Kiwao Nomura: Spectacle & Pigsty Translated by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander

Review by Eric Selland

(OMNIDAWN, 2011)

What if we were to think of translation not as the correspondence of words and meanings, that is, not in terms of that artificial dichotomy of the ostensibly “faithful” translation and its opposite, but rather in terms of energy release. How does the translation reproduce the rhythms and tone, the momentum of the work—its literal raw force? Accessing this force and expressing it in language that works is exactly what Forrest Gander and Kyoko Yoshida succeed in doing in their translation of Japanese experimental poet Kiwao Nomura. Pound’s Vorticist theory of poetry as energy release come to mind when we read lines like these from “and when I embraced you” (25):

and when I embraced you       summer was over
from the suburbs of the gushing night       to the city the mundane resumed
rushing home in my car       over the hill
I saw a bottle rocket exploding

Here the translators maintain the foreword movement and sense of breathlessness in Nomura’s original. This is one of the essential things one loses in the ostensibly “correct” translation, the one made up of dictionary equivalences. Instead, the translators reenact the dynamic of the original, choosing to concentrate more on the effect of the poem, its sounds, rhythms, and momentum.

Kiwao Nomura is the rock star of new poetry in Japan. To call a poet a rock star would be an oxymoron in this country, but Nomura has, despite the difficulty of the work (which Nomura not only admits to, but also revels in), actually developed quite a following.

Nomura’s work dissolves conventional meaning relationships while disrupting many of the formal mechanisms that traditionally make poetry recognizable as poetry. Chief amongst these, and one that would immediately catch the Japanese reader with a more traditional literary education off guard, is the use of plain speech rather than a more formal poetic language (i.e. poetry as a privileged or heightened language). This dismantling of the frame, which, in visual art terms, communicates to the viewer that what they are seeing is a painting, i.e. art, allows the poem to explode beyond its boundaries, producing a trajectory that moves in multiple directions at once, as in “The Sea Beyond This World”:

a sea beyond this world (what if
there was (just a (fuzz
of thought I had (imagination is dead
imagine (we’re told for untold ages to imagine (53)

Here the conventional flow of meaning and sentence structure is interrupted by open parenthesis, stops and starts, hesitations that break and then lead the poem in yet a new direction. Significant to note here also is the lack of the personal pronoun in the original of these lines. Though the convention in Japanese is to assume the presence of the subject, its absence here is paramount—ultimately there is no speaker of the poem. The line, “imagination is dead / imagine,” is a quote famous amongst poets of Nomura’s generation from Minoru Yoshioka, one of Japan’s most influential avant-garde poets and one of Nomura’s influences. But the quote is tossed around playfully like a child’s rubber ball and then nonchalantly tossed to the side. The tone of the poem, much like in Ashbery, does not take itself seriously, yet Nomura is dead serious.

Nomura’s poetry can be extremely complex, with difficult syntax, stops and starts, and odd uses of punctuation, which act as disruptions that frustrate the reader’s attempt to read the poem in a traditional way, as “expression” or metaphor. But at the same time the work can be playful and even humorous and gains its dynamic, its tendency to rush forward to some unknown destination through Nomura’s rhythmical sensibility and tendency to work from sound. Many of the syntactic difficulties are not possible to imitate in English, but it is precisely this incantatory energy that Gander and Yoshida are so successful in rendering.

nightly     we are taken
to the place no one goes     the place no one arrives
without farewell to those we love
the myriad devil masks of children     come for us (115)

Again the rhythmical, forward movement, takes the reader to a strange, unknown place or state where children become magical beings and snow is an otherworldly omen. Nomura is well-known in Japan for his study of Rimbaud from a Deleuzian standpoint as well as many other critical and scholarly works, but his sense of playfulness and sound brings energy to his work and give it a rounded character in a project that might otherwise become merely dry and intellectual.

The long poem, “On the Way to the Site of Doppo’s Lodge,” is perhaps the most important of Nomura’s works dealt with here, as well as one of the more successfully translated. It is a beautiful exposition of his technique of deconstructing and reconfiguring thematic material, language, and poetic structure, as well as a means of locating himself within his own literary tradition.

On the way to the site of Doppo’s lodge,
toward, Doppo,—

 (when suddenly, beams of light
bend into sight and interlace— (77)

The poem’s theme (or perhaps conceit) is a stroll through the streets of Tokyo in search of the place where Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908), an early modern novelist, once lived. The search takes the poet through multiple digressions and plays on language such as the kanji characters making up Doppo’s name, ultimately never arriving at his destination, a destination that may never have existed in the first place. The journey in its twists and turns is not only an exposition of Nomura’s poetics, but possibly his comment on the modern Japanese myth of return to the native place assumed to be more authentic than the actual, contemporary reality. Obviously, the contemporary, urban reality with its prismatic effects is more interesting to Nomura.

(Ah, nothing but a single post marks the spot)
a voice once launched into an airspace
an airspace I still
fervently read at
the site of Doppo’s lodge
(on hungry stones in dirt between infinitesimal city blocks) (81)


 As if these kanji only iterate reciprocal disjunctions and conjunctions, and finally extirpate their own roots…(81)

 This accessible and intellectually engaging  translation does a great service to the American poetry readership in offering an introduction to one of Japan’s major contemporary experimental poets Yoshida and Gander make the perfect pair for a team/collaborative translation—Yoshida provides not merely linguistic assistance but also her background as a novelist and avid reader of Nomura’s work, while Gander, with his long history of familiarity with the Japanese language and Japan’s literary culture, does not merely “poeticize” but maintains a much deeper engagement with the work. We have here a window opened onto a dynamic and contemporary poetic tradition that readers in the US might otherwise lack the opportunity to discover.