Reviewed by Thomas Fink for Press 1

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According to the Introduction to Spectacle & Pigsty, Kiwao Nomura´s ''inspired work as a writer, editor, performer, organizer, and critic has altered the landscape of contemporary Japanese literature'' (13).

Born in 1951, Nomura has won prestigious prizes for his poetry, which is described as ''iconoclastic-- at once playful and heady, saturated by his interest in philosophy, Japanese shamanism, music and art.''

Although I visit Japan often, my reading ability in Japanese is extremely slight, and I have a scant background in modern and contemporary Japanese poetry. Therefore, I can neither evaluate the work of Japanese novelist and translator Kyoko Yoshida and eminent U.S. poet Forrest Gander on the right-hand pages of this
Selected Poems, nor assess Nomura´s place in his immediate literary context. I can, however, ponder how the poetry reads in English, in the United States at this time.

One pervasive feature of the volume is the multiple use of an initial parenthesis, sometimes only several words apart, in the course of long sentences in poems without periods. Often, as in ''The Sea Beyond This World,'' there is no terminal parenthesis to close the succession (or regress) of parenthetical interruptions. The Projective Charles Olson often used opening parentheses that did not close to indicate the process-ual character of thinking in and through verse, as Nomura does, but the latter makes denser and more liberal use of the device. Another stylistic tendency (that I cannot compare to the Japanese on the left side) is the colorful, sometimes scientific vocabulary: ''serpenting'' and ''horripilation'' (41), ''atrabilious'' (51), ''perineumize'' (in the playful, oddly erotic ''Panegyric to the Perineum,'' 63), ''breathmouth'' (71), ''nerve ants'' ( 41, 43), ''organ-monger'' (41, 43), ''brustling'' (119), and ''Felicity Substance Channel'' (121).

In Nomura´s parenthetically enclosed title-poem, the unpunctuated tercets with alternation of short and long (or medium-length) lines and the refrain ''it's pigsty I'' in each have an incantatory quality. There is a kind of surreal limit-bursting that readers of U.S. poetry find in Allen Ginsberg and other Beats. The poem begins ''it's pigsty I/ the darkness maybe darkness stupendously stretching out now like taffy/ man fed up with man star with star'' (19). Not only is human community in peril here, but cosmic misalignment seems evident. Although the simile of ''taffy'' might be a sign of the domestication of ''darkness,'' the latter could infect the benign connotations of the former, as a negative aura spreads over the environment and sticks to things. The poet associates psychological decay in the ''pigsty'' of self with his mother's physical distress: ''below Mother's diseased pineal gland/ it's pigsty I/ screaming drowning in a dark that fenestrates the eternal joist'' and, two tercets later, ''gushing sunlight like nightsoil onto the eternal joist// or the nightsoil like sunlight.''

Violent melancholy transforms the ultimate source of maintenance into dung that menaces or at least fouls the myth of structural support, though ''nightsoil'' (fertilizer) is also converted into solar power that could batter the ''joist'' as much as it could strengthen it. Not only noise but ''silence'' is composed of (useful) detritus: the “I/ who mulch silence’s muck” is subject to derangement of any psychological order: “everyday is vertigo its margins boiling over like foam/. . . eyeing pieces of I in bewilderment. . .” (19). The attempt at self-scrutiny does not yield a single coherent mirror-image but the bewildering, vertiginous prospect of ego-fragments. Abjection here is conveyed through frenetic insects stabbing seemingly immobilized flesh: “babbling bugs clamoring through the perforations/ it’s like I’m coming down with a rash of pinheads” (21). In such an atmosphere of invasion and dislocation, the speaker likens the act of giving birth to defecation, and his apostrophe to the dying mother-figure involves a plea for protective yet ghastly reincorporation that is reminiscent of but not identical to the sexist stereotype of the son-devouring mother: “swallow me swallow me Mother expiring/ and never again shit me out.” (See also, a differently yet equally agitated appeal to the mother in “[On Pigsty”], 113.)

“On Prose” chronicles the speaker’s experience of his mother’s actual death. “Hurrying to see” her “along the highway that stretches west from Tokyo,” he is foiled by congested traffic and receives a cell phone call: “I pulled over. . . / and listened to a relative’s voice tell me the hour of my mother’s end. . .” (29). Almost immediately, as though to reinforce the message of mortality, “a large tanker truck/ whooshed past within inches of [his] car,” and the poem proceeds to record his involuntary focus on the absurdly ordinary “prose” of images and processes surrounding him, as if dwarfing or mocking what has occurred elsewhere: “I committed all of it to memory/ compelled to remember.” Oddly, remembering these details is a way of marking his mother’s passing through displacement and thus paying respect to her. In a modified Heideggerian sense, this rite of passage signifies the son’s being thrown into the world without his original protection from its speeding trucks: “In other words/ I lost at that moment the residue of my umbilical cord/ and definitively tumbled into the world/ or rather into the universe/. . . it was the moment of my second nativity” (29, 31). This “born again” experience entails both his sense of apartness from those dwelling alongside him and his consciousness of his existence as temporally finite.

Nomura’s poetry also includes international travel as a subject, but his depiction of Manhattan in “(On Manhattan”) analyzes the borough as a simulacrum within a process of perception rather than trying to bestow the “real” island’s sensory features on readers: “Manhattan is/ to approach Manhattan” (57). One’s anticipation, along with other memories of travel, creates a map that stimulates what subjective impressions emerge upon arrival. Opening parentheses suggest layers of perception/interpretation:

it’s all about the approach
Manhattan is
its own desert (perhaps

and finally
like a distant mirage
the silhouette of that throng of skyscrapers comes clear
we are thrilled a little (from the oasis of Erfoud lush with date palms
thirty kilometers by Land Rover (beyond
the tracts of dirt and rocks
graceful (so exquisitely graceful
golden swells of dunes rising (we
were thrilled a little

Manhattan is
nothing but a marvel of nature (perhaps

behind the neighboring (Queens?
Brooklyn? buildings and billboards it slinks
off and disappears (disappears
and reappears (meanwhile
growing more intense
the pleasures of approach
the anguish of approach. (57)

Mirages come to the fore in actual deserts like “the Moroccan desert” that “finally” appeared to the speaker and his wife, because the travelers desire vibrant presences amid the “barren” expanse of landscape that can signify absence or emptiness to them. “That throng of skyscrapers” may have its own intricate, complex actuality, but the “distant” vision of it is simplified into “silhouette.” What “comes clear” to the previously anxious travelers may be illusory, yet they can be “thrilled” by such “exquisitely graceful” illusion. The perceiving subject regards Manhattan as “a marvel of nature,” because of his discovery of how “buildings and billboards” and vehicles and other human-made and natural “objects” are part of an unpredictable process of disclosure, concealment, and whatever exists between the two. The play of contrasting aspects and of appearance/disappearance that the traveler processes in encountering this environment engenders subtle shifts in affective responses: “and then/ as though to shield it again/ an elevated subway’s rusty viaduct (rusty in pure bright auburn (behind/ which the throng of skyscrapers/ stand in contrast like the light and shade of America herself” (59). Nomura associates the multiplicity of the experience of Manhattan with the heterogeneity of race, class, and other cultural features in the U.S. itself, particularly in metropolitan centers. His repeated trope of “mesh” indicate thes “shielding” and “unbinding” that characterizes an alternation of “pure ferocity” and welcome/openness. The unconventionally placed parentheses announce that the poet is not revealing a static, inherent ontology of this urban goliath but an account of how perceptual subjectivity flowers in time.

“On the Way to the Site of Doppo’s Lodge,” the book’s longest poem at twelve pages and one that includes a variety of free-verse patterns, prose, and strophe-breaks, further extends the insights of “(On Manhattan)” about travel—this time, “a pilgrimage to the place where Kunikida Doppo, a celebrated poet from the turn of the century, once lived” (“Introduction,” 13). As “a historical marker of the spot where Doppo once lived,” the Introduction states, the site “is real” but also unreal, “since the lodge collapsed long ago and the city of Tokyo has risen around its ruin.” The poem contains numerous figures for the basic absence of Doppo and the lodge from his one-time environment and for traces of presence. At the beginning, during the speaker’s journey to the site, he notices “suddenly, beams of light/ bend into sight and interlace—// as if/ circling the vacancy called vacancy while staying vacancy transcends vacancy, averting earth and/ earth-averting shards” (77). Language and light point not only to material substance but to consciousness of its absence. The verb “called” between the two first uses of “vacancy” underscores naming as the means by which a concept too abstract for sensory re-presentation can be transmitted to an audience, and transcendence of conditions of absence seems available only through paradox.

The speaker hopes that geographical space can help him reach Doppo’s spirit, “like a sleeping butterfly,/ folded, and hidden away” (77). The task is to pay attention when “a path abruptly opens” during one’s perambulatory “drift” (see the Introduction’s discussion of Guy Debord’s Situationism) to learn “how to locate a trace in the flickering. . .” (79). This quest for traces, bridges between presence and absence, accounts for numerous instances of repetition in the poem; re-naming is intended to re-call into being historical lore long “hidden away.” Exfoliation of nominative language should reconstitute a “nest” (home, in German, heim) for the lost uncanny (unheimlich):

Names exfoliate in a back-eddy of breeze
for a time and times
with its asphyxiated egg inside, the nest survives active indifference,
abeyant
not inside not outside of nobody’s brain
the lodge site as a nest of questions,
Doppo’s quiet pas seul. (79)

Even if the exfoliation of names is peripheral (“back-eddy” like “back burner”) to a current culture that practices “active indifference” to the legacy of figures like Doppo, the “egg” is not thoroughly “asphyxiated.” The “nest’s” survival involves deferral of presencing and centrality. Multiple negations in the fourth line above may cancel each other out to show that the nest exists somewhere inside and outside of functioning brains, or they may suggest that the nest is not to be found in annihilation of consciousness. “Lightbeams” do not necessarily offer access to truth but to reading of challenging, even mystically tinged signifiers (“incunabula”). The nest, then, questions origins; not a solid structure, home is purposeful inquiry itself. Further, Doppo’s current “quiet” or speechlessness evinces doubleness: the French pas seul can be translated as both “not alone” but as “walk (or pace) alone.” (However, I read enough Japanese to know that there is no katakana to indicate French words in the original lines on the left-hand side, and there is hiragana that does not spell out “pas seul.”)

Relying only on “a single post” that “marks the spot” (81), Nomura informs us that “vacancy” is “called a vacant lot, where they’ll dump a high-rise,” a gesture of effacement. Reading has the potential to be archeological recuperation and/or loss of contact with the past. “As if these kanji [Chinese characters] only iterate reciprocal disjunctions and conjunctions, and finally extirpate their own roots,” the poet writes in a paragraph that speaks of the danger of “drift yes drift,” yet he asserts that the fact that “they are read” makes them “step beyond their own structure,” allowing for supplementary possibilities of restoration. On the other hand, “they dissolve in the excess of illegible traces, and so they abide inside their own structure.” Whatever is currently unreadable about traces that could otherwise help us access historical information allows the kanji to resist diachronic contextualization and “protect themselves” from tampering with their structure through an aura of impenetrability.

While multiplying commas and gathering various figures of absence and presence, Nomura acknowledges that the “lodge site” is “barely there,/ as if, just, to prevail over its perishing,/ by virtue of its dearth, effaced, by excess,/ as if, such that, the very trace,/ is barely there, Doppo, it is” (87). In the final section of his perambulating poem of “crawltwisterectdeviatecrossinterlacewear” (89), the poet repeatedly claims that “it is,/ infinitely there” (99). Intense emotion—“we are one after another overcome”—gives authority to “thereness.” One like Kyoko Yoshida who can read “On the Way to the Site. . .” and Doppo’s writing intertextually could flesh out a network, nest, or mesh of allusions that would elucidate the lyric buildup to such an assured conclusion, even as the problem of recuperating traces is ever fraught with abyssal obstacles in the spectacular “pigsty” of continual cultural (re)assessment.