Genji Monogatari by Mark Young
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2010)
I had the privilege of selecting the poems and writing an introduction for Mark Young’s Pelican Dreaming: Poems 1959-2008 (Meritage Press, 2008). Young, a New Zealander transplanted to Australia, displayed a broad diversity of poetic modes in his Selected Poems, and to be sure, the book created pressure for his next volume or two to be distinctive. Genji Monogatari fulfills that challenge as a book-length serial poem that, to some extent, comprises an homage to the monumentality of Murasaki Shikibu’s achievement, the range of her depiction of experience in a complex and fascinating cultural milieu. However, in most of the 54 single-page sections (all of which except two are single-stanza poems), Young forces this achievement to engage in dialogue with topics that are decidedly contemporary concerns: the opportunities and dangers of computer technology, our environmental crisis, the negative impact of commercial factors on aesthetic and spiritual aspirations, and deconstruction’s challenge to the tyranny of binary oppositions. Two or three topics are frequently juxtaposed in a single section, as Young does not engage in linear poetic meditations but collagistic ones.
Genji and his fellow characters sometimes show up in the present. For example, in XXXXI, prior to reaching “Ustusemi’s door,” Genji is mired in speculation about financial affairs that have a dubious effect on possibilities for world peace and the globe’s overall welfare. Though “sweat lodges/ put [him] in touch with [his]/ holistic inner self,” he depends “upon the most innocent/ bits of consumer culture—/ LL Cool Jay lyrics or the/ latest news on the Tampa/ real estate market” to predict how “power games” will materialize in “the next conflict” (46). Lady Murasaki’s original text was rife with conflict and power plays, but the crassness of the character’s expression of his desires and strategies is something added, as though Young is yanking the high/low and ancient/modern collage-effects of Eliot’s The Waste Land into an even more troubling period. In another section, Genji is quoted as telling the Akashi lady, who reacts gloomily: “’. . . I want/ to be part of the machine/ & make my mark from/ inside it’” (17).
Young’s poem manifests a constant awareness, not only of opportunities “of turning emails into/ fortune cookies by making/ an inside verse out of the/ imagined message” (6) but of contemporary poetic bricolage enabled by an overwhelming supply of web sources. We learn that there are “one hundred &/ forty-eight YouTube/ clips of the Rolling Stones/ doing Sympathy for the Devil” (59). Even a marvelous rock ‘n roll song can be diluted by overexposure. Imagine Genji, once steeped in a tradition that honors how “old poems/ have much to say about the/ unchanging human heart” (52), worrying about the emptying out of thought and affect or, worse, an intensification of cynicism, in a collage-poetry where associative triggers are endless and incredibly fast:
the trigger? The military
jewelry continually up-
dated from thousands of
sources on the web? Or was
it simply the evanescence
& hostile change he sensed
around him that caused
this bricolage, this making
things out of materials
that were lying about? He
recalled the tanka that
accompanied the dance—
the degree of difficulty that
a mountain climber faces
is unimportant to the tourist
whose only interest is
filming the mountain from a
distance. Which one was he? (15)
In each section, an insistent enjambment tends to push the reader from one reflection, image, or trope to another yet allow for the brief pauses that show how successive terms stand in relation. The “change” fostered by Web 2.0 is perhaps “hostile” to a significant “degree of difficulty” in intellectual and aesthetic work. Tourist-like bricolage seems comparable to gliding and surfing rather than mountain-climbing, but does it have to be? Although Young is making use of the internet’s infinite source-supply and is not unhappy about that option, I suspect that he does not appreciate that “hostility.” The recollection of “the tanka that/ accompanied the dance” in Genji’s (original) time suggests that assiduous aesthetic effort and a respect for the natural world should still be an important priority for those cultural workers who use the latest technology. Those who are familiar with Flarf might read the passage above and other moments in Genji Monogatari as a veiled critique of the movement’s relentlessly leveling and perhaps facile uses of found text.
“LIII. The Writing Practice” offers an ironic account of multi-media sampling without the aim of critical understanding. “In a hurry to be inspired,” a woman has decided not to accept “the limitation of words” and instead, “opened two additional/ browser windows & used/ satellite and aerial imagery/ to explore brief snippets/ of everything from the/ lo-fi aesthetic of classic/ reggae 45s through to/ Mstsislav Rostropovich/ playing Bach” (58). The speaker then intones: “Too much/ distraction—what she was/ after was not conceptual/ knowledge but keyholes.” However, one can be diverted from distraction and toward inspiration by “real time” natural events: the woman goes outside to watch a snowfall, writes the Japanese kanji for “heaven,” and begins to cry “bitterly.”
Throughout Young’s poem, there are pointed references to the environmental crisis, whether apparently factual, provocative, or evocative: “waste disposal/ at a landfill facility [is] much/ more expensive than/ recycling” (13); “The price of crude oil/ is a psychotic ghost/ that haunts my/ poetry” (16); “The Earth/ is a closed system; activity, no/ matter how refined, takes/ nanoseconds off its life, &/ this was gluttony” (51). While none of the sections comprise a full meditation on major ecological problems, the references seem to entail a haunting of the mindscapes of characters who are trying, otherwise, to fulfill their desires and confront their (smaller) problems. Images like that of “North-central Texas. . . stranded in a/ snow storm” (32) serve as a reminder that other concerns could cease to be relevant if human, animal, and other life itself is headed toward doom.
Section VIII opens: “The relativity principle/ holds only inso-/ far as the reduction/ in biodiversity in the/ rice paddies can be/ attributed to the over-/ use of agricultural/ chemicals” (12). A quick Google search may not connect “the relativity principle” directly with the other elements in this sentence, but there has been a great deal of interest lately in Japan and elsewhere in the promotion of “biodiversity” in and around “rice paddies.” Later in the section, Young places the old logical positivist question in an apocalyptic context that is alien to its origins: “The/ longbow moon is met/ by the silence of crickets/ & frogs, provokes the/ rhetorical koan: do/ flowers blossom when/ no-one is there to see/ or smell them?” Regardless, Japan’s venerated cherry blossoms would not be the flowers of post-cataclysmic earth, but some toxic monstrosities.
In a long poem that conveys a sense of a great swath of time while also suggesting that little time may be left for “geo-engineering the Earth/ to control rising temper-/ atures. . . without/ breaking the budget” (57), time is not something that can be experienced in a leisurely or coherent way, especially when Genji takes to the freeway: “He looked in his rear-/ view mirror to make/ a lane change, only to/ see both past & future/ interrupt the present” (37).
Thomas Fink is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008) and two books of criticism. He is also co-editor of a 2007 collection of essays on David Shapiro. Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs published his chapbook, Generic Whistle-Stop, in 2009. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.