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A portrait of the poet as a child

by David Burleigh

TWELVE VIEWS FROM THE DISTANCE, by Mutsuo Takahashi, translated by Jeffrey Angles. University of Minnesota Press, 2012, 243 pp., $19.95 (paperback)

This remarkable book is an autobiography of childhood, written by the poet Mutsuo Takahashi (born 1937) when he was 32, and issued in 1970, although its separate chapters had appeared as a series of essays in a magazine the year before.

Translated now for the first time, it greatly enhances our understanding of both the man and his work.

Besides poems in the usual anthologies, separate volumes of Takahashi’s poetry have also been rendered into English, notably by Hiroaki Sato. One of these, “Poems of Penisist” (translated by Sato in 1975), has been reprinted by the same press as the autobiography. The frank homoerotic celebration in the early poetry has been compared to Walt Whitman, was admired by Yukio Mishima, and finds it origins in the story of the poet’s life, yet is by no means all that this new book contains.

Structured, according to its original presentation, as a series of related essays, rather than a chronological account, the book is poetically original in its wandering associations and replete with detail. So slyly arranged is it that the reader has no sense of incompleteness and is fully able to absorb the meaning of each incident or recollection. Indeed, the first chapter, “The Snow of Memory,” describes the method: “The snow of memory does not necessarily fall downward in a straight line.”

Wisely acknowledging “the fact that memory and secondhand stories tend to intermingle,” Takahashi prepares us for what will follow, which are thematically related clusters of vivid sensation, mixed with occasional surmise, or expanded by hearsay. And this, in truth, is how memory works, shifting in significance. It is not a matter of simply remembering or forgetting, but sometimes of recasting the past to suit our present viewpoint. The poet is alert to this right from the beginning.

Born into a family of day laborers in northern Kyushu, Takahashi lost his father when he was 105 days old and was raised mainly by his grandmother, who left him alone much of the time while she went out to work, or passed him on to other relatives or neighbors. His mother had left suddenly for China, to be with her lover, but was kind to the child when she returned. One older sister was adopted, while another died. The poverty and occasional cruelty of the boy’s upbringing reminds us of the world of Charles Dickens.

Unlike some maltreated children, Takahashi grows past the marks that childhood might have left upon him, and though he tells the tale, he does not make this the theme and limitation of his work. Rather, he describes the circumstances as they were and tries, with some imagination, to understand them. Later, as we know, he had a successful career in advertising, which became the springboard for his success as a poet, until he retired to become a full-time writer.

Words are an important part of this, and we have full descriptions of the tales told to the child by older people, the dialect they used, the songs they sang to him. His extraordinary recollection, its vividness and detail, resembles the autobiographies of childhood by the English poet James Kirkup (1918-2009) written about the same age. The difference is that Kirkup, though working-class, did not live in grinding poverty and had both his parents.

In the absence of a father, Takahashi felt great affection for an uncle, who also died relatively young. Often alone, he sought refuge in his own imaginings, making mud-pies out of dust and urine. The violent lives of those around him touched his, and he was often bullied, yet could also cast himself, with the gift of song, as “a sort of sorcerer,” gaining power over others. On one memorable occasion, his neglectful mother came to blows and suffered bruises on his behalf.

The characters in the book are distinct and vividly depicted, and appear in a series of bewildering events, such as the end of the war, that are recollected through the eyes of childhood.

Poetically linking his views of the sunset and the sea to what was happening around him, insofar as he could understand it, Takahashi invokes a world that has now mostly disappeared, along with its bitterness and hunger. Yet it was also a rich world, for those who managed to survive it.

And what was the secret of survival? Undoubtedly to some extent it was the poet’s imagination. Near the end he writes: “My undeveloped, youthful soul felt a strong affinity for what was outside my world in the realm of the other.”

With photographs and a retrospective afterword by the author, this is an excellent translation of an absorbing and necessary book.

David Burleigh comes from the north of Ireland, teaches and writes, and has lived in Tokyo for more than 30 years.