Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life and Work of a 20th Century Master

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life and Work of a 20th Century Master

Edited by Takako Lento and Wayne Miller
Pleiades Press

Tamura Ryuichi, considered to be among the most important twentieth-century Japanese poets, is virtually unknown in the United States. Fortunately, Pleiades Press has chosen to focus on his work in the second volume of its new Unsung Master Series, Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life and Work of a 20th Century Master. The volume features a selection of the poet’s translated work along with critical and biographical essays to help illuminate the work.

Writing in the mid to late twentieth century, Tamura (in Japanese the surname comes first) was a central figure in Japan’s modernist poetry movement. Throughout the collection it is clear that Tamura’s interest was in challenging the conventional ways in which language is used to create meaning.

Beyond his experimental ambitions, one theme that runs consistently through his poems is the devastating effects of war and violence. After enlisting in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1943, Tamura manned artillery emplacements to fend off possible American and Soviet invasions. Friends of his were ordered to kill themselves in kamikaze missions. The horrifying impact of living in a war-ridden world is evident through much of his work.

This can be seen in the opening of the poem “Noon:”

            what exists outside the window

            fire, rock, bones,

            our “time” carved into teeth, nails, and hair,

            amid a shower of rain, premonitions and intimations,

                        dangling from a bed

            is her arm


Tamura is a master at shifting from the general to the specific. The poem begins with a description of a harsh, hostile world that carves itself into bodies. Then, to personalize the horror, he abruptly shifts to a single woman’s arm dangling from a bed.

The strategy of moving from descriptions of large, horrific events to their effects on individuals is common in antiwar, antiviolence poems. However, Tamura has no interest in the easy, morally superior stance many of these poems adopt. Instead he describes an uncomfortably complicit relationship with the violent world. After a series of questions on the nature of this suffering, he inserts himself into the end of the poem:

            she is ill. does that mean

            she loves me?

            her call to me, a single call, just once,

            creates shade in a vast desert, and now

            the world enters noon


Tamura states that the woman is ill, but instead of offering sympathy, he asks the confounding question “does that mean she loves me?” He then looks to her call (a cry of pain?) to provide him with protection from the harsh desert at noon. Is he taking solace in the woman’s pain? Is he mimicking the inhuman voice of those responsible for the violence? Is he adopting the voice of madness? Tamura pulls his readers into much more difficult territory than that of typical antiwar poems. He identifies with the victims but seems to also participate in the madness responsible for their suffering.

Tamura’s work exposes how we look to reinforce our values in the poetry we read. Within the disorienting shifts in diction, tone, and subject matter, he pushes us to examine our need for consistency, including moral consistency.

Consider the prose poem “Etching.” This is the entire poem:

He sees, in front of him, a landscape like the one he saw in a German etching.

It seems like a bird’s-eye view of an ancient city, which is about to shift from

evening into night, or like a realistic picture representing a modern precipice that

is changing from deep night into daybreak.

He, namely the man I have begun to tell you about, killed his father when he was

young. That autumn his mother went beautifully mad. (13)

We expect the two stanzas to be in some way related. Yet they are jarringly different. The first offers a cool, detached account of a man’s impression of a landscape that reminds him of an etching. The second stanza opens with a direct address of the reader. Immediately the tone becomes warmer and more intimate. But what follows is the disturbing statement that the man killed his father. The matter-of-fact tone gives the reader no clue as to whether the speaker finds this an abhorrent act. Without that, not only are we uncertain what to make of the statement, but we don’t know whether the speaker shares in our discomfort with it.

The next sentence only increases this discomfort. The adjective “beautiful” is the only word in the poem that hints at the speaker’s attitude. But it provides no clarity. We don’t know whether “beautifully mad” is meant as harsh sarcasm or whether the speaker values the madness and shares in it.

As mentioned in one of the essays, Tamura said of “Etching” that the space separating the two stanzas is “where my ‘poem’ happens” (93). The separation draws attention to our desire to connect the disparate elements. Continually his work challenges us to examine our need to find coherence and consistency.

Admittedly this ambition is shared among many disjunctive experimental poets. However, Tamura’s work does not manifest the emotionally flat, detached attitude found in so many experimental poems. What makes his work so interesting is that it is filled with emotionally charged and uncomfortable material:

we have no venom

we have no venom to heal us

(“Standing Coffin,” 24)

In order to give birth to a poem

we must kill those we love

(“Four Thousand Days and Nights,” 14)

We need more cunning to hunger harder

more imagination to end our dreaming

(“The Man with a Green Face,” 35)

I just want to see with my own eyes

the collapse of the house of man

the deconstruction of my language

(“The House of Man,” 39)

Tamura’s work relentlessly pulls us into highly charged and disturbing themes of violence, culpability, and survival.

Despite the rough subject matter, Tamura Ryuichi is, foremost, a lyric poet. One of the pleasures in reading his work is his sophisticated use of line and repetition. Images and phrases are introduced and repeated such that meaning is altered in unexpected and profound ways. This is especially notable in the longer poems (“Standing Coffin,” “World without Words,” “Every Morning after Killing Thousands of Angels”). His lyric skills are a provocative counterbalance to the aggressively harsh and disconcerting subject matter.

One disappointment of this collection is its relative lack of poetry. Tamura Ryuichi published over twenty volumes of poetry in his lifetime. However, of the 172 pages in this book, only 41 are devoted to his poems. Admittedly, the purpose is to introduce the poet through his work and through essays by scholars and people who knew and admired him. Yet while most of the essays are informative, there are a couple of personal essays that offer little new information or insight. Given that Tamura’s poetry is virtually unknown in the English-reading world, if these essays had been replaced by more of the poetry, it would have made for a better book.

This complaint aside, the Unsung Master Series admirably achieves what it sets out to do. It introduces us to a previously unknown major voice in modern poetry. Tamura Ryuichi: On the Life and Work of a 20th Century Master introduces a poet whose work challenges and informs our notions of poetry in ways that are relevant and exciting in the twenty-first century as well.