In the introduction to the first English translation of her work, Takako Arai refers to poems as vacant lots, alluding to the economic suffering of her hometown Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture, and to the open spaces left by terrorism and bombs in New York City and Belgrade.
Open space dominates the first poem in this collection, “The Taniguku” (toad). Short lines and short breaths, it is a seductive reworking of Matsuo Basho’s frog haiku in which the creature not so much jumps but dances into the water — a sexual, playful and mischievous poem subverting myth and classic literature.
Arai’s poetry is concerned with music, movement and language, but not pretentiously so. Endnotes following the poems help the reader with some of the more obscure references. (I learned about an Edo Period Bacchanalian dance, and where Japonesia is situated.) Dance and the physicality of language are strong elements in the book. Butoh-like, the poet forms states of mind out of the body of her words.
In “For Amenouzume-san,” a poem to the Japanese goddess of dance and performance, the very structure of the verse — with its variational yet repetitious entreaties — invokes a seductive spirituality. I applaud the use of the Chaucerian word “queynt” in the translation by Sawako Nakayasu.
“Supplements” is a humorous poem, a catalog of vitamins and drugs transformed into an idea of language as repetitious and addictive, and words as a virus. In the original, Arai uses a mixture of katakana, hiragana, kanji and romaji. The onomatopoeic “Kekyo kekyo kekyo kekyo, hohohouhokekyo,” which, according to the notes, represents a nightingale singing, sounds like someone swallowing pills, and one nonsensical line connects John Keats with the centuries-old list poem.
If this all sounds circuitous or overly “poetic,” then “Give Us Morning” provides a rude awakening. Using the same repetitious, listlike form, the poet shocks us into the now. Dead bodies littering the page are brought back to life fleetingly by language, their violent ends contrasted with the goddess of dance bringing light once again to the world. Here myth meets reality, hope stands against violence, with language as the torch to show us the way.
In “When the Moon Rises,” we find abandoned factories haunted by ghosts and the memories of labor — a truly eerie poem full of beautifully controlled anger. As is “Wheels,” the story of a factory girl who, tortured by hallucinations, overdoses on methamphetamines after being left by her lover. Sixty years on, she haunts the factory in the form of a snake, warning people of a coming fire.
“Soul Dance,” the title poem of the collection, is as prickly and as pungent as the durian fruit it evokes in the last line, while “The Morning Child” is an imagistic-mythic poem concerning birth.
The last two poems in the collection — “Backyard” and “Shadows” — form a dual coda. “Backyard,” with its striking imagery of angelica trees, butterburs and new stems, fights against the inevitable demise of nature that arrives in “Shadows,” where erosion, mucus and garbage have supplanted the world and the words of “Backyard.”
Whatever the tone, subject matter or register, Takako Arai gets it spot on. These poems are funny, erotic and powerful. Even in the prose short story “Mohei’s Fire,” there is rhythm and brave use of language and imagery. The pent-up aggression in these poems, a shaking of the writerly fist against the deprivation and depredation of the economic downfall, is expressed not in violence but in poetic language surging from the page in a dance both rhythmic and tenacious.