Right Eye in Twilight, by Ban’ya Natsuishi, English translations by Ban’ya Natsuishi and Jack Galmitz (Shelby, Ky.: Wasteland Press, 2006). 58 pages, 8.75" x 5 .5", perfectbound. ISBN13: 978-1-60047-016-5. $17.50 postpaid from <www.wastelandpress.net>.
Reviewed by David Burleigh
The Bridgestone Museum of Art in Tokyo held an exhibition this year to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the collection. “From Sesshu to Pollock,” as the show was called, offered an unusually interesting mixture of classical Oriental and modern Western art. Going from room to room to view the paintings, I suddenly thought of the poet Ban’ya Natsuishi. It wasn’t the contrasting styles of East and West displayed together, but a particular painting by Giorgio de Chirico that set me thinking.
The painting is called Troubadour, like the haiku group that Ban’ya leads. In the center is a strange lopsided figure, a sort of tailor’s dummy, decorated with draughtsman’s instruments, armless and with an egg head. Behind it are arches and a dark foreboding sky. The title made me wonder whether this was where the group’s name came from. The content of the surreal painting also seemed to offer an insight into the poems, as if it might help somehow to explain them. It is a matter of technique.
The baffling way in which de Chirico juxtaposes objects in his paintings — receding arches, with a bunch of bananas and a torso, for example — is not totally unlike the way that Ban’ya links random, sometimes archetypal, objects in his poems:
A snake traverses
a road, a human heart
and a song
Accessories of gold and silver
and sweet potatoes
These come from the first and fourth sections of this new collection, and evoke, respectively, war in the former Yugoslavia and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. This is haiku responding to a world of breaking news.
The cover of Right Eye in Twilight fixes the reader with a beady cartoon eye, and the theme that runs through its several sections is a problem with the poet’s vision. He observes himself with a certain humor and detachment:
Illness in one eye:
like a goldfish
White mud piles up
in my right eye—
a new century
The Japanese title actually means “white nights” rather than “twilight.” A literal version would have made an awful jangle, and one can see why it was avoided. The character for “white” is highlighted on the cover, and there are extensive references to this color in the poems. Indeed “white” is a distinctive poetic element in Japanese literature, from Bashô to Yasunari Kawabata, not blank but filled with considerable meaning.
“Roses” figure prominently in one of the middle sections of the book, and seem to represent, if not hope exactly, then at least renewal:
rose and haiku
Though the volume is bilingual, there are no romanized versions to suggest the pronunciation. In this case it is heavy with plosive sounds in both Japanese (hakugai · bakugeki · haiboku · kinben · bara · haiku) and English, but the bombardment of b’s and k’s and d’s gets a little lift from the final word. The words are general and abstract, yet it works quite well as a poem. That the number of syllables is more than 17 is not unusual here. “Rose” (like “goldfish” above) is a season word for summer.
Ban’ya is occasionally taken with chance duplication (“I put a needle / into a needle’s eye” or “a professor will operate / on a professor”), or else with the fairy-tale quality of a scene that he observes:
lays down bamboo
under the moon
A black horse
slowly getting white
in the wood
These images have charm, but may not always come over as he expects (“Clap if you believe in fairies”) to the English reader. One of the best examples of light playfulness is this poem:
the terror of dust
toying with sundown
The use of “toying” here is very apt. The poems in this book update and develop the view of New York presented in A Future Waterfall (Red Moon Press, 1999 & 2004), Ban’ya’s previous collection in English.
Working with a variety of translators, the poet generally prefers to make the English version himself in the first instance, and have somebody revise it. Jack Galmitz has served him well in this book, though there are one or two confusions. I wasn’t at first sure that “rambling” meant “wandering,” rather than “incoherent speech,” in one verse, or that “in the country” meant “in a foreign land,” and not “in the countryside,” in another one. The phrase “glasses smashed” elsewhere is surely a mistranslation for garasu no oto suru, which is the sound of glass (breaking or creaking), with no reference to spectacles (or drinking), but it is hard to avoid such ambiguities completely.
Ban’ya Natsuishi is an important poet but something of a renegade as well. He earlier took a leading role in the Modern Haiku Association but has now evidently broken with it. He is still influential in the World Haiku Association, though poets outside Japan set much less store by associations than the Japanese do. Jim Kacian provides a short introduction on “The Myth of Self,” and tries — a little strenuously, perhaps — to connect the poems to the idea of the “haiku moment.” His comments are nonetheless generous in appreciation, and readers will enjoy these haiku.