Mike Loveday reviews
by Nancy Gaffield
The latest Murakami novel hits the bookstores, the marketing machine starts a-whirring, and Japanese culture is once again making literary headlines. Nancy Gaffield’s book, inspired by Japanese art, and published by the marvellous CB editions earlier in the summer, has just won the Aldeburgh first collection prize. Hopefully this award will provide additional marketing of sorts to bring yet more readers to what is an excellent book of poetry. It is a fascinating themed sequence, responding to Hiroshige’s woodcut prints (made in 1833-4) which charted the route of Tokaido road, linking Japan’s East and West.
It has been said that there is something in Japanese culture which appeals to a British reader – perhaps a shared valorization of reserve and an emphasis on social hierarchy. And one of the great joys of this collection is that its descriptions immerse us in an ancient foreign culture and geography. This is often helped by evocative Japanese words judiciously placed within the poems. There is a long glossary at the back of the book which always helps satisfy the occasional urge to pick beyond the musical and beautiful foreignness of these terms. “The camellia he gave her | rises up like onryō” (Kusatsu, p.60), “Here the sake tastes of flowers| over the ayu | we put our differences aside.” (Kuwana, p.48), “the edo-jin stir ashes to a dogged glow.” (Nihonbashi, p.1).
There are 55 poems here, each responding to a woodcut about a single staging point or “station” upon the Tokaido Road between the terminal points of Nihonbashi and Kyoto. Sometimes the poems describe the locations with verisimilitude; at other times they are more complicated, describing a journey into the woodcut print itself and / or making the print sing with invented narrative. The poems are remarkably vivid, and I found my mind being drawn as much to the ideas of journey and place as to ideas of art and its relationship to poetry.
The nature of the journey undertaken in the poems remains ambiguous – sometimes we’re given an omniscient view of anonymous individuals set in landscapes and towns; occasionally third-person narrative focusing on one of three characters – Hiro, Mariko, Kikuyo. These three remain mysterious, ghostly figures - their narratives hinted at rather than spelled out. The nature of any link between Hiro and the artist Hiroshige remains unclear, however it is impossible not to draw parallels because of the connected names. There is in addition a beautiful and haunting river voice appearing in some poems “I am patient, | my fingers spread | across the plain | reading you.” (Fujeida, p.25), “Lose your footing now | and you are mine, I | will take you away to Suruga Bay.” (Shimada p.26).
There is also an “I” persona, undertaking some kind of personal quest - perhaps for Hiro, perhaps for a stronger sense of herself: “I am almost never here | in these old prints, but look harder, | closer, and I’m everywhere.” (Ōtsu, p.61). We don’t know if Gaffield herself made the Tokaido Road journey, and we are left uncertain whether the “I” voice is making a physical journey along Tokaido as well as an imaginative journey responding to the woodcuts. Perhaps because of this, some of the poems feel like they are set in Hiroshige’s era, some in the present – this boundary of time is blurred. It is difficult to assess, without the prints alongside the poems, how accurate these re-imaginings and descriptive responses are – are they free associations drawing upon the poet’s personal experience? Or are they visually faithful? Looking at the original prints, the poems seem to play with both approaches, which is surely the more interesting technique. Ekphrastic poems, or poems responding to artwork, raise difficult questions for both poet and reader. Does it matter if a poem omits a seemingly significant visual detail? Is it somehow inauthentic if a poem adds a detail not in the original artwork – an object outside its frame say? Or a social context that’s not visible? What about an interpretative verbal brushstroke, or a narrative coming-to-life imagined by the poet? Or are these aspects instead necessary for a good poem to stand in its own right as a work of art? These questions are fundamental to Gaffield’s project.
As Japanese nature poems, the sketching of landscape is gentle, in the wise, conscientious spirit of haiku. They share also perhaps a kindred spirit with the short nature lyrics which have appeared in the second half of Michael Longley’s career. Moments focusing on limpid details can sometimes seem like a haiku embedded within another poem. Here are three lines taken from a twenty-one line poem:
“Wayside shelter, June afternoon
tea kettle hangs from tree branch,
water begins to boil.”
The poems, painter and narrator are caught in a tug of war over their allegiances between the natural and the human worlds:
“Those men colluding under the tree
mean nothing, I yearn for the sea
today coated in quicksilver.”
When wit and tension arrive to supplement the beautiful descriptions, it is a neat shift from the delicate, warm sincerity which is the dominant mode:
“Women sit in the sun peeling gourds
and hanging the ochreous flesh
“The stone ahead
becomes the headstone.”
Fleeting statements of wisdom are threaded into the poems, ranging between the philosophical, mystical, gnomic and more telling: “Here is the dewy path | to leave our cares behind | Hiro says as he hands her a single | camellia”. (Mariko, p.22); “Remove your sentiments | and leave them outside the door.” (Goyu, p. 40); “Remember – all existence is cyclical.” (Totsuka, p.6); “a sign pointing to Kamakura reads | Cultivate the joy of being rather than having.” (Hodogaya, p. 5). There is an appealing balance between these moments of wisdom and immersion in the poetry of sensory witnessing.
Generally we are in a world of gesture and suggestion, moments which raise more questions than answers. In only a couple of places are we struck by words explaining the nature of Gaffield’s objective:
“I want you to connect the image
with the human story”
(Shimada, p. 26).
“There is no clear boundary
between memory and imagination,
memory carries a trace
of place, gives us presence
However Gaffield’s method is usually subtle, building up a picture gradually across the sustained sequence without insisting upon intention, purpose or significance. Compare, for example, the evocative, delicate and resonant style here:
“I look for you in a poem
but find only unendingness,
imagine a day so light
even memories float away.”
Sometimes the reader longs to be given a stronger grip on the lives of the four characters (the “I” voice and the three figures Hiro, Mitsuko, Kikoyu) who appear in fleeting sightings. Perhaps the enigmatic nature of these figures is entirely the point, yet it is still frustrating not to be able to glean more. In what way are these characters found within the woodcuts, or were they drawn from elsewhere? What are their stories and why do they matter? Even the poet herself teases us “Who is making? Who is speaking?... Who is Hiro? A painter? A lover? Whose time does he inhabit? And the women who love him? (Shirasuka, p.37).
With the exception of some prose poems or haibun (prose poem combined with haiku), and suggestions of sonnets, almost all of these poems are free verse, sometimes flowingly shaped, sometimes more tensely scattered on the page. The supreme moments in these poems are places where the simple, lucid language is compounded by a quietly breathtaking use of line break or syntax. Gaffield can be particularly skilled at opening windows of additional meaning with simple gestures:
“Mariko’s reach always exceeded her grasp,
she couldn’t get him
out of her mind.”
There is a discrete emphasis here upon Mariko’s failure and possible obsession, just created by Gaffield’s line break between second and third lines.
Or, less obvious examples: in the following pair of lines, the word “by” has two meanings – has the old woman been discovered beside a memory or discovered through it?
“Too late. I am an old woman
found by a memory” (Hiratsuka, p.8)
And in the pair of lines below, “river” can be re-read almost as a direct address to the river, an affirmation and emphatic assertion that the “I” remembers:
“I am a remnant
river, I remember.”
“Ut pictura poesis” (“like a picture, poetry”) Horace wrote in Epistles, II, 3 (often called the first text connecting the visual and verbal arts). As a poetic response to artwork, this is a compellingly cinematic collection. These poems are in a complex correspondence with the Tokaido Road prints, but also succeed as poems in their own right, conjuring atmospheres and stories without the woodcuts being there.
Yet the book is also about Japan, travel, and the relationship between society and Nature. The collection left me wanting to make the same physical journey along Tokaido Road one day, with both Hiroshige’s prints and Gaffield’s book as welcome creative company, deepening the travelling experience. And by reading this sequence of poems, I also felt that I had made part of that journey already, in imaginative terms.
If you’re a prose reader tempted to travel into Japan via Murakami, but reluctant to be enslaved by the marketing machine which surrounds his new book, why not try a different way in. If you read poetry, this is one of the most unusual and thought-provoking collections of 2011.
Mike Loveday is a British poet, currently taking his MFA at Kingston University. He recently launched his debut collection at the London Oxfam Poetry Series. He is editor of Fourteen magazine.