Friday, April 30, 2010



Genji Monogatari by Mark Young
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2010)

I usually appreciate poems that, while addressing whatever it is they address, can’t help but also reveal an ars poetica. Perhaps all poems concurrently contain ars poetica, but I’m talking about something so deeply held that they can’t help but capture a reader's attention soon enough, before (without necessarily supplanting) other concerns. I found such poems in Mark Young’s Genji Monogatari whose title obviously indicates that it relates to the “classic work of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century.” But, and as facilitated by the collection’s epigraph, these poems also reveal how “The function / of poetry is painfully reached” (“The Paulownia Court”). To wit, the epigraph:
And if you cut it in half again, it gets fuzzier still.
But even if you have a square centimeter of the
original hologram, you still have the whole
image—unrecognizable, but complete
--Samuel R. Delany: Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones

reminds me of something ancient Greek art scholar J.J. Pollitt wrote in his groundbreaking book The Ancient View of Greek Art which was of, let’s just say, aid, in helping me navigate the instability of language as I made or read poems. Pollitt wrote:
When a term like symmetria is used by a late antique rhetorician, one should probably not expect it to have the rigorous precision of meaning that it conveyed to a sculptor of the fifth century B.C. In general, it may be expected that the technical value of a particular term—that is, the value which is dependent upon the special knowledge and training of a particular group—will diminish as the size of the group using the term increases.

I see time’s destabilizing effect (and I include riffs and translations in “time”) implicit in such lines from Genji Monogatari as
“The walls / exhale smoke”
(--from “The Paulownia Court”)

“Semiotics no longer / depend on logic”
(--from “The Shell of the Locust”)

But so enough with my own pet and pat empathies, except to say that all of the above only makes more impressive the turns the collection makes into clearly political poems, e.g. “Heartvine” which begins and ends with the following excerpts:
A number of crucial
points where the domains
of experience can be found
in the military manual
detailing the day to day
operations of the U.S.
military’s Guantanamo
Bay detention facility.


The colors of the heartvine
bleed into one another. The
roads are full of people
& vehicles. The political
revolution is dying down,
is now more sensed than
thought about. Phenomenal.

Well. Is that a powerful illumination on perhaps the limits of phenomenology, which certainly has not been an unpopular trend in contemporary poetry? And perhaps how ironic given how The Tale of Genji is sometimes called “the first psychological novel”…?

And then there’s “The Orange Blossoms” which asks:
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?

Relatedly, I note how “An Autumn Exersion” ends with the line
“Only in music. Symmetry.

I initially read it with a colon: “Only in music: symmetry.” But there is no such colon which would have created a cause-and-effect that would have had the extra layer of being an ars poetica. Poetic enhancements clearly are not a means to abstract one’s self from the world. From “Purple Trousers”:
Carrying a boulder on one’s
back is both a metaphor
& a painful way to go

And so we return to the genius of Young’s take, so to speak, on “Genji Monogatari”. Reading the Delany epigraph that commences the book, I initially thought that Young was to present poems inspired by, perhaps hearkening to, things he read in The Tale of the Genji—that perhaps Young was allowing himself to offer a contemporary re-vision-ing of the tale because, while the original was to be lost in translation, the poems nonetheless would evoke a “complete” sense of and from the original tale (I was speculating in this way before I read the Lulu blurb by Martin Edmonds that describes Genji Monogatari as “a sequence of 54 poems, each keyed to a chapter of the 11th century Japanese classic by Murasaki Shikibu”). But what surfaced more for me was how Young’s poems relate to The Tale of the Genji’s literary technique rather than its plot, by which I mean what Wiki observes as that “The work does not make use of a plot; instead, much as in real life, events just happen and characters evolve simply by growing older.”

Thus, Young wrote his poems as he read through The Tale of the Genji but without disregarding the 21st century world in which he’s living. As with The Tale of the Genji, these also are poems with a psychological impetus. In fact, Young’s book reminds me of Kimiko Hahn who’s also written poems based on her readings of Shibiku’s tale; Hahn uses her intertextual readings to write poems that explore the “relationship between gender, language, body, desire, and subjectivity”. Young’s poems, on the other hand, seems to critique globalism, political and military policies, pop culture, among others, and poetry’s role in such critiques. As regards poetry’s role, perhaps relevant is
…the fishing
lure whose etymology
is entomology
(-- from “The Floating Bridge of Dreams”)

And so we get back to ars poetica. These are poems not just commenting on the world but poetry’s and/or the poet’s role—that despite the open-endedness of language, poems must still be written, no matter how “painful” it is to reach “the function of poetry”. I read “pain” here not to be of (just) writerly angst but given the facts about which poems are made—“Guantanamo” may pop up in one of Young’s poem but “Guantanamo” is not just a word.

Thus, “Early Ferns” may be a conclusion (at least from the standpoint of “Genji”):
Made lunch. Chicken
korma, with coriander &
lemongrass. Taste-testing
as he went, occasionally
adding a bit more spice
to suit his palate. Ate &
enjoyed it, finished off
with an informal cup
of tea, all the time brooding
on traditional Western
philosophy, its hierarchal
dualistic separation, binary
opposites, one privileged
over the other. How different
in structure—preparing
the meal had triggered the
train—from that of Eastern
cooking whose theory
& practice are relational:
Practice informed by theory,
Theory altered through
practice. The history of the
present served up en japonais.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her newest book THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010) over at Litter Magazine and at Tributary. The book's "Afterword" essay by Joi Barrios is also newly-available online at OurOwnVoice. If these reviews get you curious, please note that its publisher Marsh Hawk Press is supporting a fundraiser for Haiti relief by giving a free copy if you order at least $15 worth of booklets through the Hay(na)ku for Haiti fundraiser; as THE THORN ROSARY is priced retail at $19.95, this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.

1 comment:

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Thomas Fink in this issue GR #15 at