READING JAPANESE POET Sakutarō Hagiwara’s work makes me want to pour a drink, which, sitting in famed translator Hiroaki Sato’s dining room, is exactly what I do. The bottle of whiskey on the table between us is cat-shaped, which feels oddly fitting, since I am here to discuss Cat Town, Sato’s new translation of selected poems by one of Japan’s most beloved modernist poets, Sakutarō Hagiwara. Imbibing is an appropriate response to the collection, as it turns out: in his mother’s words, “[Hagiwara] spent all his income from his writing on booze. He was good for nothing.”
Of the more than three dozen books that Hiroaki Sato has translated from Japanese to English, he pulls from the shelf a biography of the famous 20th-century novelist Yukio Mishima. Per his instruction, I flip to the back page and listen as he reads me the death scene, in which Mishima slices open his own stomach, performing seppuku (also referred to as hara-kiri), the ritual samurai suicide, and collapses on a balcony. “I’m asked to do a lot of talks about samurai,” Sato jokes later. “People love samurai.”
We discuss Japan. We discuss World War II, and the recent retrospective of Marguerite Duras’s films, including Hiroshima mon amour. (“Deneuve was the dream,” Sato chimes in.) I remember vividly the image from the movie of the shapes of bodies burned into the sidewalk. It is an image not dissimilar from the world Hagiwara presents in his poems:
On the gleaming ground bamboo growing,
blue bamboo growing,
under the ground bamboo roots growing,
roots gradually tapering off,
from root tips cilia growing,
faintly blurred cilia growing,
It occurs to me now that Sato began our dinner with a discussion of World War II to recreate a certain atmosphere. Later, it will inform the way I read the work. Part of what makes Sato’s translations so admirable is his devotion to the atmosphere of the pieces; he translates Hagiwara by translating his atmosphere. Hagiwara’s naturalistic images are not flat or decorative; rather, they have depth and seem entangled. The precision in the image of bamboo makes the roots placid, but also warped. The reader cannot approach passively, and instead feels mired in the roots. The repetition creates a vacuum, a spiraling effect, and sickness pervades the natural world. “The chrysanthemum is ill,” he writes. Sins are “phantoms of blue flames.” The pine-top is “sorrowful, single-minded.” Many things in the collection are rotting — teeth, hands, skin. The poet himself seems to absorb this decay within his own body:
So as to obtain seedlings that do not grow,
from the bottom of a bright bowl,
I have pulled out my white fingers.
While these lines allude to infertility, they simultaneously suggest an ethereal presence — the white hands are ghostly, and the image suggests some immunity to earthly suffering.
Hagiwara died in 1942, which means he was spared the horrors that came at the end of the war, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his tone and mood, however, there is a hint of the Holocaust, even in his earlier work. In his lifetime, he seems to have foreseen, even absorbed, the pain of the coming era. His own family life represented an annihilation of sorts: he was already a heavy alcoholic and recluse when his wife left him for her dance partner.
Though it would be easy to dismiss them as theatrics, these dark poems (so dark that at times they almost feel ebullient with misery) are, most of the time, carried by a real, believably anguished voice. To paraphrase Leslie Jamison in her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” — a performance of pain is still pain.
Hagiwara might be describing himself when he writes, “At the bottom of the ground a face emerging, / a lonely invalid’s face emerging.” He seems to be inviting us underground with him, into darkness, while at the same time holding out his arm as if to say, “Not yet — don’t touch me.” As a reader, I am continually tempted to compare translations with other translations, even if the languages are different and have no seeming connection. Hagiwara’s line about the face emerging makes me think of John T. Naughton’s translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s poem “The House Where I Was Born.” Describing a flooded house, Bonnefoy muses on the mirrors that are “piled up everywhere.” He writes:
It was from these reflections that sometimes a face
would emerge, laughing, of a gentleness
that was different from what the world is.
This idea of the emergence of the dead is a powerful one. It suggests a preference for revival rather than reincarnation. And certainly Hagiwara is not interested in reinventing himself — the past is his landscape, bitter and “soggy.” Though he complains about it, he suggests no desire to escape it, and in fact seems determined to remain right where he is. In the prose poem “The Riverbank of Desolation,” he quotes what appears to be a Chinese proverb:
Watch how beautifully the fish run. Watch how quietly the water flows. How is it that you don’t like this quietude? The brilliant sensibility of this landscape? I’d rather hope that I will not be able to catch anything all day. Therefore, sit on the sunny riverbank of desolation, and don’t disturb my environment in any way.”
If Hagiwara had a favorite word, it might’ve been “melancholy,” which appears in the titles of many of his poems, including “So Terrfiyingly Melancholy,” “Melancholy Cherry,” “The Riverside of Melancholy,” among others. Indeed, the poems are saturated with tears and self-pity. “I’ll always be weeping like an enfant,” he admits, and later, “for a long long time___ I seemed to be dreaming and weeping.” His introspection and preoccupation with nature remind me at times of Walt Whitman and the Romantics. With its emphasis on drug-induced visions, his prose piece “Cat Town” even calls to mind Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Yet the precision of his language has a modern sensibility. The poems are sentimental, but not mawkish; experimental, but not isolating.
The very unity and impulsion of the poems sometimes lead to a malady of sameness: that is, about halfway through the collection, you feel as though you are trapped in a panic room with Hagiwara; the door is locked; the lights are off. I’m reminded of an exhibit I saw at the Neue Galerie of Egon Schiele portraits. The exhibit spanned Schiele’s lifetime but the effect, rather than being profound, was suffocating. All the portraits looked the same. It was as though somewhere along the way his best friend had forgotten to tell him to move on, to expand, to toss off that one girl that hurt him and begin to view the world from outside his closed sphere. The exhibit did, however, succeed in relaying the feeling of entrapment Schiele must have experienced, just as Cat Town embodies Hagiwara’s crippling pain. We see what Schiele and Hagiwara saw: grim faces, melting away in darkness, earth tones turned horrific by the addition of one small glimmer of pink. And there are glimmers: glimmers of happiness or an alternative life, which spark but never arrive fully enough to mature the work beyond its adolescent trauma.
Nevertheless, if you took one of Schiele’s portraits out of context and placed it alone in a white room, it would have the effect of characterizing a specific drama/dream within a twisted mind. Likewise, though constriction is the overall effect of Cat Town, the individual poems are startling in their authenticity and imagery. They are, each of them, small works of art. And this is, after all, how most people read poetry — they open a book at random and peruse.
Though Hagiwara’s poems reflect the era from which he came, they remain relevant today. Their embodied pain and precise descriptions speak to the contemporary experience of the invasion of privacy amid proliferating global catastrophes. “Gentle dead person in May / thrashing like a snake of green gold,” Hagiwara writes, and I visualize one of the many Kurdish fighters killed recently in Kobani, Syria. “I saw poverty / in this sloppy rainy air / I saw something drenched wet solitary and very / odious,” Hagiwara writes, and I recall the countless homeless on the street in New York City just before the blizzard hit in late January. Again, the images call to mind a pervasive sense of fear and anticipation that encourages us communally to withdraw.
Though evoking such universal horror makes the translations feel timeless, it also invites readers to situate Hagiwara in his historical context, the impending fissure between Japan and the West at the end of his life.
Hagiwara’s contemporary tone is haunting and feels, ultimately, relevant — his poems carry the urgency of Franz Wright’s work and the surrealism of Paul Celan’s. His poems are not the sentimental haiku or tanka. In fact, Hagiwara’s poems are free verse and do not rhyme in either Japanese or English. I wonder if Sato has something to do with this — did he, I ask, contemporize the language at all to amplify the urgency of these poems? “The main criticism I receive as a translator,” he offers, “is that I am slavishly faithful to the original text.”
Longing is perhaps Hagiwara’s most notable affliction, and unsettling anxiety pervades each poem, suggesting the presence, or recent departure, of the beloved. Hagiwara is at his best here, in full lovelorn mode, his language rich and intense:
I would like to ply forks of pure silver with a woman
I love. Someday, once in my life, I would like to steal
and eat that love-plate of skylarks, which gleams in the sky.
Surrealism here seems to offer a balm to the wound, maybe even emptiness, that he feels so profoundly. What is true of commerce is also true of love: people want what they can’t have. The fantasy is often the most interesting part of the process; possession of the lover is less enticing because there is no longer anything to work toward, in one’s mind or in reality. Ownership, then, is the death of the imagination.
Perhaps this explains partially why Hagiwara could not approach women, or did not want to. Perhaps he understood that to possess someone else would take away the fantasies that were so integral to his creative process, both the process of creating beauty, and that of cultivating his own pain. His distance from women may have allowed him to imagine and project that desired intimacy, emotionally but unsentimentally, onto the world around him:
I painted rouge on my lips,
and kissed the trunk of a new birch,
even if I were a handsome man …
If you’ve spent any significant time around professional poets, you know they are often as hilarious as they are serious. And comedians offer some of the darkest revelations. The word “funny,” in fact, has several meanings: “amusing, humorous, witty,” as well as “peculiar, odd, queer,” as well as “suspicious, suspect, dubious.” This threefold definition is certainly at play in Hagiwara’s work — though he doesn’t always seem aware of the hyperbole of his own self-pity, occasionally he pops his head up and seems to analyze the joke itself, as in “Cat Town,” the ruminative prose-poem novella at the very end of the collection. Here, earnestness verges on irony, but never distance. He meditates on the underlying desires behind his addictions. He does not actually strive for love, women, attention, or even poetry, but simply escapism. “I lost any interest in travel, the romance of it,” he writes, disillusioned. Instead, he travels on a drug-induced interior journey:
… Instead of opium which requires you to go to a great deal of trouble for utensils and equipment and which, at the same time, is hard to get in Japan, I most often used morphine and cocaine, which you can use by simple injection, or orally. As for the countries I traveled in the ecstatic dreams induced by narcotics, I don’t have enough room to detail them here. But in most cases I traveled in marshy areas swimming with frogs or a coastal region, near the Arctic, where penguins are.
Toward the end of “Cat Town,” he asks finally, “Am I the butterfly in the dream or am I the one here now?”
The mental is as real, not more real, than the world around him. Even as Hagiwara withdraws into himself, he remains nature’s vessel, an example of the possibilities of transformation. This question seems to apply to the way we read Sato’s translations, too. Maybe we don’t need to choose one perspective, but can read the poems as private and public, historical, and timeless. The works are not solely disturbed, nor are they happy; they are — however — ecstatic with language, drunk off images, manic — that extreme state which, though not often healthy, encompasses the full spectrum of human emotions. In their debauchery, they never lose their focus, but become wilder by becoming more vividly profound. In this way, Hagiwara puts his finger on the pulse of absurdity in everyday life.
For non-poetry readers, Hagiwara’s book is an important historical document, as well as a connective thread between Eastern and Western culture. There is no gap between the Modern American man and the Modern Japanese man, both isolated, riding trains underground for hours every day, grappling with their addictions to drugs, porn, alcohol. Cat Town is less a work of insurmountable genius than a correspondence from a literary peer, reaching forward through the decades to shake us gently and remind us what every eighth-grade history teacher tried to impart: history repeats itself. Be kind to one another. Mostly, be kind to yourself.
As I gear up to leave dinner, Sato and I listen to a few recordings of old Sylvia Plath poems. The recordings are so old, in fact, that there is hardly a trace of the strange British accent she developed later in her life. She reads instead with a pure, baby-like American accent, with little to no affect. To what extent did she turn her own life into a performance and does the performative aspect mitigate the very real pain she was feeling? I think again of this idea that a performance of pain is still pain. For Hagiwara, the performance of pain took a lifetime to execute and negated most opportunities for real human connection. Ultimately, it was not love, but work itself that offered (and continues to offer) him a connection to the outside world. I ask Sato if he still writes his own poems, outside of his work as a translator. He says he stopped a long time ago, but adds with a wink that he used to, “back when I was young and no one loved me.”