Review by Joel Swann
Yoko Tawada, A Poem for a Book (Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2015)
Over the coming weeks and months, the HKRB will be reviewing the full contents of the box-set on Poetry and Conflict stemming from 2015’s International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, which includes some twenty-one chapbooks by poets from around the world. This impressive set is designed to promote poetry to international audiences, with each chapbook featuring its texts in English and Chinese, as well the original language in which they was originally written. As such, A Poem for a Book includes Japanese and German, meaning four distinct languages are represented in this volume. Tawada’s poems are not easy to come across in English (although her fiction has been widely translated), making IPNHK’s intervention a welcome contribution to international poetry.
Poetry does much good in the world, but its inherent appeal as a mode of human expression puts it in danger of asserting soothing platitudes in novel ways. I don’t think this could be said of Tawada, who in writing about familiar topics – identity, language, relationships – reaches for a frame of reference that is unlikely to be universally appealing:
In the stalactite cave, out of which the wind blows, lives a naked monster with reddish, moist skin. The floor is sticky wet and gleams red blood. The abdomen of the monster has grown stuck to the floor. It does not growl, does not howl, does not speak. However, when the animal moves, a moaning wind emerges. It flies out of the cave and transforms itself into words. (‘Gesh-ICH-ter’ / ‘Vis-I-ages’, part 4)
The tone prose-poem ‘Ges-ICH-ter’ – a title that puts the ‘ego’ in the middle of ‘faces’ – is mostly gently exploratory, so the pointed imagery stands out: to think of a face as ‘a humanless landscape’, for example, or as our inner human essence as immobile inhumanity. Identity isn’t something beautiful – as in the writings of Lacan, we see ‘the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity’ (‘The mirror-stage’), a mask for something unpresentable. The strangeness of the hidden selves that populate a story like ‘Stars scintillating in my eyes’ are given a fuller life in these poems.
If the ‘naked monster’ here verges towards a clichéd rendition of the ‘id’ as a comfortably naturalized form of inner life (for better or worse), it is compelling to treat language as something contingent and artificial – especially standing in relation to imagery of natural world. The same kind of ideas are brought together in ‘People Born of Lines’, the poem that opens this collection, which is best understood as a set of origin-myths for a sequence of Chinese characters -人, 木, 水, 米, 犬, 大, 太, 未, 末, 來 (Person, trees, water, rice, etc.) – closely connected in their construction, but highly distinct in their meaning. Many of the poems involve boundaries, thresholds, and verge on parody in their surprises. On ‘dog’ 犬, she writes of a man ‘on the precipice’ –
Takes off the dog’s collar, replaces it with flowers
Suddenly embraces it
Presses his cheek against the dog’s eyes
The tears well up
He embraces the dog’s head firmly with both arms
Pushes the dog into the bubbling lava of the volcano below
Behind the word is a vividly imagined sacrifice: the rather conventionally-imagined love-object of the dog has to go.
In Tawada’s best-known fiction, human relationships seem to stand in a strange place between peace and conflict; if love and fear are present, it is only tantalizingly so. Her poetry imagines these social issues at a more fundamental level: not just about conflict, it suggests that language itself is constituted by conflict. The condition of being human is held at a bit of a distance, here, but in a way that is enormously generative.
Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.