The always beautiful literary journal Manoa, published by the University of Hawai’i, has an especially impressive and beautiful new issue centering on the theme of freedom and what that means for individuals, societies, cultures, nations, and religions. It also contains an extract from my translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s Twelve Views from the Distance—the entire first, unforgettable chapter of the book about a young boy dealing with his own mother’s attempts to find freedom in adversity. Check Manoa out by clicking here.
David Burleigh at The Japan Times, just published this review of my translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance 高橋睦郎『十二の遠景』. He describes how the book describes the grinding poverty and difficulty of Takahashi’s early life, then states,
Takahashi invokes a world that has now mostly disappeared, along with its bitterness and hunger. Yet it was also a rich world, for those who managed to survive it.
And what was the secret of survival? Undoubtedly to some extent it was the poet’s imagination. Near the end he writes: “My undeveloped, youthful soul felt a strong affinity for what was outside my world in the realm of the other.”
With photographs and a retrospective afterword by the author, this is an excellent translation of an absorbing and necessary book.
Because I worked on this translation a little at a time, often working in half-hour increments pilfered from other projects, this translation took me a number of years from start to publication, beginning in 2006 until around 2010. It was then another couple of years before it found its way into print in late 2012 with University of Minnesota Press, which took quite a chance on deciding publish this rather unusual, but profoundly beautiful book. This project was a long labor of love, and so it means an enormous deal to me that this book review—the first to be published—is so enthusiastic.
University of Minnesota Press just published my translation of Twelve Views from the Distance, the memoirs of TAKAHASHI Mutsuo, originally published in Japan in 1970. The book is a beautiful object: the cover is embossed, and the design shows a small boat floating on a distant sea. In many ways, this captures the right mood for this memoir, in which one of Japan’s most important poets looks across the distance of the years and remembers his poverty-stricken youth in Kyushu during World War II.
On the back of the book are two blurbs. The first is by Edmund White, the great American known for his bold, homoerotic memoirs. (I was thrilled that White, whom I read with such interest during my own adolescence and coming out, agreed to write the blurb for my translation.)
Twelve Views from the Distance is a wrenching memoir about growing up in southern Japan during the war and just afterward in an extremely poor family of day laborers. Utterly dependent on his hard-bitten grandmother and his often absent mother, Mutsuo Takahashi withdraws into himself and lives in his very rich imagination. That he was destined to become Japan’s leading gay poet may or may not be obvious from these painful but lyrical memories.
The other is from MISHIMA Yukio, who wrote the following in 1970, just a few months before his dramatic suicide.
Mutsuo Takahashi has managed to achieve firm prose that, while unmistakably the work of a poet, shines with a black luster much like a set of drawers crafted by a master of old. This book is a magnificent collection of sensations and of memories, much like the toys we might find in a dark closet. The part toward the end in which the theme of his ‘search for a father’ crystallizes in a copy of an erotic book radiates a certain tragic beauty.
My translation of this book was supported through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the PEN Translation Fund. Thank you for believing in this project.
The newest issue of Asymptote, one of the very best and innovative online journals of international fiction, includes an excerpt from my translation of TAKAHASHI Mutsuo’s memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance. Takahashi is one of Japan’s most prominent poets, known for his bold explorations of homoeroticism as well as for his philosophical and erudite writing.
Asymptote includes an English translation, the original text, and an MP3 of a reading of the text in the original language. The reading in this issue is by OKAMOTO Sayuri, one of the editors, and with her quiet, intimate voice, she brings the original Japanese alive in a beautiful way.
The entire book is scheduled to be published in fall 2012 by University of Minnesota Press. The illustration above is by Hugo Muecke.
In honor of National Poetry Month 2012
In fall 2012, University of Minnesota Press will be publishing two books by one of Japan’s most important poets, TAKAHASHI Mutsuo 高橋睦郎. One is my translation of Twelve Views from the Distance 『十二の遠景』, a sumptuously beautiful book first published in 1970. This book describes Takahashi’s troubled, impoverished early life in rural, southern Japan and the ways that his family’s fortunes intersected with the rise of the Japanese empire and World War II. Takahashi’s friend, the novelist MISHIMA Yukio 三島由紀夫, lauded the book with these words.
It is magnificent that in this book, Twelve Views from the Distance, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi has managed to achieve firm prose that, while unmistakably the work of a poet, shines with a black luster much like a set of drawers crafted by a master of old. This book is a magnificent collection of sensations and of memories, much like the toys we might find in a dark closet.
The other forthcoming book by Takahashi is a reissue of Hiroaki Sato’s translation Poems of a Penisist, which brings together much of Takahashi’s most important early poetry, much of which deals with existentialist themes and homoerotic material. This collection includes the long poem Ode (頌 Homeuta), which the publisher Winston Leyland has called “the great gay poem of the 20th century.” It is said that Allen Ginsberg was so impressed by this collection of poetry that he personally lobbied Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Books to publish more of Takahashi’s work.
The Asahi Shinbun online is posting a series of poems about the earthquake written by some of Japan’s most important contemporary poets in commemoration of the first anniversary of the 3.11 earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster. The poems come with a film of the poet reading his or her work.
Just now, I watched Takahashi Mutsuo’s contribution to the series, a stunning invocation of the effects of the triple disaster on language. It begins “Language was what was broken / We did not realize this at the beginning / Because the destruction came so slowly.” He continues on through his reflections on the role of poetry and language in the wake of a catastrophe on such an enormous scale.
In his personal conversations with me, Takahashi lamented that after the earthquake, he went through a period of blankness, in which he felt that language was not enough to grasp, to conceive the scale of the horror inflicted upon the nation. Nothing he wrote could cope with the scale of the disaster, and he did not know how to heal. This coincided with his own realization of his advancing age—another concern reflected in this poem. Still, in this poem, he seems to find the way forward, as he realizes that the world began with the destruction of the big bang and is hurtling toward entropy. He cautions us that language is not always necessary. It is not always necessary to pour trauma into language. Waiting can sometimes be the path to heal.
Takahashi is most recently the author of the book Two Thousand Years of the Poetic Mind: From Susanoo to 3.11 「詩心二千年:スサノヲから3・11へ」, published by Iwanami Shoten（岩波書店, 2011).
One of the most poetic visual artists is the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Each one of his small-scale installations—whether it be filled with antiques, bits of broken glass, balls, sand, or clippings from books and magazines—serves as a small, intimate world that draws the viewer in, inviting him or her to make sense of the work’s poetically suggestive juxtapositions. For this reason, the poet TAKAHASHI Mutsuo 高橋睦郎, has long been drawn to Cornell’s work.
Jerome Rothenberg’s blog has recently posted a translation of one of Takahashi’s poems “This World, of the Man of the Boxes,” written for an exhibition of Cornell’s work held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan and translated by Jeffrey Angles. This poem was such a success that in 2010, when the same museum once again held a large scale Cornell exhibition, the curators invited Takahashi to write one poem to accompany each of the artworks. The result was the collaborative exhibition “Intimate Worlds Enclosed: Joseph Cornell x Takahashi Mutsuo,” which drew large crowds and quickly sold through multiple prints of its catalog. The English renditions of the poems in the catalog were done by Jeffrey Angles. For more information, see the museum’s website: http://kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp/en/exhibition/201004_cornell.html.
TAKAHASHI Mutsuo (1937- ) came to international attention in the 1970s for his bold expressions of homoerotic desire. He is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary poets, with over three dozen anthologies of free-style verse, haiku, tanka, and other forms of poetry to his name. He is also one of the most thoroughly translated contemporary Japanese poets, with four volumes of his poetry available in English, including the recent Irish publication On Two Shores: New and Selected Poems, translated by Mitsuko Ohno and Frank Sewell (Dedalus Press, 2006). A translation of his memoirs is forthcoming in 2012 from University of Minnesota Press.
The always wonderful online journal of international literature Cerise Press has published two more excerpts from my translation of TAKAHASHI Mutsuo’s 高橋睦郎 beautiful memoir Twelve Views from the Distance 『十二の遠景』. Click below for links to the two excerpts.
This lovely book describes Takahashi’s experiences growing up poor in rural southern Japan, during the final years of World War II. The Japanese novelist Mishima Yukio 三島由紀夫 praised the book highly, calling it “firm prose that shines with a dark luster much like a set of drawers crafted by a master of old.”
The entire book will be published by University of Minnesota Press in Fall 2012. The photograph above shows the infant Takahashi with his mother.