1. Gimen no soko no byōki no kao, Yokohama 1986
Gimen no soko no byōki no kao: Sick Face of the Earth
Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942)
In the earth I see my face,
a lonely sick person’s face.
From the ground’s darkness
grow my eyes like stems of grass,
like a fieldmouse from its house of confusion
into a field of trembling hair,
from the sick and lonely ground
of the winter solstice
where the roots of the thin new bamboo spread
this pathetic blunder I see today
and am forced even more
to see my mistake;
the darkness in the earth,
the lonely face, in the earth.
(trans. Peter Minter)
In 1986, fresh from my Higher School Certificate, I left Australia for the first time to live in Yokohama, Japan. I had no Japanese and had barely thought of Japan before being selected to go there as an exchange student. It was early in the new year, if my memory serves me well, perhaps only a day or two after receiving my HSC results in the post. I departed on a bright hot summer day, was driven by my parents all the way from Quorrobolong to Sydney, and the next day found myself in a vast icy grey metropolis that thrummed electric under a pall of dirty snow.
A trio of impeccably polite, dark-suited men met me at Narita. It was explained to me that despite great efforts the arrangements for my first host family were not quite complete, so they were taking me to stay at a hotel. Nice. I was driven to the Yokohama Sheraton, shown to an upper storey suite and asked to wait. “Here’s my card. We’ll see you again in a few days,” said the man with English, who I would later learn was a head teacher at my host school. “Just put everything on the room account.”
Suddenly at a great distance from my family and all that I knew, one of my first significant encounters with adulthood was an unforgettable experience of the perfect suspension of the real. I was eighteen and a half years old and free as a bird in a foreign city, left like a mote in a large glass bubble that looked out over the city and beyond toward Kawasaki and Tokyo. I knew nothing. I watched TV and ordered room service on my bottomless tab. I stood against the window-wall and looked hundreds of metres down to the square, thousands trudging backwards and forwards making little black lines in the whiteness. Or the blizzards blasting ice horizontally into the glass just before my face, my breath condensed on the inside in a small but fearless symmetry. The crepuscular night lights. I slept and woke at odd hours, sometimes to bright blue cloudless mornings or to moments of gold sunset reflected in the walls of neighbouring buildings. The phone rang a couple of times, the English teacher checking in. Yes I’m fine. The view is great. The food is great. See you soon. Sayonara.
But most of the experience I have forgotten. I remember walking around the underground arcades, but not leaving or returning to my room. I remember lying on my bed watching TV, but none of my meals or, say, the appearance of the bathroom. Were there tea and coffee making facilities? But forgetting is really not such a bad thing. As Walter Benjamin declared in a 1940 letter to Theodor Adorno (“Dear Teddie”), “[t]here can be no doubt that the concept of forgetting … is of great significance. I will bear in mind the possibility of a differentiation between epic and reflexive forgetting … it is unnecessary to question the concept of mémoire involuntaire in order to grant forgetting its due.” Of course Benjamin is speaking about Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrance, and goes on to remind us that we can only remember that which we have involuntarily forgotten: “[t]he childish experience of how a madeleine tasted that one day involuntarily popped into Proust’s mind was, in fact, unconscious. It was not the first bite into his first madeleine, (Tasting is a conscious act.) Tasting, however, probably becomes unconscious to the extent that the taste became more familiar. The grown-up’s ‘tasting again’ is then naturally conscious.”
By the time I left Japan in January 1987 I had become “naturally conscious” in the Japanese language. You might say I’d forgotten English. I transacted most of my daily life in Japanese, and at night I dreamt in it as well. I’d lived with four wonderful families and had attended the senior year of what I later understood to be a prestigious boys school, Asano Gakuen. Here I was taken under the wing of the humanities staff, a group of slightly dishevelled, chain smoking men who let me hang-out in their office rather than attend classes. We drank tea and talked about anything and everything, and in our spirited conversations about life and culture and history and literature I really began to learn and understand Japanese. I took their classes in calligraphy, music, ikebana and art. And it was in that office, three storeys up looking north over a rather desolate playing field, that I began to translate Japanese poetry.
It was the English teacher’s brainwave, the one who’d met me at the airport and taken me to the hotel, a very soft and smart gentleman whose name I have completely forgotten. He and I talked a lot about English literature, particularly poetry. He was a Tennyson devotee, and in the last year of high school I had just discovered post-war American poetry. I’d brought with me to Japan a copy of Gary Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and the Penguin Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. It was he who encouraged me to translate modern Japanese poetry, chiefly as a way for me to learn the very difficult written language but also perhaps as a method to more completely know the Japanese soul. I remember him one day handing me an old leather-bound copy of Hagiwara Sakutarō’s Tsuki ni Hoeru (“Howling at the Moon”). He told me about an author who had died too young, but how his “free verse” style and realist vernacular had caused a sensation when his book was published in 1917. I flicked through and chose a poem, “Gimen no soko no byōki no kao” (Sick Face of the Earth), and presumably over the subsequent days or weeks got to know to the greatest possible depth every character in every line. That’s my translation above.
The poem conveys an intense existential crisis. The title could also mean “Sick Face Nearby in the Earth” but perhaps I felt drawn to the idea of the earth itself being sick (was I writing just after Chernobyl, when even in Japan fresh vegetables and milk had disappeared from the stores? I have no idea.) Its central images have echoed through my own work ever since, from “Tour Guide Remembering Her Father” in Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin (1996):
… and you think you know what he was thinking
on the burning edge of summer as he waved
his arms and laughed, like his favourite
line in Hagiwara, where the roots
of new bamboo spread and spread.
As your eyes grow like stems of grass
the ground changes its perspective,
butterflies ascend in breathless clouds.
to the poem “Serine” in blue grass (2006):
It’s then your face
close by in the ground
remembers how you have lived.
However the most uncanny thing about the translation is that I don’t remember doing it. I have a notebook with a titlepage drawing of a figure shielding itself from the moon, a photocopy of the original kanji and kana with my pencilled phonetic iteration, and an ink version that is presumably the end result. Everything in between has been forgotten. When I rediscovered this notebook while moving house a few years ago, at first I felt a “pathetic blunder” in the radical paucity of context. There were no notes, no traces of the life and ideas that had gone on around the translation at the time, just a few dim shadows caught slightly between three small pages. The life itself had all but been forgotten. But over time that pathetic blunder also fell away. As I got to know the poem again, it grew to become a crystalline paragon of an entire year of my life. The periods of solitariness. The moments of startling apprehension and recognition. The intensification of my own sense of poetic language. A growing appreciation of how Japanese philosophy and aesthetics expressed a deeply organic nature-culture ontology. The lonely face in the earth is both human and base nature. The art of the perfect suspension. I realised too that in forgetting the emergence of the poem I was also unexpectedly producing the conditions for its remembrance. Sometimes you have to let something sleep for a long time for it to make sense.
Using an earthy lexicon that is remarkably similar to Hagiwara’s, Proust goes organic in describing a set of relations between good sleep and the existential, the forgotten, and the recovered:
Good nights … turn so effectively the soil and break through the surface stone of our body that we discover there, where our muscles dive down and throw out their twisted roots and breathe the air of the new life, the garden in which as a child we used to play. There is no need to travel in order to see it again; we must dig down inwardly to discover it. What once covered the earth is no longer upon it but beneath: a mere excursion does not suffice for a visit to the dead city, excavation is necessary also. But we shall see how certain impressions, fugitive and fortuitous, carry us back even more effectively into the past, with a more delicate precision, with a flight more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal than these organic dislocations.
Against the sheer existential horror of all we forget, each poem in a life becomes a fugitive, delicately precise machine for remembering an event and its organic dislocations. A poem is like an ark for a moment or series of moments, a small vessel amidst a sea of epic or reflexive forgetfulness that we glide off headlong toward our friends and readers or indeed future selves. Perhaps that is what our species has been doing for thousands of years, making poems to send information forward and outward so others can see and remember. Madeleines for the survivors. Holographs of the forgotten. Genealogies of invisibility.
In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart writes that “[a]t the heart of the capacity art has for the transformation and mediation of time is the dual work of memory and imagination.” In this series of posts for Southerly, which I call To The Invisible, I’ll take a closer look at a group of poems I wrote in my youth and try to remember what it was I was rabbiting on about back then. Is there anything there I can remember? What flashes and traces of memory suddenly appear when I spend some time with poems written over a quarter of a century ago? What information do they wish to convey? What are they trying to tell me?
 Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)., p. 629. Marcel Proust and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Remembrance of Things Past (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2006).↩
 Peter Minter, Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin, New Poets 3. (Wollongong, N.S.W.: Five Islands Press Associates, 1995)., pp. 8-9.↩
 Peter Minter, blue grass (Cambridge, Eng.: Salt Publishing, 2006)., p. 104.↩
 Proust and Scott-Moncrieff, Remembrance of Things Past., p. 929.↩
 Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2002).p, 205.↩
Benjamin, Walter, Gershom Scholem, and Theodor W. Adorno. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.
Minter, Peter. blue grass. Cambridge, Eng.: Salt Publishing, 2006. Print.
—. Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin. New Poets 3. Wollongong, N.S.W.: Five Islands Press Associates, 1995. Print.
Proust, Marcel, and C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. Remembrance of Things Past. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2006. Print.
Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.