February 13, 2012

Review/essay on Hayashi Fumiko, "Forget Fugi!" by Douglas Messerli

forget fugi!
by Douglas Messerli

Hayashi Fumiko I Saw a Pale Horse and Selected Poems from Diary of a Vagabond, translated from the Japanese by Janice Brown (Ithaca, New York: East Asia Program, Cornell  University, 1997)

I Saw a Pale Horse introduces Western readers to one of Japan’s most interesting poets of the 20th century. Unacknowledged by her father—which in Japan means almost complete ostracization from respectable institutions and society—Hayashi Fumiko spent most of her early life as an itinerant peddler, and upon moving to Tokyo as a young girl of nineteen, met with and participated in the circles of contemporary Japanese poetry of the 1920s. Working as a waitress and in other odd jobs, she supported herself, and forged a poetry nearly unthinkable in the Japan of her day: a partly autobiographical oeuvre in which she dared to challenge the patriarchal systems of her homeland. Her presentment of herself as an outsider, her alignment with workers and the downtrodden, fascinated the reading public and helped her to sell more than 600,000 copies of her Diary of a Vagabond upon its publication in the early 1930s.

     Despite some dryness in the translation that focuses a bit too much on thematics as opposed to style, the marvelous originality and beauty of her poems come through in this book. Among my favorite poems are “Under the Lantern,” “Taking Out the Liver,” “Red Snails Gone to Sea,” “Spread Out in the Sky the Cherry Tree Branches,” “Stubborn, Strong,” “I’ve Seen Fuji,” “Bone of Fishbone, “Early Evening Light,” and “The Fat Moon Has Vanished.” But others are equally powerful. Despite her circumstances, at times desperate, there is a wry sense of humor and self-mockery in Fumiko’s work. Starvation is evoked by the images of food flying toward her:

                                           Fly to Me, Boiled Egg

                                           Fly to me, boiled egg

                                           Fly to me, bean jam bun.

                                           Fly to me, strawberry jam bread.

                                           Fly to me, Chinese noodle soup.

     At its strongest, Fumiko’s poetry takes on the stock patterns of female deferment in Japanese culture, and mocks its strongest symbols, as in “I’ve Seen Fuji,” where she dismisses the symbol of the great mountain: “Mount Fuji! / Here stands a lone woman who does not lower her head to you / here is a woman laughing scornfully at you.”

     The translator’s introduction is informative and revealing, although at times it displays the penchant of some academicians to bolster simple observations with quotations from mediocre figures. For example, Brown quotes Audre Lorde and others to explain that Fumiko took to writing poetry because of her economic condition and the little time work left her to write. But, of course, one cannot simply choose poetry as a genre like a coat; one must have the ability, the desire, and the talent. And we know good poetry, particularly in the hands of a significant writer such as Fumiko, is not primarily a means of quick “self-expression.” Fumiko’s work is important not just because it expresses a strong woman’s voice speaking out in a society in which women’s voices were seldom heard, but because of her ability to explore language as a tool of experience and definition, an art that takes one’s whole lifetime to accomplish.

Los Angeles, 1997
Reprinted from Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, No. 1 (1998).

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