[Vagabond Press; 2022]
Tr. from the Japanese by Takako Lento
I didn’t keep a diary during the height of the pandemic, even though I remember thinking I ought to. History, after all, was happening in real time. But the hours, days, and months spent almost entirely in the company of my spouse—two unessential workers holed up in our home in Brooklyn, darting out for groceries, talking, reading, working out to YouTube videos, and finally, breaking out of our isolation to protest the murder of George Floyd with hundreds of other New Yorkers—didn’t feel remarkable enough to document.
Yotsumoto Yasuhiro’s Starboard of My Wife, first published in Japanese in 2006 and now available in an English translation from the Australian Vagabond Press, is not a COVID-era text. Yet something about the collection, with its attentiveness to sensual detail, philosophical tendency, and startling shifts in tone, recalls the drift of pandemic time. The hours seemed filled simultaneously with emptiness and enormous consequence. Sensitively translated by Takako Lento, the collection is ostensibly about a happily married couple in middle age. What could be more boring? Yasuhiro acknowledges as much in his postscript to the book: The idea of writing about his relationship with his wife—their early courtship as college students, their jobs, their children—“makes me want to yawn.” A happy marriage may be poor material for a novel or play, but poetry is different, according to Yasuhiro. In poetry, the ordinariness and boredom of domestic bliss can be an occasion to “delve into the archetype of life lurking into the depths of our existence, which is the essence of poetry.”
For those unfamiliar with Yasuhiro’s oeuvre, Lento’s introductory note to Starboard offers a useful overview. The poet was born in 1959, a decade into Japan’s economic recovery from World War II. We learn that Yasuhiro rocketed into the literary scene in 1991 with his first book of poems, The Laughing Bug. At the time, Yasuhiro was working for a large corporation, not unlike another poet, Wallace Stevens, who famously worked as an insurance executive. But unlike Stevens, Yasuhiro intentionally mined the terrain of his office job for effect. His debut book features a poem narrated from the point of view of a copy machine; in another, a paper shredder malfunctions and nearly kills a businessman by ensnaring his tie. The stuff of life, no matter how quotidian—indeed, precisely because it is quotidian—becomes the raw material for invention, like a long marriage. At sixty-two pages, the book is slim. Not much happens: The narrator eats a quiet supper with his wife. They take long walks. She plays the piano. Seasons change. They visit museums and galleries in different European cities. (Yasuhiro has lived in Munich for the past twenty-plus years.) Yet each poem is a dark lake: Below the surface lies murkiness, unrest, unease.
The setting that recurs most frequently is the marital bed. In one such poem, the narrator wakes up to discover his wife lying next to him with tears streaming down her face. Earlier that evening, she’d told him about the sudden death of an acquaintance of hers whom he’d never met. “I can see she’s walked to the boundary in silence, and/Is touching something colossal with her own hand.” Here, the site of greatest intimacy is also the site of the most profound estrangement.
In the titular poem, the narrator recounts an unsettling dream in which his wife has been transformed into a boat resting on the sands of a tidal flat. He sneaks out of his own dream to urinate, gazing at the falling snow outside. Later, in the kitchen, he encounters a little boy, who, in the spirit of a walk-on part from a David Lynch movie, announces, “I am not scared of dying. Because everyone comes and goes/When the tide ebbs”—before vanishing, leaving his wet footprints behind. The wife-as-boat is literally a grounding force, but, as a vessel of transport, an animating one as well, particularly for the narrator, who “prowls like a dog” around it, his imagination unleashed to probe the twin coils of life and death.
Where does the starboard of his wife point to? Returning to Yasuhiro’s idea of poetry as expressing the “archetype of life,” in its most common usage, “archetype” has come to mean the exemplary, or perfect, example of a thing. But archetype in the psychological sense pertains the most here, signaling modes of thought that erupt from the unconscious—the dream world, yes, but also the associative ruminations that occur when we encounter works of art. In Starboard, paintings by Brueghel, Quentin Matsys, and Antoine Watteau (famed for his fetes galantes, small-scale works depicting amorous couples in natural settings) all make appearances. On a formal level, Yasuhiro’s poems suggest the starboard points to a unique and fracturing facet of poetry, where the poet is not necessarily the “narrator,” nor is the narrator necessarily a consistently singular “character,” as it were, within a book of poems. As Lento puts it, “Each poem speaks to the reader in its own voice, while the poet’s self remains as elusive as ever.”
What’s not elusive is Yasuhiro’s attention to the corporeal, an aspect through which Lenko’s translations both glimmer and ground. A pair of dancers moves with “smoldering blood from the tips of toes”; a couple swaddled in their arctic winter-wear leave nothing but their faces bared “like the center of a tropical flower.” Human forms are tender, carnal, and occasionally hapless.
The poems in Starboard were all written in roughly the same period. The exception is “A Smile and Swing,” which closes the collection. In the poem, the narrator observes his wife gleefully rocking on a playground swing, using all her might to go as high as she can. Watching her, he reflects:
Because you are full of life and smiling
I also smile looking at you
Because you are full of life and smiling
I begin to know sorrow
A grown woman delights in the vigor of child’s play while her young husband witnesses a palimpsest of her past, present, and future. In such small moments—a ride on a swing, a squeeze of a hand, a ghost child’s footprints—lies the kernel of eternity, or as close as we’ll ever get. Our kinship with others and their essential unknowability enlarges our sense of the cosmos, just as death’s encroachment compels us to scroll the entirety of our lives.
“Like a small sprig sensing the coming snow in the air,” the narrator insists, “I want to read my wife.” In the end, she can’t be read. But a story that can be read from a decades-long, happy marriage is the intimation of separation through death. In one of Yasuhiro’s most arresting poems, the narrator stumbles and falls to his knees during a walk in the forest. “Time’s hangman pulls me up at once.” For the narrator, death is never too far away. The evanescence of all things is, of course, the foundation of Japanese culture and aesthetics. To orient ourselves with the starboard of a life partner is to navigate toward this inevitability, even as the everyday events that make up most of our lives feel relatively unimportant—until the moment, in retrospect, they feel absolutely grand.
“A Smile and Swing” is dated November 1979; Yasuhiro would have been about thirty years old then. Forty-plus years later, the book we hold in our hands is published. As readers, we become implicated in its dizzying, vertiginous folds of time.
Lisa Hsiao Chen is the author of the novel Activities of Daily Living (W.W. Norton), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and Gotham Book Prize.
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