RUNNERS IN THE MARGINS: Poems by Akira Tatehata, translated by Hiroaki Sato. Vermont: P.S A Press, 2003, 103 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The poet Akira Tatehata has a wide-ranging imagination as rich, and yet as controlled, as the brush of the most delicate artist. His poems are sometimes playful, sometimes philosophical, but always a surprise. He is indeed a major poet who has moved Japan’s modern poetry into new territory by choosing prose as a medium. As Jerome Rothenberg has written, Tatehata has “the ability to move clusters of language and perception into larger assemblages,” a narrative that escapes from narrative to create a world that startles us so we can see.

Collected here for the first time in English translation by the prolific essayist and translator Hiroaki Sato, “Runners in The Margins” contains over 70 poems from Tatehata’s three volumes of poetry. The first of which, “Yohaku no Runner,” published by Shichosha in 1991, received the very prestigious Rekitei New Poet Prize, and is included complete in Sato’s translation. The poems are extremely avant-garde, but they are prose-poems.

Tatehata is also internationally known as an art critic and curator. He has had a major role in bringing modern art from other countries to Japan, as well as introducing avant-garde Japanese art to the world. He was the adviser and text writer for the Kusama Yayoi Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998.

He was artistic director at the Yokohama triennial in 2001 and artistic director for the 2002 Buson Biennial (Korea). He is currently a professor in the research and design department of Tama Art University, and has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University at New York and the University of California at Berkeley.

Considering the credentials he holds, one might expect a conventional, academic approach to poetry. On the contrary, we find a poet who expands the dimensions of modern poetry with his free-flowing imagination. Perhaps drawing from his involvement in modern art, Tatehata has chosen what he calls “the slowness of prose,” possibly to allow a reader to look more leisurely at the poem. In fact, a large number of the poems are constructed with the painterly technique of establishing a “frame,” in the sense that an opening sentence or phrase is repeated at the end of the poem, in effect creating a “frame” within which the narrative is contained. It is also significant that the avant-garde narrative in these prose-poems progresses by an overlaying of ideas rather than visual image. Tatehata not only writes avant-garde poetry, but he clearly defends it as an artistic endeavor.

The acute eye of the art critic becomes apparent too in his obvious enjoyment of playing with language. According to Sato, Tatehata, who is fond of palindromes (phrases that read the same backward or forward and cannot be translated), prepared an original English palindrome for this book. In the poem “Goddam God Dog,” we find several examples of palindromic play in addition to the obvious god/dog of the title, such as “Tar the rat” and “turn your leg into gel,” ending with Tatehata’s original English palindrome, “God lives as a devil dog.”

His language play, however, is not limited to the palindrome. The poem “A Canal Full of Canaries” is built on a sequence of sound echoes or rhymes such as canal/canary, Horn Bill/Horny and peasant/pheasant. But this poem moves into judgment and dialogue that comments on the condition of creative activity. Turning around the wall, I met a peasant in a spice-colored coat. By some misunderstanding, he was carrying a narrow canal. Modernism is now over, ended just now, in fact, the peasant said. It was an age, you know, when delicate men like me could do things. “Don’t you regret it?” I asked. To some extent, I wanted to be polite to a victim. “No, I’m rather grateful.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I don’t have to do odd things any more. I have a canal full of canaries.”

The concerns of the poet/critic are frequently embedded in the poems, as he offers clarification of his concepts as well as his method. In addition to his most impressive poetry, and his accomplishments as a curator — and art critic — Tatehata emerges in the book as a clear and articulate spokesman for the avant-garde in literature. As one commentator has written, Tatehata’s first book of poetry presents his criticism against conventionality as a manifesto. The opening poem in the title volume, in effect, begins with a description of his approach: I have no memory of traveling alone. I laughed at the endless hand-washing, its fierceness, but, that, too, was merely someone else’s shame. Slow travel in which I pile up false quotations. The slowness of prose.

Among the “false quotations” that are found in Tatehata’s poems are references to such poets as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. We may read this as the courage of an experimental poet — discarding the security of conventionality, and warding off reaction to his creative adventurousness by peers who wash their hands of his efforts. He includes disguised or at least restated quotations from works that he respects, and proceeds slowly, deliberately doing odd things he likes. He can be a peasant in a spice-colored coat carrying a canal full of canaries, as well as a follower of Ezra Pound’s principle “Make it New.” He states explicitly in “Book of Paintings: The Setting Sun”: The relationship between reality and consciousness is difficult, but at times the latter swallows up the former.

Tatehata, following exactly his own perception and aesthetic sense, creates in prose a work of art around which we, the audience, are invited to run in the margins with him. From within the margins — outside the limit of a reality that Tatehata has altered to create a different reality — we might be invited to see, and thus expand our own sense of the relationship between reality and consciousness. In this way Tatehata’s poetry does consistently “Make it New,” or as he offers in one of his “false quotations,” Renew your life! Renew your life! Make it still newer, still newer.

This collection of Tatehata’s poetry, very ably translated into English by Hiroaki Sato, gives an opportunity for non-Japanese readers to discover an exciting poet whose clear and confident voice adds a great deal to modern Japanese poetry. It is not just a leap beyond tradition; it is a poetic voice that opens a new horizon in modern poetry. Readers of English owe a debt of gratitude to Sato for making this book available.

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