Wild Grass on the Riverbank Hiromi Ito Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles Action Books, 2014
As I read and reread this gorgeous and unnerving book, I thought of an afternoon in graduate school when I went to my adviser and confessed to him that I liked the way that poets told stories much more than the way prose writers did. He agreed with me very seriously and quietly, as though I had discovered something true, but which could not safely be discussed in public. As evidence, here is Wild Grass on the Riverbank, one of the first narrative book-length poems to be written in modern Japan. Gory and explicit, damning and redemptive in turns, this book is required reading for poets, storytellers, wanderers, rebels, and ecologists -- for anyone who aims to survive. This long poem, in 18 parts of varying lengths, is written in a combination of prose and poetry, in language that is sometimes childlike, sometimes scientific, and must have been fiendishly difficult to translate. Angles’ translation’s conveys a tremendous emotional force while giving a sense of the different registers of language through which Ito cavorts with both daring and playfulness. When I began reading this book I was pulled in first by curiosity, enjoying Ito’s wild narrative strategies and her utter willingness to convey the full messy details of life and death, neither of which is ever a closed category or final state. (For Hiromi Ito, as for Jose Saramago, death is only an interruption. It comes and goes.) As I read further, then reread, what finally impressed me most was the emotional and incantatory power of long sections like “We Live at the Riverbank” and “We Make Our Way In”, unified narrative poems that are both edgy and exultant and can suddenly flash with a force that brings to mind Alvaro de Campos or Whitman. Jeffrey Angles, increasingly well-known for his fine translations of Chimako Tada, Taruho Inagaki, and Takahashi Mutsuo, earlier published a translation of “Killing Kanako”, the book that first brought Hiromi Ito renown in Japan. In his introduction Angles refers to other books by Ito: a book of prose poetry, as well as novellas and essays. I hope very much that more of this work can be made available in English. One of the most important poets of modern Japan, Hiromi Ito has been called a “shamaness of poetry”. Exactly right. Here is poetry that is unafraid to strip bare, copulate or reek, hiss or howl. An exploration of being “naturalized” in every sense of the word: an unending series of changes, deaths, ecstasies, resistances, and transformations.