by Corey Wakeling
A secret to admit. I’ve been writing novels lately, but only as a bellows to an unlit fire. The tinder of poetry hasn’t taken for almost a year, shooting a few sparks in the last week, but otherwise perfectly unlit since February 2015 when I moved from my home of six years, Melbourne, to Western Japan. Initially when I arrived here last year I wrote poetry kind of desperately. Because of a month’s window of free time but also due to unexplainable bodily malaise, I was feeling mortally determined to preserve what thinking was immediately at hand. Cognition was a precarious material, endangered and demanding preservation. The work was the precision work of tweezers and lasers rather than my favourites the hammer, the blowtorch, and the bare hands. One poem, “Rectangular Window”, a short long poem, was a fuse, a powder melted and wired to constrictions cartographic enough to make a carving in a pane of glass which when touched sets off vertigo. At least in me. I wrote this swathe of poetry in a month and I haven’t published any of the poems still. Since then nothing’s come. That is, until last week. Superstitiously, I blame this spurt for the long delay. But I also blame novel writing.
Yes, I blame these poems for the subsequent drought, but I also blame these entryway obelisks for their prose writing offspring. Prose writing and novel writing are subtly different, and the early distinctions between prose and poetry in the early modern period sought to differentiate the prosaic from art. Prose writing’s emergence as distinct from poetry has been the story of the rise of the novel, though nowadays when saying “prose writing” we are indeterminately positioned in relation to poetry, and likely much closer than between the concepts of “novel writing” and “poetry”. It is difficult to distinguish the prose writing of Harry Mathews, Eva Figes, or Monique Wittig and the poetry of James Schuyler, Jennifer Maiden, or Sam Wagan Watson. No definition of prose or poetry exhaustively explains what they do. At “Experimental”, a conference at the University of Sydney mid-2014, Lyn Hejinian and Barret Watten separately and in different ways mentioned the significance of modernist prose on Language writing and their interest in how prior to their generation the novel in the time of the nouveau roman seemed to avoid the counterrevolutionary tendency of much post-war poetry. Hence Language poetry is in the movement’s view more sufficiently described as Language writing.
Depending upon the wind and the torque and the direction you point your nose, the word “prose” can connote more mannered writing than the word “poetry” does, or connote less mannered writing. Derrida declared that Joyce’s view of the novel was as the form that let everything in, suggesting infinite capacity. But from another view of fiction and industry, the novel is the most constrained form, with a series of patterns regarding plot, narrative, and character which the prose must serve to manifest the novel. That it participate in plot, narrative, or character at all even if experimentally in manners nouveau is enough to turn poets away from it and towards the greater textual freedoms of the medium indeterminacy of poetry, to the poem as concrete and typographical, or the poem as notation. For so many reasons, simply to write writing seems the most pertinent to a catholic view of prose and poetry. This is true of my reading. In my practice, however, there is a clearer antagonism between what prose and poetry are.
Poetry in this case is to blame for a new vice of novel writing, which I have no interest in continuing. But, I’m still in the tangles of ensnarement and addiction which I think only the recovery of poetry cures. Novel writing is acceptable to me as a spinal tap, an hallucinogen, and a hand-eye-text coordinator, but is otherwise a kind of writing too concrete to be satisfying and only really interesting to me when it has contorted enough to be not manner or content but writing as such. I was writing three novels, two have been abandoned. I’ll tell you about the one I’m still writing shortly. Dismembered, the abandoned ones have become more candidly what they really were: poetry. But I only just realised this, and it is part of the event of recovery last week. The reason for the recovery? I don’t know yet, except that it was agreeable to arrange my thoughts in a way continuous with Goad Omen, continuous with The Alarming Conservatory, my next manuscript, continuous with the question of writing down. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that it is easier to write poems between the protests of a baby than maintain the subplots in a novel’s world. Now I’ve always written poetry, what I would simply call “writing”, but commitment to it came with the dissatisfaction with the novel form which occurred to me in the first half of 2009. Commitment I think means feeling responsible for doing something each and every day. For reasons noted earlier, I don’t make a clear distinction between poetry and prose and the significance of experimental prose but also other kinds of medial experiments with composition and notation are undeniably significant for me regarding questions of presenting and interrogating thought and the unconscious. I read novels almost as much as I read or view writing in forms which invoke the name “poetry”. But a novel is a certain kind of exquisite corpse of textual collaborations between narration and world, space and movement, thought and action. Novel writing then is constrained to convey temporal realities, if not through action then through activities, and the most extreme experiments in novel temporality never seem to be able to absolutely dispense with time passing in the way that, say, haiku was always invested in timeless vignettes, or objectivist poetics achieved in its orientation towards objects. This tension between arrest and movement is part of my conundrum, or the aperture of my failure to write about the conundrum and go on with it.
Writing novelistically has been uninspired, mimetic, and stubborn, and I don’t like it. It knows what it is and where it is and what where when how. Maybe it was the pressure of the Japanese language on my linguistic faculties and the uneasy relationship between my immaturely-developed Japanese and its cohabitation of the word stream with the old lodger, English, that meant an interruption in my ability to write poems. I want to write in Japanese but I can’t, not more than perfunctorily. As someone committed to writing, in moments of confidence I feel I can spew anything in the English language, dig it up out of the coast and draw it out of the tip, discover it as scurf on flesh or as static electricity on a handrail. Now a majority Japanese speaker in public, linguistic pressure and the aqueousness of this aquarium is the Japanese language. My English is of no use as an interface with the verbal and linguistic signs of my environment, yet one which I cannot negate without returning to infancy, or again to English, the eremite who never wanted to be an eremite. This interval I experienced until just now is a matter of confidence, not translation. I have translated some of my poetry into Japanese and it’s fun, but stupid.
The previous blogger Liam Ferney had cricket stories, I have baseball ones. Being a student of Nick Whittock’s poetry, not to mention Beckett and Pinter, not to mention being Australian, it is a great shame that I’m partially illiterate in cricket, though, as English speakers in Japan commonly say of their Japanese ability, “I get by”. But a formative event of childhood inscribed in the tissues of my physiognomy under pressure proves also to be an allegory of the longest gap in writing poetry I’ve ever had. Once as a pitcher in a baseball game when I was twelve-years-old we were playing against the champion side in our grade, and I was faced with the other side’s pitcher batting opposite me, a player who was a member of the state team and as intimidating a batter as he was a pitcher. Out of terror, not hesitation, out of what I now interpret as the strangulated desire to freeze the unbearable momentum swelling towards our inevitable thrashing, I involuntarily baulked my pitch. I lifted my arm, swung it, but held the ball in the nauseated grip of a deadweight hand. Poetry, writing, at the crest of this kind of anticipation, seems to have baulked at how to articulate, how to artifice, my life in Japan. I write a big poem about metamorphosis, phenomenology, childhood, and boredom mapped with the shapes and tendencies of the immediate surroundings, the poem folds out well enough when rereading it, and it lives so clearly prior to an education in the Japanese language. It is a door jamb poem as much as a crooked telescope one bleeding out the immediate vertigos. The problem wasn’t that I wrote about my life. I don’t really “write about my life”. Instead “my life” has always been the aperture to poetry, even if “my life” is only as a mechanist to a workshop of algorithms for notation which do the work, or as a corporeal host. In Japanese, after that big poem, I feel like that baulking twelve-year-old baseball player, making a scene for the coaches, worsening an inevitable defeat. Speaking is not writing.
To write in Japanese in my case is to enter a kiddie pool of language with a fatal deep end a few wades yonder. It is a pool which I enter with floaties pinching my armpits, in which I speak to other bathers like a child. I think about those who’ve found new horizons in their writing through bilingualism or multilingualism and turn Lou Ferrigno green. Towards a world literature, in fact I think correspondences through translation are necessary for writing to achieve a decentred cosmopolitanism which would substantiate itself in networks of open linguistic relation. Australian poet Javant Biarujia’s work is like this, and it’s enviable. I admire Biarujia, Tawada Yoko, Harry Mathews, Don Mee Choi, Beckett, Borges, Goro Takano even more now given that they have achieved in writing a kind of polyglot correspondence of language or particular deconstructions of or lines of flight from their mother tongues through spaces of translation. Unlike Biarujia and his mastery of languages and subsequent invention of language, or Beckett in French and his turn to minimalism, dwelling on hybridity in the former and failure in the latter in foreign language relations to English only intensifies my baulking. Something polyglot writers don’t seem ever to write about is that you are an idiot in your second language. That is because they are polyglot, not semiglot like me. By contrast, being a beginner or intermediate in a language is to stand at that pitcher’s plate in a Perth summer feeling your sweat stink as it runs over your ears. In baseball, an innings is over only once three outs are made, which means without curfew for a game an innings could conceivably go on forever. Maybe when I find a way not to “Hulk, smash!” every time I try to write something in Japanese, I might step up to the plate okay one day.
The yet unabandoned novel has so far been about a developing plagiarist called Dazai Osamu writing an autobiography using the plot and narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction. The plagiarist’s problem is that he’s not a plagiarist. In wanting to translate his life into that of Bernhard’s protagonist by writing an autobiography with an adapted first-person narrator, he must adapt the plot and lead character to twenty-first century Japan and imagine quite different consequences for its versions of the teacher’s view of pedagogy and philosophy, and what the attempt at extinguishing that character’s family’s Austrian estate might mean in the attempted plagiarist’s Japanese context. Creating a life is not supposed to be the business of a plagiarist. How to write someone else’s autobiography in your own life? In Dazai Osamu the plagiarist’s version of Extinction set in Japan, the teacher protagonist’s perfect teaching scenario is not of living in Rome to teach one Roman student of philosophy from a wealthy background as it is in Bernhard’s 1980s novel, but a Japanese literature scholar tutoring just one pupil in Tokyo, in this case the son of a wealthy agricultural chemicals factory-owning family to be taught about Japanese literature. Curiously, the family requests that Dazai Osamu teach in English. From the pupil’s family’s point of view, comprehending Japanese literary culture in English will putatively “stave off cultural degeneration in an internationally-relevant and transferable way”. Dazai Osamu the author’s life is not so lucky as his autobiographical protagonist. The author Dazai Osamu is stuck in Tokyo and without a teaching job due in part to cuts to humanities jobs in the higher education sector spooked by the Japanese government’s recent request for the downscaling of humanities education by public institutions, and so he is on the cusp of returning to his hometown on the Tsugaru Peninsula in Northern Japan. This precariousness is the source of the plagiarism attempt. Having published a series of disregarded novels about reprobation and listlessness in the contemporary cultural vacuum of bourgeois Japanese life, to gain some recognition, Dazai is writing 「消去」(shoukyou, erasure) which he will later anonymously expose as a rehashing of Bernhard’s novel in the hope that it will reveal the bankruptcy of contemporary literary Japan for overlooking the obviousness of the hidden homage. Halfway through the novel, just after being offered a position at a private high school which promises only to depress Dazai even further due to not being a university position, Dazai contemplates complete renunciation of all hope. And then suddenly Dazai receives news that his parents and a sibling have died in a car crash. Unlike Bernhard’s Franz-Joseph who upon the death of members of his family in a car crash returns to his heritage Austrian home and desires to hasten his estate’s extinction, Dazai Osamu returns to his wealthy family’s estate in Kasagi on the Tsugaru Peninsula in Northern Japan to find it a museum to himself as a literary figure who died in 1948 and now its custodian. The will responsible for the endowment gives no coherent account of his genealogy which can explain this historical link between two incommensurable narratives, a Dazai who lives in 2016 and a Dazai who died in 1948, but clearly names him the executive of the estate formerly owned by the car crash victims. For Dazai Osamu to accomplish his autobiography in homage to Bernhard’s Extinction, it is for him to erase the estate he has inherited. Maybe I won’t spoil how he does it in the end.
This morning as I was feeding N some milk in her room, K pulled the sliding door across and presented a paper bag forward. She put her hand inside and pulled out a plastic sleeve with some white pickled daikon in it, and in a resentful voice she muttered that “the good Kyoto pickles have gone bad and I didn’t know. Look at all the air in there. It’s swollen up.” Her mouth was half-crescent earthward and her brow wrinkled. She seemed pretty depressed about the pickles. “Are you really that upset about the pickles?” I asked. “Yeah!” she exclaimed, raising her arm and shaking the bag, “they’re really good ones and we didn’t eat them.” “I see. They’re cut really thinly, aren’t they,” I replied. As K frowned N sighed through her nose, her face turning a bit and her eyes darting in K’s direction, trying to involve herself in this conversation somehow. “We’re going to have to forget about this daikon, I think, eventually,” I said to K. She looked sadder, more resentful. “We’ve had them since December and I really wanted to eat them,” she said. “I know. I was wondering when we might eat them,” I replied. Why hadn’t we eaten the daikon radish pickles from Kyoto these last two months, sitting there in their blue sleeve on the top shelf of the fridge, slowly sucking spoiling air into its bladder confines? 「本当の大根役者だ！」 I said, referring to her. The whole family, even the cat, exploded in laughter.