The poem which prefaces this collection, What My Right Hand Drew, affirms initially the poet/artists's ability to draw only (
this morning's breakfast on the table / freshly-baked scones on the familiar plate / or the steam rising from China tea in the cup with the long crack running down it. The aspiration, however, is to be able to
draw the raging trees in the rain beating down outside the windows. If the aspiration is to be fulfilled, then the
hidden heart that is linked to the hand / must become the heart of the trees [...] / the heart of the storm; that can only happen, though, if the
hand holding a pencil / becomes the trees [...] the entire storm. Yet, for all the aspiration towards the wild 'other', all the desire to posses it and become it, the language of the poem's opening lines betrays, by way of balance, a genuine affection for the domestic, for the familiarity of the plate, for warmth of the freshly-baked scones and for (respectfully recorded) the specific, damaged cup.
This creative tension between the ordinary and the exceptional, between the cosy and the wild, between the known and the unknown, between a self discovered through the customary objects on the breakfast table or through the projections of fantasy, is one of the defining hallmarks of We of Zipangu: Myself As An Anatomical Lovemaking Chart and Other Poems. The second poem, We the People of Zipangu gives the collection its title — and much more:
The island enrobed in golden clouds
exists nowhere at all on any nautical chart.
We who inhabit the island also exist
nowhere at all in reality.
The sea of wild fantasies nursed by the merchant Marco Polo —
in extensions of his sea, floating, drifting in oceanic rainstorms
in the brains of voyagers,
we, the people of Zipangu —
forever more in their illusions, in their dreams
of non-existent multitudes —
you shall never believe a word we say.
Marco Polo never got to Japan. In China he heard tales of the large island of Xipangu or Cipangu, some 1,500 miles east of China. It was, he reported, an island on which gold was to be found in great abundance — there was so much gold there that it was used to roof a palace belonging to the ruler of the island. Pearls were also plentiful there; the dead were buried with pearls in their mouths. It was a land of marvels — a land in which men carried precious stones which made them invulnerable to weapons of steel. Polo's Zipangu is a work of the imagination, whose existence is not to be recorded on nautical charts (as just such an alternate, imagined world it appears in Kaizo Hayashi's 1992 film Zipangu); yet it is an image of a Japan that Polo's master, Khubilai Khan, had attempted to invade and conquer, an image of an island about which Polo was doubtless informed by people who had actually been there. In that sense it is on the nautical charts; the Great Khan's ships, after all, had found their way there in 1274 and again in 1281. Takahashi Mutsuo's poem, identifying the poet as an inhabit of Zipangu, locates its protagonist both on and off the map of the literal, in the space between Japan and Xipangu, and it is from this space that many of the best of these poems are written.
Everywhere there are islands; everywhere there are unlocated or dislocated individuals; pace Donne, in Takahashi all men are islands. In a poem (On the Shore) which considers the grave of Ezra Pound,
on the island of graves, we meet the observation that
People cannot choose between the shore on the other side
and the shore on this side.
All we can do is just think of the other shore
from one of the other shores.
Even if we reach one of those shores
we will have just drifted there by accident.
Polo's vision of a Japan he never visited finds echoes in Takahashi's poems of Ireland, an island he has visited. It is a land where
everything was awake, / even the air brushing my cheeks, / even the sandy soil trodden on by the soles of my shoes. In Takahashi's Ireland
the trees are all trees in which the life-blood is travelling / right to the tips of every branch. Polo travelled without ever arriving (literally) in Zipangu. Takahashi travels from Zipangu to the 'real' Japan — and to many another imaginal realm.
We are at any time and in any place always on our travels he declares in Travelling Blood.
Polo's Zipangu articulated his own aspirations, served as a mirror for part of his own (and Venice's) mind and nature. It was an 'invisible city' before Calvino. Takahashi deals not so much in invisible cities as in invisible (save that he puts them persuasively before his readers) people, especially in a series of poems which close the collection — with titles such as Myself in the Guise of a Traveller, Myself in the Guise of an Ancient Goddess and Myself in the Guise of Telemachus Returned. These are impressive dramatic monologues, creating their widely differing voices and psychologies very economically but very powerfully. In Myself in the Guise of An Ancient Goddess, for example, a divine image, high on a classical temple, looks down on the figure of a young man from the countryside as he stands in the square in front of the temple. The poem begins as a quasi-rational analysis of what the young man's appearance reveals of him —
coming from a wretchedly poor land, your background is clearly revealed / in your bare feet not even wearing sandals. But as desire takes over the voice becomes imperious and compelling (Takahashi writes of interspecies sexual desire with a force that is positively Ovidian!):
My love must devour everything within you — your wonder, your ignorance
and all your youthful freshness.
The reason why I have a mouth split from ear to ear
is to kiss you and to eat you starting from the flesh
of your lips I am kissing until
I'm ravening your body to the bone.
Come closer, young man — as long as you cast your eyes upon me
you can no longer escape me.
Behind us, spattered with the blood of our nuptials,
the world will be burning in flames, like the legendary city of sin —
existence is forever on fire with flames like those.
Though Takahashi's work naturally draws extensively on Japanese traditions (there are poems here, for example, in memory of the novelist Kenji Nakagami and of
the non-being who was (and was not) Mishima Yukio, as well as poems for Lady Murasaki and the great ethnologist Origuchi Shinobu), his poetry is everywhere informed by his familiarity with, and evident admiration for, a number of key western figures; some are named in the poems translated here (such as Paul Bowles and Borges), others such as Jean Genet and Walt Whitman are unmistakable influences. (The influence of the latter is powerfully registered not just in some aspects of Takahashi's sensibility, but in the long-lined anaphora of poems such as Fear Fish and The One that has Wings). The most interesting of these figures is Ezra Pound. Two poems are explicitly devoted to Pound. At times Takahashi's work reminds the western reader of some of Pound's early poems — of the Pound who in The Tree (A Lume Spento, 1908) wrote
I stood still and was a tree amid the wood — compare the lines quoted earlier from What My Right Hand Drew. Elsewhere, Takahashi shares, remarkably, Pound's capacity to feel and articulate poetically the power of Greek myth, to respond to its sense of the holiness of nature. It is striking that some of the most perceptive modern readings of Pound have come from Japan — such as Akiko Miyaki's Ezra Pound and the Mysteries of Love (1991). Here in Takahashi is a Japanese poet who understands, better than most of us in the West, the lasting importance of 'The Terrorist E.P.' explored as he studies photographs of Pound
taken [...] during [his] later years in exile.
It is with the exile — the man who can make a lasting home neither in Japan nor even in Zipangu — that Takahashi largely identifies. In Myself in the Guise of A Traveller he writes
I am forbidden to turn around and look back
because I am one banished from his own village
by the taint of blood. The only forgiveness for me
lies in the eternally closed villages ahead.
I must go on
with my bloody steps on what has
no other name but the Road.
In part, at least, this identification with the outcast doubtless has something to do with Takahashi's experiences as a gay man in a Japanese society still very much centred on the traditional idea of the family.
Michael Finnissy's composition The History of Photography in Sound (first performed in full in 2001 by the pianist Ian Pace) has as its central section 'Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets' (the title based, aptly enough, on Japanese models). The seventeen poets include both Takahashi and his present translator, James Kirkup. Earlier English-language collections such as Poems of a Penisist (translated by Heroaki Sato, Chicago, 1975) have established for Takahashi an international reputation as a gay poet. We of Zipangu contains some remarkable poems of the body, of desire, poems of considerable beauty. Rose Tree reclaims an ancient trope with exquisite tenderness. Myself as an Anatomical Lovemaking Chart fuses imagery of microcosm and macrocosm, the body recorded as
underground ant tunnels, as
cloisters / involuted in thunderclouds and
Arabian labyrinths (the labyrinth being a recurrent image in Takahashi's work), as
tender furnace becomes
raging furnace, and tenderness is redefined in
Takahashi warns us:
we, the people of Zipangu [...] you shall never believe a word we say. As with Epimenides the Cretan, when he tells us that all Cretans are liars, it may be that we should not unthinkingly believe a man from Zipangu when he tells us never to believe a man from Zipangu. Readers who have some understanding of what kinds of truths are to be found in poetry will find in We of Zipangu poetry of profound imaginative truthfulness. Takahashi knows his Zipangu better than Marco Polo ever did, but he is equally unconstrained by mere literalness.