Reviewed by Andrew Joron for Lana Turner: a Journal of Poetry & Opinion

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The longstanding and oft-noted affinity between Japanese and French culture—first formulated under the term japonisme in Mallarmé’s time—comes to the fore once more in the work of contemporary Japanese poet Kiwao Nomura. Japonisme was originally conceived as a cross-cultural impressionism of fleeting elegance, of delicate verbal and visual constructions always on the verge of vanishment. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the ties between the two cultures were not broken but persisted through the turbulence of early modernism, especially with the Japanese reception of, and response to, French surrealism. Nomura, as the author of a critical monograph on Rimbaud, certainly has an eye on this tradition: his poetry is strewn with lusts and chasms enough to conjure not only the convulsive beauty of surrealist aesthetics but also to echo the screams and crashes of Noh and Butoh performance styles. Even viewed through the inevitable blurrings of translation into English, Nomura’s poetry grimaces and dances with a kind of “convulsive grace.”
Spectacle & Pigsty furnishes a selection of poems from the entire span of the poet’s career (however, the individual poems as assembled here are not identified by date or collection title, so it is difficult to get a sense of the poet’s development). “Pigsty” turns out to be one of Nomura’s keywords, as a descriptor of the condition of the ego:

it’s pigsty I
the darkness maybe darkness stupendously stretching out now like taffy
man fed up with man star with star

it’s pigsty I
pity the pig that eternally returns
to the darkness as spattering splotches of light

below Mother’s diseased pineal gland
it’s pigsty I
screaming drowning in a dark that fenestrates the eternal joist

By all accounts, Nomura is capable of realizing the energized abjection of his verse in equally energetic reading-performances, thereby placing himself in the lineage of Mavo, a largely forgotten Japanese avant-garde movement of the twenties that specialized in Dada and surrealist-inspired cultural transgressions. As Gennifer Weisenfeld states in her groundbreaking study of the movement, “Mavo writings maintained a high pitch: people did not ‘say,’ they ‘screamed’ (sakebu), intensifying the sense of anxiety and crisis.” In his “Panegyric to the Perineum,” Nomura writes “perhaps I’m the first/ poet to write about the perineum” and imagines “going down the banks of the perineum,” yet Weisenfeld points out that already in the twenties, “Mavo artists also often expressed their criticism in scatological terms. Language about vomit, diarrhea, and feces as well as other bodily elements appeared repeatedly.” While the cultivation of grotesquerie must be seen as a most important element of Nomura’s work, his blackly humorous fetishization of body parts and functions often modulates into more lyrically cerebral dislocations of a reality “glimpsed from far above,” from which “nothing is transmitted but the sound of phantom snowdust.” At such moments, his work becomes reminiscent of the melancholy songfulness of the great Japanese surrealist poet Takiguchi Shuzo (who flourished in the twenties and thirties). Nomura references an even earlier moment of the literary past in his long poem “On the Way to the Site of Doppo’s Lodge.” Doppo was a Meiji-era novelist and writer of love poetry; the site of his lodge appears to Nomura as an empty plot of ground. Alternating between prose and poetry, this nine-part sequence (dedicated to Victor Segalen, a fin de siécle French poet steeped in Eastern mysticisim) amounts to a meditation on time as a process of erasure. Succumbing to an archetypally postmodern condition, the poet finds the historical context he was seeking to be at once “infinitely there” and “infinitely inaccessible.” The question of the literary context of Nomura’s own work is left unanswered in the (unsigned) introduction to this volume; instead, his work is situated only within a constellation of four Western philosophers (Nietzsche, Levinas, Debord, and Deleuze). Relying on what can be seen through the screen of translation, I would provisionally described Nomura as a practioner of neo-Mavo. But whatever his true provenance may be, this volume successfully transmits some of the energy of an important Japanese contemporary poet into an English-speaking context.