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Sunday, 29 July 2018

Book review: For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Takashi Hiraide (2008)

This book of poetry was first published in 1982 in Japanese as “Kurumi no sen’i no tame ni”, which translates directly as “for the fighting spirit of the walnut” or “because of the fighting spirit of the walnut” and it’s a curious collection that has echoes of surrealism and also of the type of poetry that was appearing on the west coast of America after WWII. This English translation was brought out by New Directions, which is based in San Francisco. I forget where I learned of the book, it came to me by some process similar to magnetic attraction on the internet. As things tend to do.

But it’s not very good. Poetry is unmistakeably present but you are not often able to settle on anything that closely approximates to a distinct meaning. Meaning is something that seems to emerge as your eyes scan each line but which ultimately eludes your grasp like a mirage on a road in the outback as you pass through in your car. The heat haze entices the imagination but doesn’t deliver much in the way of images. Nothing solid enough to want to shake hands with at least.

There is the odd line of signal beauty, such as “One who looks into a single pair of eyes has already drowned in all of the waters” (verse 64) but overall the poetry resists the lure of daylight and stays in its burrow like a wild animal too shy to venture into the realm of the sun. It has traces somewhat like the poetry of Fernando Pessoa but without the consistency and strength of purpose and fey brilliance of the Portuguese writer.

The verses mainly reminded me of those climbing vines that send out tendrils that rotate on their axis as they seek out supports that will allow them to grow upward or outward into new areas. As I jogged along the river in the mornings before work when I lived in Japan I would see these forsaken green arms that had twined around themselves grotesquely as they ineptly attempted to enter new territory in an effort to help the plant propagate itself.

Trains however form a nexus of meaning in the collection. In Tokyo, which is the largest single urban agglomeration on earth, with around 30 million people living in an unbroken suburban sprawl laid out across several administrative areas all connected by train lines that are operated by both private companies and by the national government, people largely keep to their customary areas. If you live in northern Yokohama and work in western Tokyo, as I did for nine years, you will mainly go between the stations that demarcate the terminals of the journey from one end of the week to the other. Your horizons are severely circumscribed and you are mainly territorial in your habits, keeping to yourself and not bothering people who live in other areas.

The same political parties get elected into office every time an election is held. The quality of the public debate is very low because journalists are prevented from asking probing questions by arcane structures (“kisha clubs”) that are set up to protect from scrutiny the people (mainly old men) who are in office. Political leaders are remote from the concerns of the people, especially from minorities, and serve out their time without bringing in the kinds of changes that society needs to progress.

This kind of supine, domesticated existence characterises the lives of the majority of people living in Japan today and this collection has the air of the production of someone who lives in such a community. One bounded by known markers that in their nature and in their proximities offer up all the necessary aids to living, from shelter to food, and from companionship to the occasional restaurant meal. A quite life, if you will. A car. A house. A wife. A salary. It is in this context that the title seems to offer up the maximum available quantity of signification. A gently irony. A promising simplicity. A plenitude within the confines of a nutshell. But a dud.

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