November 13, 2012

Kitagawa Fuyuhiko's Early Poetry: Dada, Surrealism and Social Criticism

Poet and film critic Kitagawa Fuyuhiko (北川冬彦 1900-1990)* developed a flippant, anti-bourgeois Dada style in many of his poems from the late 1920s through the early 40s. At the same time, he tended to treat subjects personally disturbing to him, such as the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and Japanese colonialism and military aggression in China. He had witnessed the latter first-hand in Manchuria where he lived during his elementary and middle school years while his father worked on the Manchurian Railroad project. "The Railroad of Destruction" (Kaimetsu no tetsudô), one of his most successful anti-colonialist poems, combines Dada-like catachrestic imagery with historical specificity. He synthesized themes and principles of design found in Dada, Cubism, and Surrealism with real-life events of immediate social interest. Thus he was able to write striking antiwar and anti-colonialist poetry that is much more than either an exclamatory, emotional begging of a political question or the presentation of an intangible "objet artistique." It engaged and mediated the aesthetic parameters and political ideologies of his time, breaking down the complementary ideals of elegant restraint and the compartmentalizing of discrete 'artistic' and 'social' discourses.

There is a sustained dialogue between the shock of the grotesque and the relatively conservative poetic culture that reinforced the practice of a routinized representation of pleasantly intertwined verbal, imagistic and emotional reverberations that suggest "resolution." Kitagawa's early works went against the grain by both making historical references and by employing figures of irruption that leave objects hanging grotesquely. The obsessive attention to the discreteness of parts to wholes (decisively truncated) conveys an uneasiness born of disengaged context, as in the following poem where the context is war:
It really spins round. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. It really spins round. She spins it like a fish round and round. Ha ha ha ha ha. It really spins round, spins round, spins round.
[from Sensô (War; 1929)]
"Leg," from War, is built on the division between a child-like world of playing with dolls and spinning tops and a world of routine mutilation in the process of organized mass destruction that leaves persons' limbs arbitrarily strewn like toys. This poem adamantly resists the ideology expressed in countless poems that were written from the mid Meiji period until the end of the World War II on the glory of Japanese conquest and the superiority of the Japanese spirit. Not all the poems evoke an absurd fusion of innocence and hell. The following Dada-inspired antiwar poems explore terror and the fragility of bodies. The "hanging" disconnected objects vary in position; they fall, trickle, spin out, contain and protrude in the following selections from Kenonki to hana (Flowers and Thermometers, 1925):
The girl's eight-hundred meter relay. At the third corner she fell with a trickling sound.
Scattering blossoms.
Chart of Body Temperature
Blood runs from the nose.
Ancient Battlefield
The black mountains broken a crescent moon spins out.
On the mountain-side a scorpion raises its cruel stinger. The mountain is rich in iron.
A town with far too many chimneys
beyond a zebra-striped door three girls with dirty hair crowded around a stove.
Along a wall a leaf fell flittering---seeing it, a white spiral follows all the way.
In the desolate town the windows of the Western style house are all broken.
At times seeming to approach satire, Kitagawa's poetry exploits how catastrophes make a mockery of routines in daily life, while other works are explicitly antiwar in their grotesquerie, and, surpassing satire, fuse political commentary (denunciation) with very black ironic "beauty" of being able to locate aesthetic form in the most horrifying of scenes. It is an irony of disorientating engagement rather than the irony of a calm bourgeois epiphany. In Kitagawa's "Festering Moon," an enormous tension (that Kitagawa may have appropriated from Jacobs' prose on art more than his poems) exists between a plausible, exteriorized context and a string of very tenuously associated images. It is in this unresolved space that the reader is drawn into the poem. Typical to Kitagawa's early work, the relations between parts are not fixed and subordinated; each word or line appears to be a response as well as a descriptive addition to an objectified scenario that appears before the poet (as a scene negotiated from memories).
Festering Moon 
steel pipes 
red-black hills

capillaries swelling on the horizon.

It paints a critical, emotion-evoking picture, demonstrating the fine line between surrealist and realist poetry (that Fuyuhiko would cross). Missing in the translation is the association of capillaries to worms, for the word for "welt" or "distending" means etymologically "earthworms-swelling". Here it is rendered a verb by the word suru (to do), thus suggesting in the Japanese 'capillaries on the horizon are earthworm-swelling,' somehow naturalizing the associations by the latent similarities in meaning. The disparateness of the associations suggests a tendency toward condensation and disintegration, as the context is depicted with both land and sea images, natural or everyday images, and with images of war or its aftermath.

In "Railroad of Destruction," metaphors for colonization and war, a railroad and a tank, are fused in one subject. In this way, Kitagawa did not try to avoid manipulating symbols as they function in secondary, naturalized ideological processes in discourses. He has engaged the imagery of a plausible situation that becomes symbolic of itself. It reads like convincing, eyewitness testimony in one way, yet creates a startling tension by combining the juxtaposition of disparate images and an extended metaphor for war and colonization. The "turns" are many, yet he effects his own integrated, forceful denunciation of a socially sanctioned enterprises such as the Japanese colonialist experiment in Manchuria.
Railroad of Destruction (Kaimetsu no Tetsudô
          The railroad of a country at war keeps planting countless teeth, countless spiked teeth in a frozen desert.
          Suddenly an entire village appears--there is not one shrub nor a single bird flying in the frozen, gray desert.
          Surrounding the train laying tracks like a caterpillar, one by one the elements comprising the town come together. For example, the already cold legs of a prostitute. 
          Variations of rank in a line of cars.
          Inflicting pain on people, the railroad is completed. Human arms alter the contours under the ties. It's easier than a withered leaf falling from a tree. 
          Finishing the railroad razes the town -- people gathering buckle to the wind.           
          Desert reclaims desert, leaves a long mark stretching to a star. 
          Wearing away the length of this scar, a country at war reaches out its arms.

          Towards ruin.

"Railroad of Destruction" was written two years before the Manchurian Incident (1931). As a boy in Manchuria from 1910 he recalls that the policy of the Japanese was more than anything else to make the laying of railroad tracks their highest priority: "Railroads were the advance guard of Japanese imperialism, the backbone of colony management. ... They would open markets and suck up raw materials. Through these sort of activities, the overall role of the railroads was to expand colonization" (205). He also suggests that the "Toward ruin" (botsuraku, also meaning bankruptcy) of the detached last line is a prophetic note that most Japanese in 1929 could not have understood, in terms of the fate of the colonization project. Kitagawa develops a poetry and poetics, as in "Railroad of Destruction," that engages not only imagery of the socio-politically 'real' per se, but the social symbolic itself, by challenging the values associated with Japanese colonialism and its emblems. No longer can the building of the railroad in 1910 or 1929 seem in any way benign, altruistic support for China in the name of progress, a Great Sphere of Coprosperity or other slogans. The poem has accomplished with some immediacy, compression, and emotional impact, what an essay or novel might not have. The reflection of the subjective 'real' in a new, negating, alternative 'imaginary' realm of words becomes in Kitagawa a parodist mirroring of the 'real' which negates and inverts the values of the ideological apparatus of the ruling military and entrepreneurial class. In rendering subtle 'parodies' of a sort, at his best he rarely lapses into satire, and even when he approaches this threshold, as in "Sensô" (war), mockery saved by evocative imagery or by the very confessions of the regrettable situation in which his desire for change has lapsed into a pathos.
          Even if they set a diamond in your glass eye, would it matter? Would it matter if they hung a metal on mossy ribs? 
          We must crush the huge heads dangling sausages. Huge heads dangling sausages must be crushed. 
          When will its ashes be blow from our hands like dandelions?
Discussing this title-poem of Fuyuhiko's third collection, Sensô, Sakurai Katsumi writes: "it is a work that expresses fierce outrage at the evils of war" ("Kitagawa Fuyuhiko," in Modanizumu no Kishutachi, Gendaishi kanshô Kôza 9, Gendaishihen III, Tokyo: Kadogawa Shoten, 1969, 129). Anger overwhelms the speaker and the language overcomes usual expectations as to what is poetry: line breaks are prosaic, not marking breath-units but the end of a grammatical sentence; the grotesque (ashes of the war-dead) is juxtaposed with idyllic images of a utopian romance so clichéd (dandelion-tuft ashes blown free from one's hand) that it undermines the pathetic limits of the power of words. It has the effect of exposing the heart of the struggle with the very anger in this hyperbolic gesture which exposes the speaker's pathos in a sort of epiphany. Here too is where we find a Fuyuhiko that has ridden out Dadaist, destructive impulses and held to a sober utopianism. In this way the potential cliched seems to "work" in this context. "Uma" (horses) is undoubtedly Fuyuhiko's most famous piece, and any treatment of his Proletariat-influenced works would not be complete without it. It is known for its innovative style as well as its indictment of militarism that is hard-hitting yet extremely evocative for such a short poem. "Uma" (horse)--extremely brief--reads:
It intestines the naval port.

In Japanese:
Gunkô wo naizô shite iru.

This is an example of a poem with Surrealist tendencies that is not simply playful and defiant. I would argue that if there is indeed parody in "Horse" it is rooted in a brief, steadfast vision of a dreadful sight, a memory that had been lodged in Kitagawa since his youth. The author is very helpful when he explains in his Gendaishi (Modern Poetry):
This poem is based on a scene at Port Arthur that I passed by in my junior high years. When I could at one point look from a hill called Paiyu-shan down on Port Arthur, then a naval port during the Russo-Japanese War, horses were approaching from the opposite direction. Their torsos enveloped the naval port so that it seemed that they had filled themselves with the port. While trying to write poetry some decades later, this memory intrigued me. I combined this with Marc Chagall's "Village" [Moi et le village] a painting in which people are lying down inside the belly of a cow, and formed a poem with the images of a horse intestining a naval port. First, having been dissatisfied with all the various trends in Meiji and Taishô poetry, in opposition to these, I attempted to write by way of this compressed expression a poem on a fresh realization occurring when the suppression of subjectivity had been effected. It was thus natural that this poetic form be compressed in "Horse." (Kitagawa Fuyuhiko, Gendaishi, III, Tokyo: Kadogawa Shoten, 1957, 193-4)
In his description of the genesis of this poem, importance is placed on having found a means of expressing an actual event. The effective aestheticization of the event is a necessity, and formal relations, like those in the Chagall's painting, had to be discerned. In this respect it is interesting that Chagall as well as Kitagawa resisted the automatism of Surrealism. Each removed even this mystification of experience, which the Surrealists saw as a mode of writing and painting that thrives in the overcoming of the dichotomy of dreams and reality, as if in the 'mean' some sort of truth would manifest itself. The techniques, such as the distortion of the perspective of the vast (a port, people) and the comparatively small (the bellies of horses, a cow) that Kitagawa has here appropriated from Chagall (whose style predates the movement and who does not become a Surrealist, though he acknowledges similarities).

Such rearrangement of perspective, as well as the metaphorical association of intestines to both horses and port, irreconcilably suspends in an alternation between the micro- and macro-readings of the image of digestion and a rendering as intestines themselves: do lines of horses entering the port city also resemble intestines, in the attempt to take the town street by street? Or, rather than the city being intestined, are the horse intestines in battle descending on the city (following his recollections of the incident)? In the many disjunctive lines that traverse this disturbing, unstable scene, this poem (predicated on an odd neologism of "intestining", naizô suru) evokes issues resembling the general design of the Chagall piece: even in this one line poem with a title, Kitagawa seems to have captured a dynamic found in the kaleidoscopic design of "Village."
* These notes and translations are extracted from a paper drafted in 1991, the year following Fuyuhiko’s passing.

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