Books / Reviews

Of villains and poets

by Steve Finbow

Divided into five sections, the American poet and translator Taylor Mignon’s first solo collection of poetry begins with his “Juvenilia.”

JAPLISH WHIPLASH, by Taylor Mignon. Printed Matter Press, 2010, 78 pp., $20 (paper)
VILLAIN, by Shuichi Yoshida. Translated by Philip Gabriel. Pantheon Books, 2010, 304 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)

The section includes alphabet poems, intricate plays on words, and paeans to bodily functions and excreta. The poems — referencing Camus, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, “Blade Runner,” Radiohead, Joy Division, and, I would hazard a guess, Captain Beefheart: “Oh, skyscraper window shiner moonshine” — are fun to read, their dissonance and alliteration creating mind nodes and tying the tongue in knots.

The second section “Homage” is exactly what it says — a poetic homage to influences on Mignon’s life and work: Shiraishi Kazuko, Laura Davidson, Cid Corman, plus a number of found poems dedicated to William S. Burroughs. The poems are surrealist riffs on language, similar to Clark Coolidge’s paradiddle-rhythms, reflective and experimental, imagistic and (discordantly) musical. By throwing seemingly unrelated words and images together, Mignon juxtaposes meaning and sense, recombining the possibilities of memory and autobiography:

outta that world

ditty electronica & raw

a close encounter of nude kind wind

groovy syncopated psychedelic gravy

“Short Poems” make up the third part of this collection, some reading like cut-ups by the aforementioned Burroughs; others are further nods of the head to Japanophiles like Robert Whiting and Ben Patterson — the poem “The Friggies of Ben Patterson” being a humorous postmodern update of Basho’s frog haiku and Ginsberg’s Beat version: “The old pond/ A frog jumped in,/ Kerplunk!”

In “Smoke,” the fourth section, Mignon showcases his love of language, his awareness of advertising methodology, his knowledge of modern and contemporary poetry — again there are acknowledgments to precursors Anselm Hollo and Amiri Baraka, the poems shot through with puns, flexible meanings, and violations of logic.

The concluding section, “Japlish Whiplash,” contains Mignon’s surrealistic haikus, interpretations of Japanese poems, and sometimes nonsensical yet resonant compositions about Japanese urban and naturalistic landscapes.

Together, the sections of “Japlish Whiplash” fuse the traditional and the experimental, conflate lyricism with fractured syntax, find their inspiration in post-1945 American poetry, Japanese film, music, and culture to form a collection of funny, shocking, and sometimes touching poetry. Taking his cues from Kerouac’s “Book of Blues,” alternative and psychedelic trance music, butoh, and the chance composition of haptic poetry, Mignon’s work is steeped in the avant-garde yet surprisingly palatable.


Through an online dating website, Yoshino Ishibashi, a young insurance salesperson living in Fukuoka, arranges to meet construction worker Yuichi Shimizuon — it is not the first time the two have met for trysts in cheap love hotels. The next day, the police find the strangled body of Yoshino on the eerie Mitsuse Pass that crosses the Sefuri mountains in Kyushu.

How many men had Yoshino met online and dated? Were they all real? So begins this intriguing thriller, part social commentary, part dark and ghostly noir.

Shocked, her friends and family attempt to piece together the facts about Yoshino’s life, her secret men, her fantasies, and her desires. Who really was this woman they called daughter, friend, or girlfriend?

Keigo Masui, the prime suspect, has disappeared, and the detectives start a search for this young rich ladies’ man who may or may not have been Yoshino’s lover.

In Nagasaki, Yuichi’s relatives suspect him of having something to do with the murder and a young woman flees when she encounters him in the local hospital — Yuichi was a creepy customer in the soapland in which she once worked.

The police continue to question men who had dated Yoshino — or whatever name she went by when they met.

The author ratchets up the tension, the coincidences, and the unreality, creating a panoramic view of Japanese society and the intrigues, lies, and identities men and women create in the search for sex and for companionship.

There are also questions here about the rights and status of the older generation of Japanese citizens and their moral and affordable access to medicines; and about pharmaceutical rackets, fast food outlets replacing traditional restaurants, the culture of fake fashion and runaway consumerism, hikikomori, and the role of the Japanese family in the 21st century.

An intelligent contemporary thriller, “Villain” pumps new life into the whodunit genre, asking questions about identity, culture, values, and the widening gulf between reality and make-believe in our technologized world — Shuichi Yoshida cleverly using love hotels, pachinko parlors, and the Internet as metaphors for our bright, shiny, dehumanized and automated lives.

Beautifully translated by Philip Gabriel, and with a cover designed by Chip Kidd, “Villain” is a worthy edition to Japanese noir. I look forward to seeing the movie version that was released on Sept. 11th.