For some time, I’ve been meaning to write a few words to say how bowled over I am by the newest book by the feminist writer ARAI Takako, a Japanese poet whom I think is one of the undiscovered geniuses of contemporary Japanese letters. Not only is her work socially involved and globally aware in a way that is unusual to find among contemporary Japanese writers, her use of vibrant, living, dialect-studded language gives her a voice that is utterly uniquely her own.
Her new book 『ベッドと織機』(Beds and Looms), published in late 2013 by Michitani, is a probing investigation of labor, women’s status, desire, and disaster in contemporary Japan. Many of the poems in this collection are from her “Factory” series, which describes the experiences of her and the other women workers in her father’s small textile factory in Kiryū, a city in Gunma prefecture known for weaving. I have much to say about those poems, one of which I translated for Southpaw, the leftist journal of global art and writing, but for the moment, I’d like to comment on one of the poems in this collection inspired by the March 11, 2011 disasters.
Arai has written that in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, her friends repeatedly urged her to write, realizing that they were living through momentous times and hoping that she could somehow come to grips with their experiences through language. In an essay written in 2013 for the Museum of Contemporary Japanese Poetry, Tanka, and Haiku, she wrote,
I believe, without a doubt, that people desired poetry. As the immeasurable anxiety brought about by the tsunami and nuclear accident continued to grow, I was communicating with my friends via e-mail and telephone. They spurred me on countless times, saying, “It is precisely because of this moment we are living through that you need to write poetry.” I was taken off guard because I felt this was the first time that I was told this sort of thing by someone who had no connection with poetry.
Cited from “Kodama deshō ka, iie,” in Nihon Gendai Shiika Bungakukan, ed. Ashita kara fuite kuru kaze: 2011.3.11 to shiika, sono go. Kitakami-shi: Nihon Gendai Shiika Bungakukan, 2013, pp. 4-5.
In early May, Arai made a trip to Kesennuma, one of the coastal Tōhoku cities leveled by the tsunami. While there, Arai found that shoes and clothing from the tsunami victims were still washing onto shore daily, and she decided to write about that in her work. (In fact, the photographs of debris that I have posted above are ones that Arai took while in Kesennuma.) The site of the shoes inspired her to write the poem “Katahō no kutsu,” which she read in numerous poetry vigils in mid-2011 as a eulogy to the victims of 3/11. I have translated this poem as “Half a Pair of Shoes” for a collection of 3/11-related poetry that is currently under review.
In this poem, the poppy, which serves as a symbol of the poet herself, leans toward the wet, memory-soaked shoe, and the shoe opens its “eyes,” which have born silent witness to the disaster. The eyes seem to morph into the eyes of the deceased child, and the poppy/poet imagines the visions reflected in his eyes in the final moments of his life. The poem’s abrupt ending, however, suggests the problems of such a project. The object, which seems so suggestive, seems to want to help the poet discover the story, dropping a shoelace deep inside, as if trying to provide a lifeline to the missing person and his memory. Still, it is clear that the missing child cannot return, and his story is only knowable through guesswork. The poppy/poet cannot offer any meaningful salvation to the child, who is already gone. All it can do is drop its petals inside the shoe. In other words, the poet cannot really recover lost lives; all the poet can do is invite the silent shoe to serve as the starting point for a story.
Elsewhere, in commenting on her own pre-2011 work, Arai has noted that one of the major projects of her poetry is to provide a space that would allow the ghosts of the past to haunt her and her readers.
Ghosts and spirits have the power to teach us the past. There is a part of me that believes that. We tend to forget everything so quickly, don’t we? We humans go through life in such an irresponsible way. That’s especially true now, when our societies and economic systems speed forward at full tilt leaving us to chase after them. Our amnesia extends even to our worst tragedies. That’s why I want ghosts and spirits to remain close, so they can be our teachers.
The poem “Half a Pair of Shoes” is an attempt to do exactly what she has described here—to allow the ghosts of the recently deceased victims of the tsunami back onto the stage of history—even while remaining aware of the limitations of that project. As this poem reminds us, the desire to remember will always ultimately run up against the unknowability of traumatic experience, creating an insolvable epistemological problem.