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When traditions attract: finding Japan in Ireland

by David Burleigh

OUR SHARED JAPAN: An Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods. Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2007, 232 pp., 20 euro (paper)

The Irish writer Oscar Wilde spoke more than a century ago of something called “the Japanese effect,” in his brilliant essay “The Decay of Lying.” There he describes it as an artificial thing, an aesthetic attitude deriving from Japan. But he emphasized the “art” involved in constructing what was at that time primarily a visual presentation.

In Wilde’s own work, the “Japanese effect” might be the disposition of a curtain in descriptive prose, or the use of concrete imagery in certain of his poems. These painterly effects came about because the plastic arts were more readily appreciable in Western countries. The “Japanese effect” that this anthology displays and celebrates depends as much on literary translation, which took a lot longer to get through.

The occasion for the anthology is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan, marked earlier this year. The book opens with an amusing piece by Fergus Allen called “Battue”:

The origami-master folded away his smile

And swept his extended family into the litter-bin

To be eaten by paper tigers.

There are poems by dozens of writers, both renowned and obscure, and the astonishing thing is that the effect of Japanese art and attitudes has been so extensive.

The selection of poems is drawn almost entirely from the postwar period and shows how ideas from Japanese culture have continued to spread down to the present day. By far the greatest concentration is on traditional matters, so we find lots of references to Basho, and to haiku, for example. (There are two poems called “Unfinished Haiku,” one of them a sonnet.) Among the more striking contributions in this vein is an erotic sequence called “Basho’s Rejected Jottings” by Aidan Carl Mathews.

Some of the poets have visited Japan, and offer lively and imaginative impressions of arrival (Ciaran Carson) and departure (Paul Durcan) as well as interpretations of the life that they encountered while they were here (Sinead Morrissey, Joseph Woods). The results are diverse and individual. The title comes from a poem by the late Sean Dunne, who in a beautiful piece called “The Frail Sprig” speaks of: “a dream / from our shared Japan and its snow / over leaves afloat on streams / where water is smooth as a kimono.” A mystery surrounds this poet’s understanding, which may or may not have come from a direct encounter with Japan before his untimely death.

Other writers more frankly make Japan their own, sometimes in a whole recasting of it, or just in phrases, like the “kimono’s druid sleeves” of Greg Delanty. There are poems in the Irish language too (not always translated) that extend the cultural mixture even further. This is a very rich collection, containing plenty of distinguished poetry and poets, while also bearing witness to the extraordinary mutual attraction between two poetic traditions: Several of the poems are dedicated to visitors from Japan.

On the darker side are references to Hiroshima, whose tragedy is taken up by Thomas Kinsella and Desmond Egan, not merely as a Japanese but a world event. One the finest offerings is Derek Mahon’s poem “The Snow Party,” which engages with war indirectly. Seamus Heaney remarks on this poem particularly in his afterword, and quotes another poet’s observation that “the opposite of war is not peace, but civilization.”

Heaney also invokes the often-drawn parallel between ancient Irish poems, and traditional Japanese forms like haiku and tanka. The book as a whole explores the intersection of two traditions (or rather three, if we recall that Ireland has a dual-language culture). Anyone with an interest in either Ireland or Japan will find much to enjoy in this varied collection.

This and many other publications can be found on the publisher’s Web site: www.dedaluspress.com