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Review: We of Zipangu, by Mutsuo Takahashi

John Hartley Williams, The London Magazine, Dec 2007 – Jan 2008

Let us consider the Japanese poet Mutsuo Takahashi, who has been translated by James Kirkup and Tamaki Makoto. It inspires confidence to see both names on the translation credits as we can assume that Mr Makoto will be competent in not-Japanese as we know Mr Kirkup will be competent in not-English. The book is published in the Arc Visible Poets series and provides the complete Japanese text at the back for those who are competent to match original with copy. Takahashi's poetry is not of the 'sickle blade of the moon on starlit waters' school but is more expansively modernist. He takes us, for example, into 'The Brain of Borges', which turns out to be like a dark children's rhyme:

inside it there is a labyrinth
inside the labyrinth letters are packed
inside the letters a garden is concealed
inside the garden a tiger is living
inside the tiger a mirror is submerged
inside the mirror it is filled with darkness

A poem dedicated to someone Takahashi never met ('I go on just missing bumping into him') reminds you of another children's rhyme 'I met a man who wasn't there...' Takahashi meets himself also, a lonely boy on a swing. There are poems shot through with homo-erotic lust, list poems, lost poems, all the poems that a man of powerful intelligence and creative drive can write, and the translations read very well. Dare I say too well? They are extremely easy to follow - which may or may not be a recommendation.