I’ve met the poet Kazuko Shiraishi three times, on each of her visits to New York. Shiraishi made her latest trip to this city in the spring of 2002, to mark the publication of “Let Those Who Appear,” the second book of her poems to be released by New Directions, the prime American publisher of poetry. New Directions has accorded that honor to no other Japanese poet.
The first time I met Shiraishi was in the early 1970s, when she was taking part in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and came to New York to see me. A few months earlier, I had published “Ten Japanese Poets,” a collection of Japanese poems translated into English, which included work by Shiraishi. It doesn’t require special candidness to say I chose her because of the titillating title of her book-length poem, which she completed in 1970: “Seinaru Inja no Kisetsu” (“The Season of the Sacred Lecher”).
In fact, Shiraishi, then in her early 40s, was at the height of her notoriety as a “sex poet,” even a “penis poet,” as she ruefully acknowledged. But “The Season of the Sacred Lecher” is not an unrelieved description of sexual acts. Composed under the influence of jazz in general and, in particular, John Coltrane, who once made an observation to the effect that he could discover what he wanted to express only after playing solo for an hour or more, the poem has a number of exploratory passages.
Still, it also has lines like:
I’ll pick up a man on the street, pick, suck, roll him into a cigar . . . I think of the small flesh, the dailiness. I want your flesh that dances into the dailiness in fragments, consumes itself and disappears.
Now you aren’t a “sweet tooth,” but “sweet spoon.” I lower myself a little before life’s real or serious abyss and make the spoon brim with honey, poison (Honey is poison, yes?) and let it flow from my lips into throat, from throat into breast from breast down toward the deep well.
Shiraishi, who was born in Vancouver but taken to Japan before the Pacific War broke out, spent the years of postwar chaos in a tizzy of sexual adventures. As she put it in her autobiographical sketch, “a green-eyed sailor, an Arab merchant, a Turkish military officer who readily shed large drops of tears, and an array of other men dizzily showed up and went away.” The title of her 1970 book, in any event, was alluring enough for poet Kenneth Rexroth to use it for a selection of her poems he edited for New Directions in 1978, choosing to translate the title as “Seasons of Sacred Lust.”
The second time I met Shiraishi was in 1985, when a New York group organized a festival of Japanese poets. During the extravaganza at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, I saw her “perform” with a band, a hallmark of her reading. By then popular internationally, Shiraishi was expanding her subject matter to cover concern for mankind, the Earth, animals and political conflicts, as is clear from “Let Those Who Appear.” For this small selection, translators Samuel Grolmes and Yumiko Tsumura have picked poems from the seven books of Shiraishi’s works that have appeared since 1984. Not one of the poems has to do with sex, unless imagining an ancient Aegean queen urinating in the title poem is considered sexual.
The poem Shiraishi apparently wrote during the Persian Gulf War, “The Marathon Man Heading For Destruction,” may typify the poet’s recent concern. It reads, in part:
The sickness of earth’s time is heavy Mankind thinks belief and desire Justice and diplomacy are all the same No longer embarrassed about anything Belief in power rules the world
But as I quote these lines, the poem eerily reads as though written to portend the present conduct of what a foreign policy commentator has called the “hyperpower.”
Because of her earlier notoriety, and because of the heights she has attained in her career as a poet, I should discuss the idea of Shiraishi as “a black sheep, an outsider in her own society,” as Grolmes and Tsumura characterize her. “Black sheep” is a term she used, in English, in her 1996 collection of autobiographical essays. In that book, she described her life in Japan as a struggle to prevent “banishment.” When she was labeled a “sex poet” or a “penis poet,” she obviously felt she was being maligned.
To a great extent, however, I think she enjoys being regarded as a black sheep. She once told me that she was invited to sit on a panel of judges for a haiku contest. She guessed she was asked to do that, she said, precisely because she was an outsider to the tradition-bound haiku world. The field of haiku in fact is commodious enough to allow a range of innovators. But in the main it remains, as I said, tradition-bound. Obviously, though, haiku people invited her, and her status as an outsider was the reason.
Shiraishi certainly is not a black sheep in the sense of someone ostracized. She has won a number of prizes, among them the Yomiuri Literary Prize and the Takami Jun Prize awarded to her 1996 book, “Arawareru mono-tachi o shite” (“Let Those Who Appear”). And the Order of the Purple Ribbon she received in 1998 is not an award for a particular work, but for a lifelong contribution to literature and the arts — for “innovations and improvements.”
What do her fellow poets actually think of her? Some evidently consider her a little too “loud,” her style a little too diffuse. But then John Ashbery, the premier poet in America today, has a coterie of detractors.
Asked how he assesses Shiraishi’s achievements, my tanka poet friend Tatsuhiko Ishii replied: “She may not have created a new school of poetry or anything like that, but her status as a lone star has been an encouragement” — to those, I think Ishii meant, who want to make it by maintaining an independent stance.