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Writing Between Worlds

The Long, Passionate Journey of Junzaburō Nishiwaki

Kathleen Hellen

  The Modern Fable.
Junzaburō Nishiwaki.
Hiroaki Sato, translator.
Green Integer, 2007.
197 pages, $12.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 193338266X.
Buy at Amazon.

Two worlds co-exist in the poetry of Junzaburō Nishiwaki (1894-1932): The first is associative, "whimsical" as Hiroaki Sato puts it in his introduction to The Modern Fable (2007), which contains translations from six of Nishiwaki's fourteen books of poems published between 1933 and 1963, and links the poet to the Surrealists in theory and practice.

The second world is conceptual, intellectual, linking Nishiwaki to the Postmodernists and giving heft to Ezra Pound's observation that Nishiwaki was writing in a "more vital english [sic] than any I have seen for some time."

In Nishiwaki's early work, Western allusions seem like inside jokes, everything from references to epic Greek and its philosophies and mythologies to Shakespeare, Keats, and Rilke. Western painters like Van Gogh and Matisse collaborate in Nishiwaki's image-making. Exotic landscapes dominate: Galilee and Smyrna, Capri, Ceylon. In Ambarvalia (1933), his style is marked by the parallelisms and repetitions frequent in Western poetry, his persona functioning like a sightseer in these strange geographies.

Until 1935, Nishiwaki, experimenting with new techniques, is fully engaged in the Surrealist Movement in Japan. He suddenly disappears. A period of silence follows, coinciding with the rise of Japan's militarism and its attendant suppression of speech, until the end of World War II. When he emerges a decade later, the poetry has distilled.

In No Traveler Returns (1947), Nishiwaki unabashedly fuses Western and Eastern images and ideas.  The title's allusion to Hamlet begs irony as poems situate in the landscape of Japan. Against a canvas of mountains and floating clouds, temples, the straw huts of villages recalling Basho's The Narrow Road of the Interior, the poet gives us Chaplin, Van Gogh, and Maupassant. Plural realities exist, worlds within worlds. The Japanese maid "hides in her trunk / a photograph of Greta Garbo."

Translations of Nishiwaki's work are complicated by his deliberate opaqueness. Sato in his introduction notes that some have criticized Nishiwaki's work as "translatory," referring among other things to the "ungainly effects brought about by Nishiwaki's attempt to re-create enjambment in Japanese." The voice is sometimes self-conscious, as Nishiwaki asks: "Is this trembling poem / a true poem?"

As in Bashō's and the work of other haiku poets, themes of transience and loneliness find a home in The Modern Fable (1953) and Nishiwaki's later work. It is here the poet, no longer sightseer but voyeur, the outsider peering into "life's transient, tired window," begins his "long passionate journey" into the interior of the myth that is life, where "[D]eep deep dreams dream us." Nishiwaki works with words, with dialogue in a conceptual way. His world is sometimes hellish, Dantesque, a wasteland inhabited by prostitutes and palm readers, suicides and ghosts. The perspective is postmodern: "There's no other way than to adorn the eye with dreams / of words."

Writing between worlds, Nishiwaki does not surprise when he becomes in 1973 the first Japanese poet named as an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In 1962, Nishiwaki was appointed to the Japan Art Academy. Pound in 1956 recommended him for the Nobel Prize.

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