2. Hiroshige’s Journey, Yokohama 1986
Yamashita Park, Yokohama, Winter 1986.
an old man
who walked past here
cloaked against the blue sky and wind
now seems a mile away
the white birds
there are so many
white birds beside the sea.
Why is it that so much of our thinking and writing about poetry is monopolised by a rhetorics of dramatic visibility, clarity and focus? The vivid image, the intense phrase, the memorable line, lucid brilliance and the glow of authenticity are primary objectives in many a poetry workshop and poetry “how too.” But what if a person is stuck to the earth each day by a dense and opaque blur in the heart? What then about a poetry of contingency and doubt, forgetting and forgetfulness? What about vagueness, amnesia and ambiguity? Imagine a poetics of the lossy and indeterminate, inexactness and frailty. A beautiful poetics of the invisible.
On 16 December 1986 I sat on a bench by the water at Yamashita Park, Yokohama, a pleasant harbour-side ribbon of lawns and gardens and trees beside the still and heavily polluted Yokohama Bay. I have no idea of the occasion, although presumably it was just an ordinary outing with family or friends to pass the time in the open air and sun and light. I recall a brisk winter breeze flicking up from the water, a long row of white-iron benches facing off a white-pipe balustrade that marked the edge of the city at the shoreline. The park is very flat, marked out regularly in oblong lawns and straight bitumen paths, edges beguilingly rounded. Park as jejune green hinge articulating the horizontal grey expanse of the port on one side and the vertical walls of moderately tall buildings on the other. People strolled in straight lines, many alone or in small huddled groups, their aerated children squealing and skittling along the path in the wind. A bright cold breezy day not unlike that preserved forever on Google Maps.
Writing on Arthur Rimbaud’s “fleeing into the desert”, Maurice Blanchot (1982) suggests that while Rimbaud escaped from “the responsibilities of the poetic decision” by taking refuge in the world, “bit by bit his days, devoted henceforth to the aridity of gold, make a shelter for him of protective forgetfulness.” (53) Blanchot may be remembering Emile Cioran (1934) in the Heights of Despair, for whom “forgetfulness is the only salvation.” (50) However while Cioran is desperate “to forget the world”, Rimbaud exiles himself to a triumphantly forgotten worldliness, his poetry a vanquished memorial. At Yamashita Park I remember feeling again a similarly peculiar sensation of suspended, forgotten worldliness. The feeling is of being absolutely located in a place, but being-so amidst a pervading aura of timelessness that oblates the fine aperture of being situated and turns it outward into a dull wide compressed opacity. One is simultaneously situated and alienated.
I sat on one of the identical benches, squinting through the brumal light and cold breeze watching the passers-by and looking out at the industrial horizon across the water. Despite the water’s unctuous lifelessness, dumpy seabirds squawked overhead, well-fed on the waste of human affluence. At some point I must have been provoked into the mood for composition. I remember beginning to observe an old man walking toward me from a distance. I could see that he was elderly, short and stooped, dressed in a dark insulated traditional farmer’s jacket over track-pants, socks and slippers. I remember beginning to imagine that he was Hiroshige (1797-1858), the profound ukijo-e (woodblock) artist of “the floating world.” Earlier in the year I’d seen Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō at a heritage guesthouse somewhere deep in a mountainous forest. The prints were displayed in an extraordinary wooden room that now floats in my memory as a golden world free from all external connections. We ate a traditional lunch seated around a sunken floor kotatsu, and stood looking at the cooking pit where an old woman dressed in replica peasant clothes stoked the fire and tended to the pots. We made our way around the large open gallery, contemplating Hiroshige’s series from start to finish, from the modern imperial capital Edo (Tokyo) to the ancient imperial capital Kyoto. We left in a black Toyota Cressida.
Hiroshige’s third station, Kanagawa, is a harbour-side precinct that neighbours Yamashita Park. He must have travelled close by here on the Tōkaidō, the East Sea Road of the 53 Stations. Indeed, as I looked at the old man walking toward me I imaginatively realised that it had to be Hiroshige himself shuffling toward me as he looked out at the boats in the harbour, hands clasped behind his back as he weighed up the scene in his mind. He had come to life. I discretely observed him as he approached and passed by. But beyond a blurred morphological gestalt I don’t remember anything more than this indeterminate figure, the dark brown fabric, the texture of advanced age. Perhaps he noticed nothing about me as well. We approximated one another for a moment and then just as quickly fell away into an irrevocable distance, clouds glowing with departure. The white birds are a sign of our frail impercipience, the singularity of the moment suddenly sublimated in an infinite semiosis of gulls. Somewhere in the distance a flock of woodblock prints circle in the sunlight.
I recently discovered the work of Australian painter Joanna Logue, whose paintings (check out her exhibitions at King Street Gallery in Sydney) give pictorial meaning to a poetics of the ambiguous and indistinct. Logue is a good reminder that characteristics of perception and ideation can at times be observed in an active compositional indeterminacy and illegibility. At the beginning of his second essay of On The Genealogy of Morality (2007) Friedrich Nietzsche declares that forgetfulness is a positive creative activity: “forgetfulnesss not just a vis inertiae … but is rather an active ability … positive in the strongest sense of the word”. (35) There is room for an aesthetics of the beautiful that admits noise, distortion, intensification and relaxation, and embraces the fecundity of forgetfulness and the forgotten. Take any of the images of Logue’s paintings found on the King Street Gallery site, such as “Road to Brewongie” (2010) or any of the phenomenal “window” series, and discover a sensibility in which “blur” does not result in the suppression or loss of information, but rather provokes the elegant genesis of information in the texturing of a painting’s materiality and the evocation of a profound simultaneity in the variousness of its affects and perspectives. The indeterminate is not that which is irretrievable, but at its etymological root that which is not limited. I think I like it here.
“Hiroshige’s Journey” is the very last poem I hand-wrote in my 1986 Japan journal. I have often thought about the event, tried to remember more. Over the years my mental images have become increasingly ambiguous, but in ways that are deceptively interesting and productive. For instance, sometimes I see the old man approaching from my right as if I am seated and looking out at the harbour. Other times he is approaching from my left as if I am facing the park and the buildings. I have settled on the first account, as it just feels right and like the poem seems transparently to involve the bright sky and harbour rather than bits of greenery. There’s not much else. I can see the small chain and looped pole garden fences, and bright white convenience stores like “Happy Lawson” now on the park’s northern entrance. The general vibe is of deep ennui and an afternoon wanting to lapse insipidly.
And then, just as Nietzsche predicted, from the great abyss emerges the sparkle of creativity. I begin to imagine that actually the old man who walked by me was not Hiroshige at all. It was actually me, an elderly version of myself somehow transported back in time in an effort to observe in that moment what I was like as a youngster. Back in 1986, when I hoped he hadn’t noticed me at all, he’d instead held me in an intimate and compassionate study. All the while the poem has been hovering between us like a hologram of two times, where I am now and where I was back then. I’m not sure whether it takes me back into the past or forward into the future. I sometimes wonder how it would be, to find myself delivered back through time into the event of the poem, to see myself. So I just read it again.
The old man who walked past here cloaked against the blue sky and wind has always been there beyond me, in the poem, and in everything it doesn’t say.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Print.
Cioran, E. M. On the Heights of Despair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans. Diethe, Carol. Ed. Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.