Disrupting Space

Torii Shōzō's Bearded Cones and Pleasure Blades: The Collected Poems

Reviewed by Andrew Houwen


Translated by Taylor Mignon

Published by highmoonoon. 193 pp., $30.00

In a special issue of Gendaishi Techō dedicated to Kitasono Katué in June 2011, Kanazawa Hitoshi observed how, some thirty to forty years ago, Kitasono’s dada- and surrealist-inspired poetry was barely mentioned in Japan due to his wartime collaboration with the authorities. It was not until the publication of John Solt’s 1999 study, Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katué, that it ‘became possible to discuss Kitasono’ again. According to Kanazawa, however, other poets of Kitasono’s VOU group remain under-researched, with the notable exception, of course, of Shiraishi Kazuko (who introduces this collection). Taylor Mignon’s translation of Torii Shōzō, a poet long associated with VOU, is thus a timely expansion of this renewed interest in the group’s post-war activities.

It was in 1957 that Torii published his first poem in VOU, ‘Blue Nude’, followed by four further uncollected poems that year and the next. In these earlier poems, Kitasono’s influence is particularly apparent. The cool geometry of the VOU editor’s well-known ‘Monotonous Space’ of 1957 (‘white square / within / white square / within / black square’) can also be detected in Torii’s ‘Glass Nude’of the following year:

the inner black
of the white
the inner white’s
tragic explosion (‘Glass Nude’, p. 9)

Whereas ‘Monotonous Space’ more closely recalls the ordered serenity of Albers’s ‘Homage to the Square’ series, Torii’s poems – particularly from Fire Device onwards, his début collection of 1959 – are more fragile, exploring (their own) ephemerality and always on the point of ‘explosion’:

[…] then a fragment
of silent spectrum printed on old sheepskin crumbles
and scatters          beyond doubt          into a rusting dark space
it vainly disappeared (‘Escape from this Virtual Body’, p. 19)

A more decisive shift away from the detached abstraction of Kitasono’s 1950s approach occurs in Black Metaphysics (1961). Torii’s poems turn their focus, instead, on the everyday world made strange, on ‘a ruined scape’ reflected ‘inside a toppled milk bottle’ (‘Black Wind’, pp. 35-37). The half-recognisable urban landscape of ‘Black Wind’ shimmers with mirages and distortions, disrupting conventions of space: ‘black angels in a line looking up at the sky hold giant keys’ as they stand at a ‘yellow sand covered town corner’; a gambling master shuffles a ‘triangular deck of cards’ above a billboard, while the ‘stuffed woman with black glasses’ on the billboard itself ‘takes fake money from a displayed tobacco / pouch’. And then, as in several of the Fire Device poems, ‘all begins to crumble’. Reminiscent of surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou, there is no consciously designed coherence underlying this altered world: the ‘giant keys’ of the angels only tease us with their promise of a solution; and the ‘hungry, grungy god’ is just another character in a scene, leaning ‘on a diluted wall’.

Solt’s study of Kitasono argued that Japanese pre-war surrealism, unlike its French counterpart, had as yet no base in psychology: ‘Sigmund Freud’s theories were hardly known in Japan’ at that time. Alphabet Trap (1973), which expands on earlier collections’ exploration of surrealist themes and techniques, is demonstrative of a more sustained engagement with Freudian psychology in post-war Japanese surrealist poetry. ‘Martyr’ presents the case study of ‘Mrs. A’ and her ‘belly button fetishism’:

Mrs. A in a dream
on a phantom cross, drips thin blood
and offers a bearded cone
to a blade of pleasure (‘Martyr’, p. 109)

Mignon’s choice of book title, which arises from these lines, is aptly chosen: an erotic thread, informed by Torii’s interest in psychoanalysis, runs through all his collections, though Alpabet Trap achieves a new confidence in its playfulness and its viscerality.

The most outstanding poems, however, appear in Torii’s final collection, Wind Semiotics, published in 1992, two years before his passing. As the end of life grows as a preoccupation, his poems explore in greater depth the sense of the transitory fragility of all things that pervades the collection as a whole. In ‘Dead of Night’s Voice’, for example, ‘a man’s back starts to dissolve / through swollen blood vessels, black fluid flows reversely’, before it concludes:

aren’t even deaths just decorations?
turning to dusk
the sky soft and low
barely whispering

The dissolving of one thing – or human being – into another, death’s seeds planted in all things living: Wind Semiotics engages with Buddhist thought in a way that recalls classical Japanese poetry – as Mignon observes, a pervasive influence in this collection in particular – or, more recently, the work of Naka Tarō, while (or even, perhaps, through) retaining surrealist technique in the image, for instance, of the man’s back dissolving.

Mignon’s translations are carefully responsive to Torii’s poems. The near-total absence of punctuation in the originals – far more common in Japanese poetry, whether modern or classical – is replicated in the English, allowing for fruitful ambiguities of meaning to occur such as the ‘swollen blood vessels’ mentioned above in ‘Dead of Night’s Voice’: does the man’s back dissolve through swollen blood vessels, or does it begin a new sentence? Both possibilities are defensible, and help to create a welcome depth and complexity that reward re-reading. Mignon impressively tackles the numerous puns Torii employs: the title of a poem in Alphabet Trap, ‘Shitsurakuen’ (疾楽園, literally ‘disease paradise’), for example, is deftly translated as ‘Paradisease’.

Although Torii acknowledges his debts to Kitasono, then, his is an important and distinctive voice in his own right in the post-war Japanese poetry landscape, combining dada and surrealist techniques, psychoanalysis and literary theory with traditional Japanese literature and thought to create a body of work that is both playful and passionate. It is to be hoped that the revival of interest in other VOU poets – such as the undervalued Inoue Mitsuko, who had a poem or two translated by Rexroth – continues in the wake of Kanazawa’s observation.