WHEN POETS GATHER, it is all very prim and proper, for starters. When poets get together in Tokyo, the p’s and q’s gain startling modes of, yes, irrelevance. It is a triumph of perspective, one Seoul-based American conferee exulted. Another American, Tokyo-based, quickly took exception.
“Tokyo may make a fine place for any gathering of poets,” he said, “but it isn’t a city for the practicing poet, that is, for the practice of poetry.”
I had known the speaker, Burt Blume, way back since he served as program assistant in Paul Engle’s International Writing Program in Iowa. He had since made his residence in Japan, successfully entering the competitive but materially rewarding field of copywriting.
From his first and only book, Evasions, I recall the lines:
trailing its oriental gown of light,
sifting through thickest air,
a song of stone, a measure of moonlight. . .
You go on.
This evening five years later, gorging on a traditional Japanese epicurean feast that includes four colors of seaweed, he confesses to have temporarily given up on his poetry. There is no time, no mood, the milieu is not right, not right for it here. . . I look down at the quail egg resting on a bed of burgundy seaweed; I “sift… through thickest air.”
After a string of nightcaps at Roppongi’s Hard Rock Café, Burt and his pretty Japanese girl Hiromi drop me off by the Yasukuni Shrine. I’d like to walk the rest of the way home to Virgil’s at Fujimicho, I explain, I need the air after all that Scotch, sake and beer, else the couplets may not come in the morning. We wave goodbye for the night.
I trudge hurriedly on through the shrine, shivering in sixteen-degree weather—a clear fifteen-degree difference from tropic warmth back home. A scream rends the air. To the ear it is a grand chiche, but the eye is startled by an uncommon sight. A young man stands before the inner shrine’s torii, his right arm upraised with clenched fist punching the air. He smartly executes a turnabout, shouts some guttural lines in Japanese, marches forward, turns briskly left, the left and left again. halts, whips about to the right, raises both arms and pierces the night with another scream as if from some swollen gut. He lurches then, circles randomly about, mutters some phrases, and begins to repeat the process.
A madman, I ask myself, or a drunk? Right-wing extremist or midnight fanatic? The translations into guttural English would have to wait for the morning, perhaps trail after the couplets. Consult Virgil our trusty guide on this, I say to myself, and walk on home to end the alien night.
THE NEXT DAY it is Kazuko Shiraishi who charges in as a tsunami or a villanelle. She is recently back from a reading tour up north, this premier lady poet of Japan. Woman poet rather. Le rock star du poesie, exclaims a clipping she holds up proudly to my face as a memento of last year’s visit to Arizona, where she had been widely feted for her poetry cum jazz readings, tight electric pantsuits and reputed friendship with Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.
She had visited Manila early in the seventies, her reputation as the Queen of Shinjuku preceding her. And in 1979 we had swam and sunned together off Makapuu Pt. in Oahu, where she had regaled me with tales of her “man-wife” back in Tokyo, he who gave excellent massage and shampooed her long black hair with unconventional diligence.
I finally met the man-wife Nobu six years later, that second evening of readings at the Grand Hall. Blowing bravely on a five-foot-long Australian aborigine’s wooden pipe, or didgeridoo, he provided accompaniment to Kazuko’s throaty manifestos on sexual and mythopoetical history. The Shiraishi performance was spellbinding as usual, though not one word made itself understood, to me anyway. The predominantly Japanese audience lapped it all up in grander hush, with most nodding their heads approvingly, appreciatively.
The venerable Kenneth Rexroth, who edited her English-translation volume, Seasons of Sacred Lust, had written of Kazuko in his introduction: “Her poetry can be soft and sweet at times, but mostly it has a slashing rhythm read in what she refers to as her ‘Samurai movie voice.’ Her effect of audiences is spectacular. There is the secret of Shiraishi as a person and poet. She is a thoroughly efficient performer and her poetry projects as does that of very few other poets anywhere. Her parents are Dylan Thomas and Voznesensky. She is also a woman of spectacular beauty.”
At fifty-three, dear amazing Kazuko has preserved her youthful face and figure, and now she undulated onstage in skintight gold sequined pants, using her “Samurai movie voice” to wonderful effect. I imagine that the poem she reads is one from that volume of erotica Rexroth had helped put out. Memory helps ferret out some lines, and in the dim hall the alien city begins to make sense.
At last I’ve settled down on this town
October’s knocked me up
The city that’s almost a womb
Has got me knocking on the gate
If I’m poking hard
The hot will in the ashes
It’s so I can burry my city completely
My city is
Now far distant
It snuggles close to the stranger’s face
Its head drooping on its concrete neck
This is the last of three excerpts we're running from the book Connecting Flights, a travel book, an anthology of poems, stories and essays by 20 Filipino writers on 20 foreign destinations. Edited by Ruel S. De Vera, with poems, stories and essays by Dean Francis Alfar, Butch Dalisay, Lourd De Veyra, Karla Delgado, Chato Garcellano, Ramil Digal Gulle, Jing Hidalgo, Alya Honasan, Marne Kilates, Sarge Lacuesta, Ambeth Ocampo, Charlson Ong, Manuel Quezon III, D.M. Reyes, Sev Sarmenta, Alice M. Sun-Cua, Yvette Tan, Joel Toledo, Krip Yuson and Jessica Zafra.