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The Mexico City metro is an unlikely–but not illogical–place to read the tankas of the Japanese erotic poet Tatsuhiko Ishii. I read his lines in the mornings, en route to my teaching job at a campus of the national university, which is a touch northwest of the city’s border. I often read while standing, occasionally disrupted by the shouts of people hawking miscellaneous objects, or by the arrhythmic ebb and flow of the train car, often while my skin touched the skin of a stranger, or many strangers.

Time with a lacquer-black mane eats up——. All those things that are alive. This is an emblematic line of Ishii’s, discovered between other, far more opaque lines—a severe image, contaminated by the effort of meaning. A book begins to wed with the landscape it interrupts; when we read, we should admit to ourselves that we are asking two sceneries to speak. The chaos and philosophy of Ishii’s poetry patterned well, I’d come to decide, with my mornings in the crowded train car. I could feel the ruckus of my inner world (the poems), and the ruckus of my outer one (my commute past the edge of a foreign city) starting to chemically fuse, reaching a shared coherence via mutual delirium.

It is difficult to speak about the poems of Tatsuhiko Ishii—this alone may be a testament to their lyric accomplishment. I often found myself frustrated by them, then frustrated at myself for my own frustration. Each poem is made of a series of tankas, the ancient Japanese poetic form traditionally utilizing a 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count, sometimes compared to a sonnet for its pivoting image, analogous to a volta. Ishii, considered a contemporary master and remixer of the form, and the author of a dozen books of tanka, collapses the entire tanka into one line, pressurizing it to contend with topics as relentless as desire, death, time, God, and history. In this book, which collects poems written over three decades, Ishii shoves his subjects uncomfortably close to one another: “The one I’m grappling with—        is God? Touching the bone on the young man’s thighs, my hot hand.” To crowd together our many concerns, Ishii reminds us, has everything to do with being alive. Our flesh and our souls cannot make sense together: “My body is a garment of lead!        Without this, my heart, would have an excursion, in, Crystal Heaven.” 

Where did my frustration at this beautiful book come from? Perhaps it is caused by the unlikely grammatical choices of translator Hiroaki Sato, who I imagine was either keeping a rigid fidelity to the original architecture of the Japanese lines—at any semantic or sonic cost—or transposing an experimental, irrational syntax made by Ishii. (“Intermittent and yet sharp a singing voice”—would a translator more beholden to readerly creaselessness opt for something like “a singing voice, intermittent and yet sharp”? Then there are the occasionally incessant, illogical commas, which can come to feel like a gimmick: “Look, here, again, another, addict. . . .”).

But maybe the frustration comes, too, from the sheer difficulty of reading these poems as complete. Each poem is made from pages of tankas which often betray their successors and predecessors. A scene begins: “The night the sweat from heavenly being’s armpits smells in the bathhouse, with someone, staring. . . .” and then is promptly abandoned in the clamor of a declaration: “Thou shan’t talk of life’s hecticness! Above your head, even the immovable mountain sways.” I could feel, at times, the lines’ desires for independence from their surroundings, longing to be poems in themselves, instead held captive by their location in a larger linguistic landscape, though these are poems that ultimately do not wish to be whole.

If literature is made alive through contact—the reader and writer’s co-fabrication—then when a piece seems to fail, who can say which party is to blame? Often, individual tankas felt impenetrable to me—I couldn’t grasp meaning from them, but more consequentially, I couldn’t love them. “My mind is not the right shape for these poems,” I thought many times during my reading. But the parts, in the end, proved greater than the sum. Every once in a while, a single tanka’s coarse beauty would leave me pausing in its wake for minutes, awed by the machine of an image, or by the battered music of a theory. The backyard has cosmos all over it. These phrases of Ishii’s invaded my mind, hanging on in my consciousness well past the doors of the metro car. It won’t go away! The odor of time…….even if we light the candle with a scent of gardenia. I will keep these translucent shards of Ishii’s book, once I forget the confusion and failure of other large sections of it. Perhaps my confoundment and oblivion as a reader is OK, in the end: “The reader is wordless,” Ishii reminds us, while on the other hand the voices of the dead rise every time I turn a page.”

Ishii is promiscuous with the contexts of his poems. He travels from the aftermath of 9/11 to the eleventh century, from the doorway of a bathhouse to the foot of a volcano. It would be easy to argue that his leaps across time and place result in some political blunders. One uniquely egregious example comes in the form of a poem titled “At the Foot of Popocatéptl.”      “They did not know love,” Ishii writes, “neither the conquistadors who swarmed in from the sea nor the half-naked kings.” I would assert that this is an instance, one of several others, wherein Ishii displays a remarkable arrogance in the face of history, a hubris-ridden posture that is detrimental to his larger poetic project (which, to be clear, I love). Perhaps one could defend the line by claiming he is simply holding close to a pessimism about human nature in general, which is evidenced across the poems: “What we truly ought to fear (yes!) is mankind.” In another place: “in a city vivid with the scars of mankind.” Still, I’m unconvinced. Ishii’s description of the colonial encounter carries the watermark of a false omniscience—a poet playing the part of God. Who is to say if a person, glimpsed through the dark glass of history, knew love? If I were to wish something for this book, I would wish for Ishii to be as humble in the face of history as he is in the face of time. 

But I will take these poems’ clatters and failures, if it means I can have their light. I am OK, as a reader, with such concessions. These twenty-eight tanka sequences, spreading out over one hundred and thirty-five pages, will grant many inverse gifts: beauty and murk, centuries and instants, insight and vertigo. The erotic is a hum throughout the lines; when it is not the poet’s subject, it becomes the poet’s manner. Or maybe it is a present absence, a thin covering placed over the minute and the disastrous: “From the shower, the morning spurts out,” and “the forest is burning the color of mauve.” I write this in the margins of Ishii’s book: the erotic is a refuge, a disposition which makes life bearable.

Recently, in the crowded metro car, I’ve missed the bizarre veil offered to me by these tankas—their landscapes and erratic projections, the whirring of Ishii’s mind. To become a human who must die means to have a shadow. A human is a human because she has a shadow, Ishii writes to us. A shadow: the wake of our bodies on a landscape, something fathomless and untouchable. Of course Ishii is a shadow lover, obsessed as he is with the irrevocable stain of our lives on the world. Perhaps it is the object of our poetry to better reform the geometry our bodies cast behind us. “Stepping off the subway,” Ishii writes, “I’ve become a man who forms his shadow.”

Bathhouse and Other Tanka by Tatsuhiko Ishii, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions, 2023).

© 2023 by Ricardo Frasso Jaramillo. All rights reserved.