945)]
On the day of the broadcast I was asleep. I slept a lot in those days. For one thing there was the sheer exhaustion from lack of food, and then the general mood of apathy which had taken hold in those final weeks. Just before noon I was awoken by the landlady running excitedly up and down the halls of the boarding house exhorting us all to come down to the common room. The Emperor himself was to address his people over the radio at noon.
During those days I boarded in a ramshackle house not far outside the city. “Don’t bother coming back to work” is all we were told. Not much else was necessary. We all knew what was going to happen. Already most of the capital was laid to waste and only essential government functions remained near the palace. Most people stayed with relatives in the country, but people like myself, a middle-aged bachelor without those kind of family connections, had to go a different route. So I came to this little town out west of Tokyo.
Some people call me a cynic. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe it’s something else, a disease unknown till now, one that lacks a name or even a diagnosis – a malady of the times.
Nietzsche said the most monstrous thing is human society itself, and that a person can attain freedom only insofar as they can transcend their social conditioning. Since I had always been an outsider, standing at somewhat of a distance from the society around me, including even my own family, these words of Nietzsche seemed only natural to me.
[from A Certain Distance, 1]
So many changes have occurred during my lifetime. I can still remember the iceman arriving at our house with his hand-pulled cart, and the first electric light in our little town. And now I sense another change on the horizon, unarticulated as of yet, but I sense it coming. A certain scent. Something on the breeze. A subtle change in the quality of light as the sun crawls slowly across the sky.
The city pulsates with excitement. Everywhere there is new construction – a new freeway, a high-speed train, the new television tower that looks just like The Eiffel Tower. And of course the Olympic Stadium. It is 1964, and as I write, the city prepares for the Olympics – the sign of Japan’s having rejoined the family of nations, as well as its economic recovery.
The laughter of young people filling the city streets as they go about their carefree lives can’t but warm the heart of an old man like me. After all, there was a time when I thought I’d never hear laughter again. But I notice something else lurking behind the smiles. A new disease seems to have accompanied the country’s outward economic health – that of forgetting. Nobody likes dwelling on dark times, but it seems the gap in the official memory extends beyond the war years to include pretty much the entire Modernist period. I believe an American expression I have learned would be appropriate here – it’s called throwing out the baby with the bath water.
So it is I have resolved to take up my pen and write about those years – the years of my life. My name is Yoshio Arai, and this is my story.
from “The End(s) of Russian Poetry: An Interview with Dmitry Prigov” by Philip Metres
Are your “images” like masks? An image is more than that. An image is a kind of existence. I must, first, understand it, then enter into it and live. A mask, generally speaking, implies that another person exists behind it. But I, as a person, cannot exist. Behind a mask, one can act like a director, but a director can never substitute for an actor. A traditional poet like Brodsky or Gandlevsky goes out on stage and writes poetry, and his aim is completely connected to his texts. I have a different aim. I can go out on stage as an actor and I myself am not there. So I am by way of virtual expression. I am insofar as they act. I am personally like a director, not on the stage but existing in every point of action. So that’s why I say that all poetic conduct involves personages. I’m not in my texts but at the same time, just as the director is not on the stage, I am the play. I am the structure.