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Takashi Hiraide’s ‘Walnut’ is tough nut worth cracking

by David Cozy

FOR THE FIGHTING SPIRIT OF THE WALNUT by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Sawako Nakayasu. New York: New Directions, 2008, unpaginated, $17.95 (paper)

When a fan of the neglected American genius Guy Davenport wrote to tell him that she admired his ability to express himself, his response was: “Yick!” Davenport’s reaction — somewhere between bemusement and horror — upon learning that anyone could so misunderstand his art, and, indeed, art in general, seems apposite in considering the work of Takashi Hiraide whose “For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut” has more in common with the cool integrity of the best work of poets such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Guillaume Apollinaire — modernists, one and all — than it does with versifiers who appear to believe that writing is a way for them to work through the emotions that wash over them when, say, the sun sets behind bare trees, the seasons change, or a dog dies. Readers willing to leave all that warm fuzziness behind will enjoy the linguistic and conceptual fireworks, the wit, and the mystery that make Hiraide’s Walnut a poetic page-turner.

Like much of the best work done in this poetic tradition, “Walnut” is a collection of fragments. The shortest of the 111 numbered sections is three words; all but one of the poems are compact enough that they can fit two to a page. Some surrender their meaning without much of a struggle; none are blunt enough to be boring.

There are bits, for example, that seem to come from the poet’s life, such as No. 14: “Today, with a triple hangover, I slowly pedaled and pedaled my wobbly bicycle, like / a mist, past a back alley that murmurs condolences.” The play on the Japanese word for hangover, “futsukayoi” — literally: “second day drunk” — is obscured in English, but even those with only barroom Japanese will suspect that it’s lurking there in “triple.”

Other pieces of “Walnut” reflect on writing and its inadequacies: “Continuous thoughts of packaging ice. No matter what I write it melts, even the / address. If and when it arrives, that person will be gone.” This is chilling enough that we can’t quite share the author’s despair over his art, but as satisfying as this bit and the others that constitute Hiraide’s “Walnut” are, as is usually the case with modernist works, the real fun begins when the reader starts to think about how best to mentally slide the fragments around to make them form a coherent whole.

A book-length poem cannot be taken in all at once, but rather must be explored in the same way one comes to terms with a piece of music: over time. Just as one won’t grasp a challenging piece of music on first hearing or from its first few notes, neither will one extract the full riches from “Walnut” on one’s initial pass through it or from its first few parts.

As with all poetry worth reading once, “Walnut” must be read more than once. Even on that first pass through, though, it will be apparent that the fragments are not random, that they are linked. Images recur (“the radiant subway”), as do notions (the inner, the outer, protective shells, tunneling). Several pieces refer back, like a mirror, to the work in which they occur (“A train whose one hundred and eleven cars each simultaneously break into the lead / past the thin hazy air of the midnight sun”).

There is, one comes to see, coherence lurking under the surface incoherence — not concealed, but rather defined by the juxtapositions Hiraide has created. We close the book after our first reading, our second, and look forward to the pleasure we know awaits us when, once again, we crack Hiraide’s “Walnut.”

David Cozy is a writer and critic and teaches at Showa Women’s University.