To begin with, a story. Because, for us, here, the story is the important part.
In late 1945, as the Allied powers began self-assuredly to map the contours of a new world order onto a freshly manageable globe, the remnant citizenries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continued to die in the twin shadows of Little Boy and Fat Man. The survivors, or hibakusha, laboured to resume their lives whilst burns, radiation sickness, cancers and psychological torment conspired rather more effectively to end them. Amongst them, a recently demobbed postal worker, graduate of Hiroshima University and aspiring poet named Araki Yasusada, Kyoto-born but a long-term resident of the first city to suffer purposeful nuclear annihilation. Yasusada’s situation was pure typicality: his wife, Nomura, and youngest daughter, Chieko, had been vapourised instantly in the atomic blast; his eldest daughter, Akiko, died four years later from radiation poisoning. By chance, his infant son Yasunari was with relatives elsewhere in the country during the bombing, and survived. What marks this story of otherwise pedestrian post-nuclear misery out from the tens of thousands like it is that Yasusada wrote.
Fluent in French and English, and proud possessor of a degree in Western Literature, Yasusada fell under the influence of western literary theorist Roland Barthes, and aspired to write poetry like that of his western heroes Paul Celan and Jack Spicer. He was active amongst the Japanese avant-garde, a member of Ogiwara Seisensui’s Soun (‘Layered Clouds’) grouping, and of the experimental renga circle Kai (‘Oars’). He wrote prolifically, but despite his close connections to famous writers and artists of the Japanese post-war, his work, along with that of his renga collaborators Ozaki Kuzatao and Akutagawa Fusei, remained largely obscure. After his death from cancer in 1972 it was forgotten completely. Eight years later, whilst searching through his father’s belongings, Yasunari Yasusada came across fourteen spiral-bound notebooks. Contained within was a bewildering array of finished and half-finished poems, English-language exercises, diaries, letters to collaborators, accounts of lessons in Zen Buddhism. The notebooks constituted a damaged and partial but nonetheless hugely significant and poetically compelling account of a post-Bomb life, a treasure-trove pulled from the trauma of the hibakusha experience. By the late 1990s, interest was beginning to grow in the western literary world which Yasusada admired so much. In America editors ecstatically published translations in significant journals such as the American Poetry Review, Grand Street and First Intensity; in the U.K., Leeds-based Stand played similarly willing host. Praise for Yasusada’s work was universal: a tragic genius, a voice of authentic and powerful witness. A ‘Complete’ edition of his work was planned for publication by Wesleyan University Press, the authoritative purveyor of acknowledged avant giants like Susan Howe and John Cage. Yasusada’s moment had come.
Almost everything about this story is a lie.
Just as Yasusada’s poetry began to grip the minds of readers across the West, just as his name began to be whispered along with that of those other famous-post-mortem visionaries, Emily Dickinson and John Keats, troubling rumours started to appear. Respected American literary scholars had received bundled copies of Yasusada’s works, posted from locations dispersed across the globe, accompanied by dire notes warning that he was not the real author; readers with a (perhaps unhealthy) liking for obscure poetry zines observed that some of Yasusada’s poems bore more than passing resemblance to works published in obscure poetry zine Ironweed in 1986 under the title ‘From the Daybook of Oshimora Okiyaki’. And Araki Yasusada, it was claimed, was a fiction; a non-existent poet. He never lived in Hiroshima. He never lived at all.
At this point the real story begins. In 1997 the Japanese broadsheet Asahi Shimbun printed a front-page story on Yasusada, along with appropriately muddy portrait in pencil. His subsequent fame turned quickly to infamy as news of Yasusada’s questionable authenticity became widespread. Excitement became outrage; acclaim became opprobrium. Everyone was looking for someone to blame, and in the end they settled on a little-known Illinoisan college professor, poet and translator called Kent Johnson, who had acted as Yasusada’s literary executor throughout the affair. On the face of it, Johnson was a good candidate for authorship; for he it was who had submitted the suspicious ‘Okiyaki’ poems to Ironweed, and he it was who held the copyright to Yasusada’s work. [1. And, for certain, he it was to whom the editors of American Poetry Review and Stand addressed sour-faced demands for the return of their publication fees.] Yet faced with a potent mixture of curiosity and moral rage, Johnson refused to confirm that he was the author of the Yasusada corpus. Under further pressure, he conceded that Yasusada was a fiction, but maintained that he was not responsible; the work belonged to an old roommate and friend, Tosa Motokiyu. He omitted to mention whether Motokiyu was involved in the Hiroshima atrocity. About 5% of the poems were Johnson’s, the American accepted that. Motokiyu had seen the Ironweed material and liked it so much that he begged Johnson to include it with the Yasusada texts. But the other ninety-five parts of the hundred were pure Japan. When it was discovered that ‘Motokiyu’ was just another pseudonym, and thus incapable of drawing a mushroom-cloud, never mind turning his experience into a pile of haunting lyric fragmentation, the public and the critics went wild with indignation. But Johnson was unflappable, and perhaps predictably stated that ‘Moto’ was just a cover for another author who wished to protect her or his identity, and nothing more was to be said on the matter (although inevitably, lots was). To this day Johnson denies full responsibility for the Yasusada poems. Wesleyan dropped the work, and it was published instead by Roof Books of New York under the title Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. [2. Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, edited and translated Tosa Motokiyu, Oriju Norinaga and Okura Kyojin (New York, 1997). Except where indicated, all comments on Yasusada’s poetry which I go on to quote are taken from the dustjacket of this volume.]
The clue is, of course, already there in the title. Doubled Flowering: the past and the present, the written and the forgotten, the living and the dead. The volume produced by Roof is an almost manically mirrored item, including a ‘selection’ of suggestively varied matter from Yasusada’s corpus along with speculative appendices by Javier Alvarez, Mikhail Epstein and Johnson himself, and an essay-length critical afterword by Marjorie Perloff, the prolific Pilgrim Mother of American modernist academe. [3. Thickness to the plot: Perloff was one of the scholars who received the anonymous Yasusada-bundles which first alerted readers to the ‘true’ nature of what they held in their hands.] It is a ready-made of critical detective work, blurbing potential buyers into believing that they too might ‘gain access to the mysteries of its origins’ if only they ‘read with understanding and care’. More interestingly, certain amongst the notices proffered on the dustjacket are almost comically uncomplimentary:
“This is essentially a criminal act.” –Arthur Vogelsang, editor of American Poetry Review, in Lingua Franca
“Knowing its fictitious nature, with a slight sense of disgust, I find Yasusada’s poetry evil, and eerily beautiful.” –Hosea Hirata, Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies, Princeton University.
The poetry world is a fractious place, and scandal always has a certain draw. But even the most bitterly opposed of poetry-warriors would rarely condemn their opponents’ work in these terms. ‘Criminal’, ‘evil’. Doubled Flowering operates explicitly on the assumption that it is there to be hated, that it has transgressed the bounds in some matter of legality or taste. It is the proud object of righteous scorn. Vogelsang and Hirata carry the standard for those who feel betrayed and violated by the ‘Yasusada hoax’.
They tell the story like this: a poetic voice of uniquely powerful historic witness appeared under the name Yasusada, purveying (what seemed to be) an authentic and deeply moving artistic account of grim human suffering. This voice was unmasked to reveal the grinning face of Kent Johnson, manipulative and, more to the point, callous, making hay by purloining a story which was not his to tell.
In part, this can be put down to the chagrin of literary ‘experts’ with wool clinging painfully to the cornea. But it speaks more powerfully to a particular and fairly widespread attitude to poetry itself, an attitude that says only: ‘I want to believe’. This is the poetics of Nobel Prize committees; it finds in poetry a ‘channel for the soul’, an authentic expression of the ‘hidden self’ or ‘shared humanity’, and it thrives on affect. The point here is not that these readers are idiots or ingenues, but rather that they are perfectly primed to take offence from Yasusada; those committed to a poetics of authenticity might (not unreasonably) find the appropriation of the stories of nearly-massacred human beings to be distasteful, or at least ill-judged. ‘Johnson’s’ writing is thus, from this perspective, in a legal and moral grey area. Though there are a good deal of essentially naïve positions in this spectrum, a more developed and interesting one was articulated by Emily Nussbaum in Lingua Franca, who compared the Yasusada controversy with that surrounding David Dwyer, who wrote a series of poems ‘as’ an older woman and got them into the feminist magazine Aphra (named for Aphra Benn). [4. Emily Nussbaum, “TURNING JAPANESE: THE HIROSHIMA POETRY HOAX” in Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, November 1996 issue, pp. 82-84, at http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/japanese-hoax.html] The key distinction, argues Nussbaum, is that Dwyer now regrets that decision, and has apologised (though reservedly). Johnson, defiantly and definitively, has not, and goes on sowing seeds of controversy and leftist prankery both critical and poetical to this day. [5. For a fine example, see A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara (Buffalo, 2012), a mixture of detective-criticism and fictive satire, in which Johnson claims a late O’Hara poem was in fact authored by Kenneth Koch, and shares banterous medievalisms with a sleeping J.H. Prynne.] The forgery was not the crime; but nevertheless the failure to own up to it as a crime is condemnable.
Part of the moral critique of Yasusada rests on the view that ‘his’ poetry is insultingly ‘orientalised’. John Solt, Professor of Japanese culture at Amherst, put it more bluntly: ‘Japanized crap’, he thundered. Johnson ‘got it all wrong’, and his poems ‘[play] into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture–Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic’. [6. Nussbaum.] Yet the very transparency of the fake, the bodged cliché of Japan served up in Doubled Flowering, has given heart to a different and much more complimentary view of Yasusada in the American academy, with Perloff leading the charge. [7. For an exhaustive and gleeful account of the carefully-laid inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the Yasusada story, see Perloff’s essay in Doubled Flowering, accessible at http://www.epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/boston.html]
They tell the story like this: a poetic voice of uniquely powerful historic witness appeared under the name Yasusada, purveying (what seemed to be) an authentic and deeply moving artistic account of grim human suffering. This voice was unmasked to reveal the grinning face of Roland Barthes, father of poststructural criticism and benevolent scourge of the ‘author’ (who never existed anyway), accomplishing the final victory of ‘play’ over ‘authenticity’.
The dustjacket-bannerman of this camp is Ron Silliman: ‘This book makes the argument for anti-essentialism. That it has done it so well infuriates folks with a proprietary interest in categories. Thank you, Araki Yasusada!’ From this perspective, what makes Doubled Flowering great is not that it is authentic, but that it is a forgery; indeed, it goes one better than great lit-forgers of yore like Thomas Chatterton (‘Thomas Rowley’) and James MacPherson (‘Ossian’), because it wanted to be caught. Its truth was its deception. The sentimental acolytes of authenticity miss the point. Johnson was right. It was written by no one.
I want to tell the story here, today, somewhat differently. I want to do this not because I think either position I outline above is necessarily wrong, but because each contains an important part of the truth about Yasusada (though one, I feel, more so than the other), and because any conflict of two truths wants a third term.
Silliman, Perloff and all their crew (and all their differences) are right to hold that the Yasusada ‘mystery’ makes a fascinating case study at the limits of authorship, posing a number of hard and incisive questions about what, as readers, we mean by ‘author’, and why we care anyway. But to claim it de-essentialises the ‘problematics of authorship, identity, persona, race or history’, as does Silliman, is to erase the actual significance of the text’s non-authorship in the first instance; which is to say, Doubled Flowering’s authorship is a machine for offence. As a set of texts, as a volume and as a scandal, the Yasusada hoax was engineered to upset the sensibilities of its readership; its engine was the void socio-cultural position of its author.
Which means that to take Yasusada seriously is to take seriously, as the ‘anti-essentialist’ reading does not, its powerful affect and the subsequent anger it caused when it was revealed to be a forgery. No-one is denying that the poetry in Doubled Flowering is often hugely affecting; not Silliman, not Perloff, and certainly not me. Its beauty is real. But I want to go a step further than Perloff and Silliman and take seriously the anger and betrayal that followed as a result of that beauty. In fact, I want to take it more seriously than the beauty itself.
To do so, I want to start with a rather small piece of the book, a quotation from what I find to be one of the most affecting poems in Yasusada’s work, entitled ‘Walkers with Ladle /[undated]’. This is one of the more ‘complete’ poems in the volume, but contains the standard retinue of pseudo-notes, -revisions, -obscurities and –erasures, and mock-editorial footnotes. These last indicate ‘helpfully’ that the text is a liberal translation from Dante’s Inferno. The middle passage runs like this:
And they walk like no one walks. They keep walking, and then when
lying by the side of another they keep walking. They walk awake
and asleep, they walk backwards with enormous genitals, they walk in
circles with rose-wood chopsticks, they walk face-down, moaning in the
mud for [illegible] They walk out of step, walking in the sentimental gar-
lands of [illegible] blatherings.
And they walk as if someone had commanded: don’t you dare fucking
walk you fucking Jap fucker. [8. Yasusada, p.30.]
There is plenty here for everyone. The image of the survivors of Little Boy walking like the cursed, tormented and mutated damned of Hell is apt and vivid; the brutal shout of the italicised, occupying voice hammers home pathos in all its shattering violence and racist contempt. This is a powerful and affecting passage. Yet the non-essentialists can allow themselves a snicker at the implicit send-up of this bleeding-heart poetics in the oh-so-perfect (too perfect for circumstance) erasure of the author’s mark: ‘the sentimental gar- / lands of [illegible] blatherings’ indeed. There is no such sentiment here, they might imply.
Silliman et al. can also, on the surface of it, take heart from the ‘editorial footnote’ attached to the end of the italicised voice: ‘3. In English in original.’ The joke being that there is no original, and the note is a misleading lie, or, seen otherwise, a bathetically trivial truth. This sentence also in English in original. However, read another way, ‘don’t you dare fucking / walk you fucking Jap fucker’ is the only fully truthful statement in the poem, a threat that carries itself in no veils of ‘translated’ irony. Here is English talking to Japan. The insistence on walking which ‘Walkers with Ladle’ enacts hangs under the sign of this violence which demands its illegibility, its compliance. There truly is no voice which reports the line from experience; it has no true author, and no true origin except the one in front of the eye. It is exactly the violence which it speaks. Give us only the behaviour which we ask for. The untranslated menace is real.
Don’t you dare fucking walk. The thing about Yasusada, the clever thing and the crucial thing, is that it’s all just too perfect. Imagine a Japanese writer who does everything you’d ever want him to, who walks exactly the steps you dreamed of; yes, the haiku and the Zen, the renga and the chopsticks; but also the (impossible) influence of the American poets and the European poets, the European theories of literature. Imagine he’s writing about the great unacknowledged crime of a ‘Just War’, the massacre of more than a quarter of a million human beings in just two button-presses, but doing it under the laudable and familiar auspices of Bay-Area poetics and trendy French theory. Imagine that the poetry is clever and that it is moving. Imagine that it gives you and your culture and its collective conscience the tacit forgiveness you secretly knew you and it wanted. And imagine that it is all a fake. The affect of the work is real, but it is not the truth of the work. The truth is the thwarted rage it provokes.
I want to tell the story like this, and it is a story in which we are all guilty: a poetic voice of uniquely powerful historic witness appeared under the name Yasusada, purveying (what seemed to be) an authentic and deeply moving artistic account of grim human suffering. This voice was unmasked to reveal the grimacing face of every poetry that was ever called upon to justify power and naturalise its abuse. It spoke the uncomfortable truth that for every poem which or poet who has existed as a rebuke to such power, there has existed at least one more which has been a calculated insult to women, homosexuals, colonised peoples, workers, Jews, radicals, wrong-believers, non-believers, the tortured, the massacred, the immiserated and the forgotten, and a sorry lackey to whichever class, sect or idea has picked up its self-interest like a weapon and called it ‘common sense’. This is a story which is not yet finished.