Sunday, February 25, 2007

Learning Japanese.

No poetry today. I have been spending every waking moment studying Japanese, preparing for my trip to Tokyo later on this month. When I went to Japan last year, I couldn't speak a word and I felt completely lost.

I have determined that this time will be different. I will not have so much trouble with what is on the menu. I would like to have a conversation with Takaaki's friends over sashimi. I want to make sure I can order enough katsu. I want to book train tickets to
Hakone. I think it would be nice to be able to say more than "please" and "thank you"—although you can get pretty far in Tokyo, I have noticed, if you can deploy onegaishimasu and domo arigatou with the right amount of dexterity. These are magic words in Japan. They open doors—shoji.

Even so, Magic is a difficult art to practice, in any language. But I think it may be hardest to master in Japanese. There are three 'alphabets' in Japanese: the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, and kanji—the imported Chinese characters adapted for Japanese use in the Middle Ages. Right now, I can read my blue shampoo bottle—that part which says shampoo, anyway, in katakana— and I can understand snatches of lyrics in a few Japanese songs. I watch at least one hour of Bleach a day, and I am getting better at distinguishing phrases. But it is hard. I am more or less at the hiragana and katakana stages of development. This would probably place my mental age at about 4 or 5. I can count to 13 in Kanji—on very good day.


Still, I don't give up. Japanese literature has always been something of a hobby with me. Mishima Yukio was my introduction to that. The book was Confessions of a Mask, I purchased it in June 9th, 1992, at 3:43 pm, at Glad Day Bookstore, on Boylston St, in Boston. Very often I use receipts for bookmarks, and the receipt remains with the book as long as I own it. It is a very convenient technique for marking your place in Time, and for constructing a mental history of yourself, should you ever be asked to do so by the Authorities.

I think my eye was initially drawn to Mishima's Confessions for one very particular, but very superficial reason: the torso featured on the cover—a samurai version of the
St. Sebastian motif.

We all know what happened to poor St. Sebastian, and what Mishima did to himself, but I am less sure what happened to me when I read that book fifteen years ago. I think it was then that something about Japan first began stirring in my imagination.

It can take years for the effect of words to sink into your imagination. And with some authors—most authors—the words never do. Most words are dropped again as soon as they are picked up off the page. You hear something beautiful you hadn't noticed before—perhaps the furnace ticking on— and you forget where you were in the last paragraph. At least, that is the case with me.

I think Mishima more than Godzilla was my introduction to Japan. And after Mishima, I moved on into the mysterious world of Akutagawa, Murakami,
Lady Murasaki, and others. Then I met Takaaki.

My favorite Japanese author is probably
Soseki Natsume. There is something very funny and very dark about this man's sense of humor, something sinister. There are times that I feel like his stories were specifically crafted to entertain me, which is preposterous.

Kokoro is Soseki's most profound work, I think, and Botchan his most congenial, but I think my personal favorite is I Am A Cat. Half Tristram Shandy, and half I, Claudius, and altogether Japanese, it presents a cat's eye view of the world, from the birth of one lonely kitten until his untimely death.

Don't get me wrong. I do not enjoy I Am A Cat because I especially enjoy the company of cats. I am not really a cat person. In fact, I think my relationship with felines bears an
eerie resemblance to my relationship with men—Mankind, I mean. I am allergic Him as a collective presence, but I intensely love individuals.

That must be why we get along so well, I think.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tokiyou ni ikimasu.

After the hideous cold of the last two weeks, the temperature in New York has climbed back into the 40s, and there is the distinctly tangy scent of spring in the air. In fact, and I hope you are sitting down, I actually enjoyed that my train was a little late leaving Stamford this morning. The extra eight minutes of sunlight on my face did me some indescribable good.

Last week, during the depths of the evil cold snap gripping Connecticut, and my insides, I made reservations for a return trip to Tokyo, in late March, to see some cherry blossoms (sakura) and spend a few afternoons soaking in a nice hot volcanic bath with Taka-chan.

Part of the reason why I have been writing such miserable poetry over the last few weeks is that I have been feeling frustrated with myself. I want to find a nice well-paying job in Tokyo, so Takaaki and I can start cooking rice together, but it is proving painfully hard. And why is it so hard? Obviously, I must be doing something wrong, even if I seem to be doing everything right.

Sometimes there is nothing harder to face in the world than your own reflection in the mirror. And when I turn inward, I can turn particulary vicious. Introspection probably should not be performed by an amateur with a deformed soul, but by some sort of detatched and finiky professional, with a gentle but penetrating eye. I really think I need that volcanic bath.


So, here are few quatrains totally unrelated to Japan, volcanoes, romance, or anything else. They are about the most boring subject imaginable: writing.

A Note to Alex
Inserted in his new notebook

One hundred pages occupy this book,
One hundred clouds of suds and rolling thunder,
One hundred sacks of coconut—and look—
A fish fillet. That’s right. I think it’s flounder.

Well, how would you interpret all this space?
Pour fresh foundations for a concrete world,
Or copy something? Sketch some kind of face,
Left earlobe laden with a teardrop pearl?

Our choices can be frightening. Take drug stores:
How do you choose a nice deodorant
Among the dozens of toxic metaphors
Out there? Try everything? Experiment?

Here’s roses and Rottweiler. How sublime.
There’s oxygen for dizziness—and wine—
If you have trouble breathing. Take your time:
Rhyme ‘kiss’ with ‘bliss’ and you should be fine.

There may be more I’d like to say to you;
But I’ve been told—by somebody who knows—
That I am just a book—a blank one, too.
So, fill me with your poetry. (No prose.)

Amateur Hour

When I’m at work—when I have time to think—
I’ll dip a long white feather in my heart,
Concealing how my pen and inkpot clink.
I am not sure this qualifies as Art.

I think a poet should be more profound;
He ought to scream, “Look at me—I exist!”
It also helps a bit to hop around,
Pierce pieces of your tongue, and shake your fist.

The fist establishes your right to speak,
The piercings vouch for your sincerity.
Of course, if I ever began to shriek
Somebody here would call Security.

So, I make do with the odd metaphor
For those emotions I cannot address
With people listening—like that cri de coeur
I spent all morning trying to express…

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Please, do not adjust your set.

In keeping with the dismal note I sounded the other day, I have decided to post another dark piece. I hope you don't mind. I only propose to do this until it gets warmer.

I feel it is better to get these things out of my system, rather than let them sit in my brainpan foully fermenting, possibly blowing the top off my skull, like a hairy old cork. I have no wish to wind up like a bad bottle of champagne.

And I have no wish to create a great pink and gray mess for Walter to scrape off the ceiling in my office. He is a kind and diligent man. He and his bad back live in the Bronx, and I worry whenever I see him ascending a ladder.


Anyway, here is another poem.


My Poor Fool

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?

King Lear, V.iii.352-53

Heaven was just the place for him to go.
He never understood this world. You know,
We would discuss it over marmalade
And coffee—matter—how the world was made.
He would take
small triangles of toast
And dip them in his egg—completely lost.
Most considered him a child—my half-wit.
Like any parent, my poor heart was split:

His jokes were creaky as an outhouse door,
And yet I loved him—loved him to the core.
He turned the girls to jelly. For, in his
There twinkled something wild in black tie
Which frightened the officials, children, and dogs.
He painted funny faces in the fogs
Which rolled in like thunder from the sea
Those nights we kept each other company.

He tested my love constantly. He
d twist
My heart right
into knots—without a sweat
One drop of effort. For some reason I
Don’t fully comprehend, he teased me,
Are you so melancholy, Lord—so blue
He pinged me with a pebble from his shoe.
Most fools are a bit impudent. Of course,
This lad was lucky: he wound up a corpse.

I hanged the lad in public to remind
The peoples of planet Earth that God had died.
They stared at him like vegetables. The few
Who cried for Mercy I hanged twice. Like you,
I never thought his last remarks were fair,
Until I had him hoisted in the air.
“Good grief,” he gargled, “how the rafters shook

When we gave that carpenter the hook!”