Nomura plays with language in radical and diverse ways, employing subtleties of rhythm, semantics, image, gender, punctuation, and repetition, often all within the same short stanza.
Reading poetry in translation often raises the question of how possible it is to translate poetry in the first place (even as we gain something invaluable from the process), the task of fully representing nuances of language, culture, and history daunting at best. Spectacle & Pigsty, the first full-length English translation of contemporary Japanese poet Kiwao Nomura, tests these limits of translation in both style and substance. Nomura plays with language in radical and diverse ways, employing subtleties of rhythm, semantics, image, gender, punctuation, and repetition, often all within the same short stanza. While it seems Sisyphean to relate these subtleties into a different language, those qualities are also the reason Spectacle & Pigsty can be such an exciting read.
The collection begins with one of Nomura’s most well-known poems, declaring “it’s pigsty I / the darkness maybe darkness stupendously stretching out now like taffy / man fed up with man star with star.” Nomura firmly connects the “I” of the self with the “pigsty” of poetry and philosophy, a cleaving that sustains itself through the rest of the collection, the “pigsty” popping up again from time to time. The few pages of the opening poem are a kaleidoscope of repetition, Oedipal musings, and muck (“swallow me swallow me Mother expiring / and never again shit me out // never shit me out again Mother”). The constant insistence of “it’s pigsty I” in nearly every stanza keeps the joining of poet and poem present, a useful tool in understanding the collection as a whole. Nomura is, after all, a poet who mines his own experience as deeply as he mines philosophy and art, rarely drawing firm distinctions between the two spheres. The cycling repetition of language also has a familiar effect, encouraging us to read the work out loud.
The sense that these poems might be best understood when spoken is not without reason. Nomura has made his name as much with his performances as with his written work, inserting himself into an art scene as flush with poetry as it is with dance, music, and theater. He’s also released musical collaborations– his words paired with instrumentals– that have become popular in France and Japan. The translators Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander even went so far as to take butoh movement classes together in an effort to better understand poems in Spectacle & Pigsty, as dance and performance are fundamental to what happens on these pages. Here, the rhythms are often the most striking components. We are inundated with the repetition of phrases, the layering of sounds, and experimental play with punctuation, lines littered with commas and parenthetical beginnings. At times, these rhythmic repetitions drive the poem, as in “Barely Hinged:”
now in persistent strings of rain
I’ve seen a bird fluttering gone from sight
which is to say persistently
I’ve seen a fluttering bird gone from sight
so to speak in another incantation
seen I’ve gone from sight a bird fluttering
and so it goes in vain
Elsewhere, the rhythms are subtler components, yet still fundamental to the poem’s meaning and texture. Roland Barthes, discussing Haiku in The Preparation of the Novel, suggests that “all rhythm is cultural,” that it is “dependant on having already had the metrical formula whispered to us by our poetic culture.” Just one more reason, then, that so much of Nomura’s work might escape those who do not read Japanese, and also one more reason for such an audience to dig more deeply into it.
While stylistic leaps and sound play recur, there is too much diversity within Spectacle & Pigsty to characterize it any one way. His “Panegyric to the Perineum” and his predilection for “farts” and paint him as cheeky and scatological, yet his deep engagement with philosophy and memory give us a different Nomura, one who seeks out the past only to receive “the sound of phantom snowdust, blown back and forth, perhaps.” He can be tender (“rain is / our mode of existence / rain / softly falling like a fine net”) just as quickly as he can become spastic (“It is, spiked with danger, / over danger, and, / –sparkling, ravishing skin!”).
The range and modulations of Spectacle & Pigsty form an appropriate starting point for a poet as prolific and inventive of Nomura. Every page seems to introduce him once again, so that consistencies of philosophy and sound are themselves components of experimentation and surprise, a world in which “whether we call it poetry / or / Galaxy / Project / does not matter any longer.” These qualities do not bog down the collection, but instead pull us back into it. Nomura is likely not the type of poet that can be understood through this one thin book, the English translations faithfully mimicking the original works on opposite pages. And even when some unified project seems to present itself, the questions of translation and the blocks of language suggest that something significant remains obscured to those who are not fluent in the original language. Nonetheless, taken as an introduction, Spectacle & Pigsty is entirely a success, rousing our curiosity for the translations that are hopefully yet to come.