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Poetry

Riverwilt

By Nomura Kiwao
Translated from Japanese by Angus Turvill
"Kawanae" (Riverwilt) is the title poem from my first collection. It was written when I was about thirty—at the end of my youth—and I worked hard in the poem to bring together a number of themes and images that I had developed up to that point. It is a poem that is full of memories for me. Kawanae is a word I coined myself—in ordinary Japanese the words kawa (river) and naeru (to wither/droop/wilt) do not combine. I was born in the countryside near Tokyo and played a lot in rivers when I was a boy, catching crayfish and so on. The land was much closer to me than it is today. There was a large space that I shared with plants and animals. At its core for me was a compound image of Mother-Water-Snake. Kawanae is how I referred to the distancing of that world. Perhaps the poem was a small attempt to crystallize this in language and thereby preserve it forever. That was of course impossible. I suppose all that remains through the piece is the uncontrollable oscillation of language, or the sensuality of the act of writing itself. Perhaps that is the very nature of writing the land in the postmodern period. –Nomura Kiwao
The riverwilt I must set down
Before the riverwilt pulls me down
Can I get across—Walk across?
           (In front of the house, they’re not there now, but in an oak tree, where branches spread out like a maze, they’re not there now, but like a place where echoes gather, where tree spirits gather, I climbed to a fork in the tree, and just as I was dozing off, no that’s not right, reading some erotic, no that’s not right, more gynaecological, probably that kind of book)
Can I get across—
Walk across?
                      (Reading that kind of book excitedly, unexpectedly my mother, unexpectedly)
The transient
Border realm of snake
Its breathing gentleness of skin,
                        (That’s right, my mother unexpectedly came to the foot of the tree, there’s a snake in the house, she said, her face pale, I jumped down toward that writhing neck omen of bad fortune, I loped toward it, but the book, what did I)
Getting up in the morning
Unsearched-for light blazing
Astride the steam in the kitchen
                       (What did I do with the book? Empty-handed nervously, so nervously, we)
Going up the elevator
Going down the elevator
                       (Want something to believe in? Forever wanting something to believe in? If so, here under the sun, the sky drooping wet pig hair, move ahead, with smart alveolus, ahead from the aimlessness of reality, from the certainty of imagination, and keep standing)
Wrapped
In those legs, Yuko Goes All-Out
That poster, as if breathless at the poster
West Entrance, Shinjuku Station,
At the end, the far end
Of the windless Keio Mall,
A soft wall, out of sight
Until we vanish together.
                                    (But anyway the snake, its head raised, came out from a lintel, that’s right, they’re not there now, the raised head facing us, an ancestral spirit has come to see how things are, so you mustn’t kill it, said my mother.)
No, that’s not right
If it’s a spirit send it out on the water
If it’s
Like those great complexes of muscles
That are not here now
                                    (So encouraged by my mother, I took the snake, clinging to the end of a bamboo stick, clinging, to the stream behind the house, to the stream like golden bovine flow, I took the snake, the snake took me, the snake via me, I don’t know which)
The stalk of the sun
The ultimate life power of the sun
                                    (I don’t know which, but anyway, the cause is far distant, far behind, instinctively I held my breath, I pushed down into place the rustling leaves, the rustling words)
With smart alveolus,
Listening to the prattle of the wind
The bracken shoots of memory passed,
                                    (Looking back, my mother was not there, instead, a myrtle tree, and what of the snake? At the end of my arm, at the end of the stick at the end of my arm, it was already a path, stretching out)
Our bodies
Cut up into parts. How dare they?
A sudden mound. How could it?
Saying how in the blood of those who try to live ordinary lives,
Uncrushed like grass underfoot
Is mixed bitter diluvial earth.
                                    (Like a light yearning)
Read in the inedible stalks of kerria flowers
On the sick
River bank
What
Worries
May come flooding in
Waves
                                    (Waves? Stretching out, riverwilt? And unified with half-sleep I cannot follow back to those faint hundred forking branches, which though cut and cut, still grow, stretching out, human faces, protozoa.)
Yes, although our ancestors’
Beautiful desire for copulation blows like wind,
                                    (Calling human faces, protozoa, making an extraordinary cross-section that really cannot be, repelling all water, I crowd together, I am the snake, the snake is me.)
There
As it were all meanings push together
And no meaning comes out
This is riverwilt
                                    (For now I’ll just give it that name, repelling all water, still)
Can I get across—
Walk across?

川萎え 
© Nomura Kiwao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Angus Turvill. All rights reserved.
Read About Context Explore
The riverwilt I must set down
Before the riverwilt pulls me down
Can I get across—Walk across?
           (In front of the house, they’re not there now, but in an oak tree, where branches spread out like a maze, they’re not there now, but like a place where echoes gather, where tree spirits gather, I climbed to a fork in the tree, and just as I was dozing off, no that’s not right, reading some erotic, no that’s not right, more gynaecological, probably that kind of book)
Can I get across—
Walk across?
                      (Reading that kind of book excitedly, unexpectedly my mother, unexpectedly)
The transient
Border realm of snake
Its breathing gentleness of skin,
                        (That’s right, my mother unexpectedly came to the foot of the tree, there’s a snake in the house, she said, her face pale, I jumped down toward that writhing neck omen of bad fortune, I loped toward it, but the book, what did I)
Getting up in the morning
Unsearched-for light blazing
Astride the steam in the kitchen
                       (What did I do with the book? Empty-handed nervously, so nervously, we)
Going up the elevator
Going down the elevator
                       (Want something to believe in? Forever wanting something to believe in? If so, here under the sun, the sky drooping wet pig hair, move ahead, with smart alveolus, ahead from the aimlessness of reality, from the certainty of imagination, and keep standing)
Wrapped
In those legs, Yuko Goes All-Out
That poster, as if breathless at the poster
West Entrance, Shinjuku Station,
At the end, the far end
Of the windless Keio Mall,
A soft wall, out of sight
Until we vanish together.
                                    (But anyway the snake, its head raised, came out from a lintel, that’s right, they’re not there now, the raised head facing us, an ancestral spirit has come to see how things are, so you mustn’t kill it, said my mother.)
No, that’s not right
If it’s a spirit send it out on the water
If it’s
Like those great complexes of muscles
That are not here now
                                    (So encouraged by my mother, I took the snake, clinging to the end of a bamboo stick, clinging, to the stream behind the house, to the stream like golden bovine flow, I took the snake, the snake took me, the snake via me, I don’t know which)
The stalk of the sun
The ultimate life power of the sun
                                    (I don’t know which, but anyway, the cause is far distant, far behind, instinctively I held my breath, I pushed down into place the rustling leaves, the rustling words)
With smart alveolus,
Listening to the prattle of the wind
The bracken shoots of memory passed,
                                    (Looking back, my mother was not there, instead, a myrtle tree, and what of the snake? At the end of my arm, at the end of the stick at the end of my arm, it was already a path, stretching out)
Our bodies
Cut up into parts. How dare they?
A sudden mound. How could it?
Saying how in the blood of those who try to live ordinary lives,
Uncrushed like grass underfoot
Is mixed bitter diluvial earth.
                                    (Like a light yearning)
Read in the inedible stalks of kerria flowers
On the sick
River bank
What
Worries
May come flooding in
Waves
                                    (Waves? Stretching out, riverwilt? And unified with half-sleep I cannot follow back to those faint hundred forking branches, which though cut and cut, still grow, stretching out, human faces, protozoa.)
Yes, although our ancestors’
Beautiful desire for copulation blows like wind,
                                    (Calling human faces, protozoa, making an extraordinary cross-section that really cannot be, repelling all water, I crowd together, I am the snake, the snake is me.)
There
As it were all meanings push together
And no meaning comes out
This is riverwilt
                                    (For now I’ll just give it that name, repelling all water, still)
Can I get across—
Walk across?

川萎え 
© Nomura Kiwao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Angus Turvill. All rights reserved.
Definitions

alveolus: One of the many tiny air sacs in the lungs of mammals.

bracken: (A cluster of) large coarse fern(s).

diluvial: Of or related to floods.

kerria: A bright yellow flower in the rose family, Kerria japonica.

protozoa: A large group of single-celled organisms (protists).

Notes on Postmodern Literature

In the introduction, Nomura Kiwao writes about the nature of writing in the postmodern period. The Wikipedia page on postmodern literature is extensive, and includes a long list of postmodern works. Note the sections on pastiche, poioumena (writing about writing), temporal distortion, and fragmentation.

Watch a video introduction to postmodernism in literature, in which the speaker describes postmodernism as being mostly concerned with shifts between different worlds. He explains more about this starting at 3:00. (Teachers: the speaker uses a few expletives.)

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Then, read a list of the characteristics of postmodern literature.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Japanese names and words from this story, read aloud by the translator Allison Markin Powell.

For more tips on pronouncing Japanese names and words, use this illustrated guide from wikiHow.com and this explanation of sounds, syllables, and stress from JapanesePod101.com.

Kami: Life After Death

Read about Japanese spiritskami. Some kami are ancestral spirits, human beings who become spirits after their death.

River Fishing and Rural Tokyo

Look at a photo of river fishing in rural Tokyo.

Then, look at other pictures from the Tokyo countryside in a Flickr gallery.

Japan After the Earthquake

Look through photos, especially image 14, of the “diluvial earth” of Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. (Warning: possibly disturbing images.)

Then, look at a video of the “windless” atmosphere inside of the Keio mall a few days after the earthquake.

On the Map: Shinjuku Station

Look at a picture of the West Entrance of Shinjuku Station.

Background on Japan

Pedestrians underneath umbrellas, their backs to us, walking on a Tokyo street on a rainy night.
Read the BBC’s short country profile of Japan, or visit nippon.com for the latest news. 

Science and Poetry

“Smart alveolus,” “protozoa”: why are these scientific terms appearing within a poem? Read the 1997 article “Between Technophobia and Utopia: Science and Postmodern Literature,” which includes references to many other works (some broken hyperlinks).

Writing about Unreliable Memories
Asian American Poetry

Looking for more poems? Check out the Poetry Foundation’s “Asian American Voices in Poetry” collection.

More Memoirs*

American memoirist Mary Karr writes: “A single image can split open the hard seed of the past, and soon memory pours forth from every direction . . . ” Read an excerpt from her book, The Art of Memoir. (Teachers: the excerpt includes a few four-letter words.)

* For Teaching Idea 1

More Natural and Manmade Worlds*

For more poems that examine the natural and manmade worlds, read the following poems from the American poet E.E. Cummings:

* For Teaching Idea 2

More Memories of Youth*

For more literature that looks back on time and relationships, read: 

  • Du Mu’s Tang Dynasty-era “Poems for Parting,” and Mieko Kawakami’s story “Where Have All the Sundays Gone?” both describing attempts to re-connect with a first love
  • Miral Al-Tahawy’s story “The Guest,” depicting a narrator’s increasing understanding of the grandmother who raised her.

* For Teaching Idea 3

More Stories on the Water's Edge*

For more literature that happens at the water’s edge and is published WWB Campus, read:

* For Teaching Idea 4

English
The riverwilt I must set down
Before the riverwilt pulls me down
Can I get across—Walk across?
           (In front of the house, they’re not there now, but in an oak tree, where branches spread out like a maze, they’re not there now, but like a place where echoes gather, where tree spirits gather, I climbed to a fork in the tree, and just as I was dozing off, no that’s not right, reading some erotic, no that’s not right, more gynaecological, probably that kind of book)
Can I get across—
Walk across?
                      (Reading that kind of book excitedly, unexpectedly my mother, unexpectedly)
The transient
Border realm of snake
Its breathing gentleness of skin,
                        (That’s right, my mother unexpectedly came to the foot of the tree, there’s a snake in the house, she said, her face pale, I jumped down toward that writhing neck omen of bad fortune, I loped toward it, but the book, what did I)
Getting up in the morning
Unsearched-for light blazing
Astride the steam in the kitchen
                       (What did I do with the book? Empty-handed nervously, so nervously, we)
Going up the elevator
Going down the elevator
                       (Want something to believe in? Forever wanting something to believe in? If so, here under the sun, the sky drooping wet pig hair, move ahead, with smart alveolus, ahead from the aimlessness of reality, from the certainty of imagination, and keep standing)
Wrapped
In those legs, Yuko Goes All-Out
That poster, as if breathless at the poster
West Entrance, Shinjuku Station,
At the end, the far end
Of the windless Keio Mall,
A soft wall, out of sight
Until we vanish together.
                                    (But anyway the snake, its head raised, came out from a lintel, that’s right, they’re not there now, the raised head facing us, an ancestral spirit has come to see how things are, so you mustn’t kill it, said my mother.)
No, that’s not right
If it’s a spirit send it out on the water
If it’s
Like those great complexes of muscles
That are not here now
                                    (So encouraged by my mother, I took the snake, clinging to the end of a bamboo stick, clinging, to the stream behind the house, to the stream like golden bovine flow, I took the snake, the snake took me, the snake via me, I don’t know which)
The stalk of the sun
The ultimate life power of the sun
                                    (I don’t know which, but anyway, the cause is far distant, far behind, instinctively I held my breath, I pushed down into place the rustling leaves, the rustling words)
With smart alveolus,
Listening to the prattle of the wind
The bracken shoots of memory passed,
                                    (Looking back, my mother was not there, instead, a myrtle tree, and what of the snake? At the end of my arm, at the end of the stick at the end of my arm, it was already a path, stretching out)
Our bodies
Cut up into parts. How dare they?
A sudden mound. How could it?
Saying how in the blood of those who try to live ordinary lives,
Uncrushed like grass underfoot
Is mixed bitter diluvial earth.
                                    (Like a light yearning)
Read in the inedible stalks of kerria flowers
On the sick
River bank
What
Worries
May come flooding in
Waves
                                    (Waves? Stretching out, riverwilt? And unified with half-sleep I cannot follow back to those faint hundred forking branches, which though cut and cut, still grow, stretching out, human faces, protozoa.)
Yes, although our ancestors’
Beautiful desire for copulation blows like wind,
                                    (Calling human faces, protozoa, making an extraordinary cross-section that really cannot be, repelling all water, I crowd together, I am the snake, the snake is me.)
There
As it were all meanings push together
And no meaning comes out
This is riverwilt
                                    (For now I’ll just give it that name, repelling all water, still)
Can I get across—
Walk across?

川萎え 
© Nomura Kiwao. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Angus Turvill. All rights reserved.

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