I first saw Gozo Yoshimasu read many years ago. He began on his knees chanting in a whisper, not making eye contact with the audience. He was already absorbed into his performance. He was already inside himself. Present, but making contact with something else. His language was incantatory—the words barely audible. In fact, the sounds we were hearing weren’t even always words. Gozo was breaking down Japanese language into phonemes, into counterpointed sonic progressions and rhymes. He was weaving into the mix fragments of English, French, Chinese, and Korean. If we in the audience had been able to look at the poem we were hearing him recite, we would have noticed not only the multiple languages, but the multiple scripts for writing them. He includes fragments of English, French, Chinese, Okinawan and Korean and he uses multiple scripts—romanji, Korean hungul, ruby annotations, and invented man’yo-gana and pictographs such as and , as well as normal Japanese kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Together, they function like stacked chords in a musical composition, creating harmonic complexes through which three or more melodic lines could be tracked. All of the text is rendered in an expressionist explosion of different colored inks.
Onto the floor of the stage, Gozo began to spread a collection of fetish objects. Not the beautiful little objects that Westerners often associate with Japanese art—netsuke or origami, for instance. Gozo’s fetish objects were as common as a stapler, pebbles, a hammer. All the while that he chanted and rang a little sheep bell that hung from his neck, Gozo began to unroll a long copper scroll along the floor. The volume of his chanting increased.
On the fifteen-foot unrolled copper scroll, we in the audience could make out various engravings or seals. Over the course of several minutes, still sliding around on his knees, Gozo began to prepare an unmarked section of the scroll. In his left hand, he held a chisel over a blank section of the copper. He picked up the hammer with his right hand.
At some point, a French musician began to make wailing cat sounds on his guitar. Gozo repeatedly raised and lowered the hammer over the seal with the slow formality of a Noh actor. His voice changed pitch. His conjuration took on an ancient sonority, a sound that might have come from a time before the Manyoshu formalized a common Japanese tongue, when traces of Chinese were more apparent in speech and etymology. He seemed to be declaiming as though he were possessed. Of such moments in his readings, he has said that his body harbors memories from early childhood when, strapped to his grandmother, he was exposed to kabuki and bunraku performances. He has said that in childhood, he suffered a kind of autism that made him hypersensitive to sound.
It isn’t some romanticized originary language Gozo seeks, but a marriage of languages, he tells me, moving his hand in the air as though erasing a blackboard. Hence the presence in his work of Chinese, Okinawan, English, French, Korean, simplified marks and pictograms. In some sense, Gozo’s poetry takes place before calligraphy, outside of language, but, as he says, “touching it.”
It might be observed that this poetry has not been translated from the Japanese so much as it has been translated from Gozo Yoshimasu. And yet, as inflected as it is by visionary experience, by shamanism and an international avant-garde, Gozo’s artistry, the clusters of motives connected by word play and literary precedence that defines his writing, has developed in the context of Japanese poetics, from forms as modern as yakuza slang (which works a bit like Cockney rhyming slang) and as old as the tanka.
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Gozo’s poems often explore, like Matsuo Basho’s, moments in journeys that are at once physical and spiritual. Hence his trips to Hiroshima, to Namie (where a nuclear power plant meltdown contaminated the landscape) and to Rikuzentakata (where a tsunami permanently dislocated twenty thousand people and demolished every structure). As part of an ethical inclusiveness, he scrupulously cites the names of others with whom he shares conversations. Characteristically, he ceremonializes those references by citing dates and place names:“IN Kasumi, WITH Sato Masayoshi-san, last Year of the Rat—December 2009—31st, at three o’clock, just at year end….”. He refers to friends and strangers and long dead writers with tender reverence. Adonis is “that great poet of Dimashq (Damascus).” The Japanese filmmaker is “that Dear Ozu Yasujiro.” Even a puppy is honored as “His Dogship.” Gozo goes so far in his honorifics as to curiously dedicate someone else’s poem, Hoshi Saigyo’s 12th century “Furrowed Road of Embers,” to a contemporary poet that he admires. It is critical for him to credit the words of others. Partly, he says, he does this out of shyness. He readily yields his own voice in order to allow for other voices.
Many poems are addressed to marginalized people—the Ainu of Japan, for instance —and to signal sites of presence and absence, to places from which people have disappeared. As Sayuri Okomoto points out, much of Gozo’s writing, along with the films called gozoCiné, comprise the record of a never-ending conversation with the dead. As though for Gozo all language, but especially poetry, is memorial. Since the 3-11 disaster in Japan, that complex of catastrophes—the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak that caused more than 20,000 deaths and forced the evacuation of 280,000 people—Gozo has felt called to “live as a poet.” What this means for him is to cultivate a constant vulnerability, an ongoing receptiveness. It is an ethical stance.
What is missing from Gozo Yoshimasu’s poetry on the page is about anything that resembles conventional poetry. Gozo’s work sprawls, expanding and contracting like the universe. With side notes, multiple voices, repetitions, parentheses, super and minor scripts, with ruby—those small annotations that appear above base characters to indicate pronunciation—and quotations (often from 19th century American writers like Melville, Dickinson, and Emerson), Gozo’s poems take on a Talmudic density. His focus on the letters and characters that make up words and his penchant for elaborate visual and aural rhymes, literary references and narrative sketches might even seem, to the Western reader, cabbalic.
Undoubtedly, Gozo Yoshimasu is one of the most distinct, innovative, and influential poets of our time. It has been said that his poems are untranslateable. But all poems are untranslateable until the right translator shows up. Because translation, in its many senses, is a constant theme in Gozo’s writing and because his work generates so many different reading experiences, the best way to share his poems with an English reading public may be through multiple translators, each approaching from a different angle. This would be in keeping with Gozo’s own polyvocality and with the open- endedness of his body of work.
Some readers may question whether these innovative translations represent the original. But I wonder if the goal of “representing” the original is the goal of translation at all, given that the work is necessarily subjected to alteration, transformation, dislocation, and displacement. And given that transformation and displacement are major concerns in Gozo’s work, maybe there are times when NOT “representing” the original is precisely what permits the creation of something less definitive but more ongoing, a form of translation that amplifies and renews the suppleness of the original poetry’s meanings. Maybe there are times when the original doesn’t function as any kind of definitive representation.
I’ve assembled a crack team of translators and encouraged them to bring Gozo into English by any means necessary. Derek Gromadzki has taken the notes written by those translators and subjected them to another kind of translation, drawing them closer to Gozo’s poetry (and perhaps, in their metamorphic shift toward a more vertical orientation, closer to an Asian axis).