The Emerald Isle in a very different light


ON TWO SHORES: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, by Mutsuo Takahashi, translated by Mitsuko Ohno & Frank Sewell. Dedalus Press, Dublin, Ireland, 2006, 126 pp., 12 euro (paper).

We are only too familiar with those books in which a foreign visitor, usually from a Western country, gives their impressions of Japan. In this slim volume, by contrast, a Japanese poet evokes his response to a Western country: Ireland.

Mutsuo Takahashi is one of the most versatile and highly regarded of contemporary poets. Born in Kyushu in 1937, he began writing at an early age and was soon hailed for his mythically based, sometimes homoerotic, poems. Since then his work has developed in a variety of ways, and he has become a master of both traditional and modern styles. Selections of his work have also appeared in English.

This new volume incorporates most of the contents of a collection of poems called “Saku no Mukou,” or “Beyond the Hedge,” that Takahashi published in the year 2000. The elegant original boxed edition had a gold and red cover design reminiscent of the 1890s, and a title-page in Latin, a minor exercise in Occidentalism. Most of the contents, including the title poem, are included in the new book, though differently arranged.

The moment at which Takahashi turns toward the world outside is precisely at the close of the second millennium: “One morning, you open the front door, and find / the world has ended.” Several perplexed meditations on the future begin the book, as the author tries to peep “beyond the hedge” of the present.

For the poet, then reading and writing letters, it seems that “in this meaningless world / our lives are meaningless too.” He is caught between a mood of “rosy happiness” and one of “violet despair,” colors that are beautifully reflected on the cover.

One new poem, “To the Terrorist Ezra Pound,” is not found in the original collection. This piece resonantly connects the strange economic ideas and political beliefs espoused by the great Modernist poet Pound, to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, as “year one ends in a new millennium of turmoil.”

There are haunting, somewhat metaphysical, poems on Ebola fever, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, before the poet finds himself in Ireland. At the start of his journey comes a reaffirmation of poetry’s value in a piece called “Faith.”

Several of the poems that follow invoke the work of Irish poets, like W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, while others are dedicated to younger writers, including two who compose in the Irish language. It is at the wellsprings of Irish poetry (in both languages) that the jaded author revives himself, among living poets. One of the best English versions given in the book is called “Going to the Well,” and has been rendered in the shape of a villanelle. The rhymes are not perfect, but a triumphant refrain runs right through: “Everyone should have a well.”

“The Process,” which describes a reading in Belfast, plays lightly off the “peace process” in Northern Ireland, and raises a glass to amicable relations. There are other celebrations — of potatoes, of landscape — as well as the poet’s quizzical reflections after visiting an ancient cairn, or a prison. All the Irish poems are infused with a sense of pleasure and refreshment, of renewed confidence in the value of what a poet does.

The last two poems, typically for this varied writer, are quite different. One, “Nectar,” refers to the classical tragedy of Antigone (Takahashi has drawn much on European myths and stories), while in the other, “Dog Meets Man,” the poet briefly befriends a stray animal. Both have a certain solemnity as the “traveller . . . from darkness to darkness” confronts his final end. Yet the last lines are hopeful:

Ahead of us the road runs on into the sunset and beyond.

A moonlit road, bright as the livelong day.

This is a delightful volume, especially for anyone who knows the Irish poets Takahashi finds himself among. But it has much to offer any reader. The Japanese and English texts run in opposite directions, and there are some sketches in the middle, where they meet. It is perhaps the first book of this kind to appear in Ireland, and the translators have done a fine job.