New Directions & Poetry

For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut

Posted in Uncategorized by New Directions on February 25, 2009

Since last week, I’ve been meaning to post a bit from Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. I first received this manuscript from the editor last May, right before BEA. Along with a galley and another manuscript, I was doing a very rushed catch-up reading on my flight (I was living in San Francisco then…and BEA was in LA that year, not exactly the flight to get much reading done) to prepare myself for several days of talking with booksellers. In that hurried skimming read, I saw so much joyful language in Hiraide’s poetry that I immediately returned to it after the intense BEA time. My more leisurely reading confirmed what can only be described as one of the most unusual and spectacular long poems I have read in a long time.

Most recently, Three Percent recognized the book and the translation by awarding it with their Translation Award for Poetry at Melville House award ceremonies.

I wish I was articulate enough to describe this book with justice…but all I often end up doing is rambling about nature, subway trains, urban life, walnuts, beetles…the translator, Sawako Nakayasu, does a much better job. She writes in her foreword:

“Hiraide composed much of FFSW while he rode the train for work each day, but here the train-to-person (container-to-content) relationship is reversed: `Just then, I noticed a rusty blue rail bursting out of my chest…’ (#59). The contrapuntal relationships between entry and exit, internal and external, nature and the city, are further manifested in the radiantly glowing subway, or a tree pushing its way into its hometown tide. Epic struggles of love and war are cast at walnut-scale: acts of violence are enacted upon the hard shell of a snail, a rotting plum, the poetic line as it is shattered into fragments. Hiraide, ever the baseball fiend, thus loads up the poetic bases — while the ball comes wafting in like a corpse candle, and a `hit’ occurs as a moment of eye contact between strangers. One waits, alert, in the outfields or in an emergency reservoir of water: `And so it was that the young minnow leaps, quick have a fire!’ (#92) In linked fragments that contort the desperate pinings of a love poem, a rescue fantasy, a desired state of emergency, this moment known as the present is amplified — or, perhaps, exploded.”

Now that you have read about this poem, I hope you will go on to read the excerpt:

The radiant subway. The wall that clears up endless. A thundering prayer of steel that fastens together the days, a brush of cloud hanging upon it, O beginning, it is there — your nest.

The sound of the bursting flesh of fruit scatters between your ears. The forefront of this spray beckons to those outside of sorrow.

Things that rain, and things that grow. They are all that hold my interest. (Until the things that rain have grown, and the things that grow have poured.) Things that grow, and things that rain. They are all that I desire. (Until the things that grow cease to grow, and the things that rain no longer rain a single drop.)

Unaware of the arc lamp above, she reads intently one day — “The one who loves without hope is the only one who knows that person.”

Along the coast lined with warehouses, you were born in a pool of light. With the almond eyes you inherited from the traits. Tidal hair connecting the islands. Your burning cheeks. Soft legs that trip up at times. Though forced to fight in one place after another, because you harbor a resistance to death inside the skill with which you keep your voice down, your age slowly comes to rest upon the backsides of days.

In the wind-whirled grass, blend yourself in with the soft tear of the decayed rice paper or freshly unearthed beak. Break your bones, open your skin, and strive to get the inerasable grease, entangled and rippling up — to finally rise from the lips, toward the grass-tips, to bleed apart in scatters.

I am particularly fond of #3, how Hiraide takes a simple statement and reworks it from multiple viewpoints.

The book contains 111 of these prose stanzas which weave in and out through themes, ideas, and objects. One of the distinguishing factors of post-Romantic poetry is coming to terms with the city, describing the technology and societal shifts, negotiating our moves from country villages to complicated cities which shape different relationships with nature and other human beings. For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut embraces this poetic challenge joyfully and exuberantly.

–Soo Jin


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