Sakutarō Hagiwara, Cat Town (a few thoughts)

I received Sakutarō Hagiwara’s Cat Town as a gift. There was a printing error in my copy and there are parts of it I cannot write about. I didn’t think I would read it; when I arrived to New York, I was given ten books in a matter of days, and I had two or three books to translate and more than a thousand pages to read for my presentation on Doderer at the ALTA conference in November of last year. But the book is attractive and it fit well in my pocket at a moment when the book I had been reading in the subway, Guido Ceronetti’s Cara incertezza, had started to annoy me: too much name-dropping, too much embittered fustian. And so on December 4, when my wife was flying into JFK, I took Cat Town as company on the long ride out, and because the security line was long, I finished it before my wife came out to meet me.

Hagiwara makes an interesting comparison between poetic knowledge and phobias. The depth of a phobic fear is incomprehensible to us, but it weighs heavier than reason, he says, and there is something similar in the heft of poetic truth: “Poetic expression may be simple, but the odor of poetry should be ample.” It occurred to me as I read this that in the case of truths whose natural mode of expression is metaphor, the metaphor never arrives at that distinction from its mode of expression necessary to be considered a symbol; it is something more basic, less prone to analysis. This seems true in the cases of Kafka and Apollinaire, two writers whose rare enticements yield poorly to critical dissection.

The poem “A Sad Distant View” ends with the line “a wholly shriveled heart is plying a shiny shovel.” The alliteration is slightly predictable but still euphonious; the word “plying,” however, is beautiful. There were moments when I wanted more of this sort of thing: the translation, particularly over the first fifty pages, lacks musicality. This may be a reflection of Hagiwara’s own evolution or the possibilities the poems themselves offered.

There is a certain unwillingness or incapacity in regards to fully formed utterances that I enjoyed in the book. One poem rife with strange descriptions of eggs, cherry blossoms, and butterflies, ends with “the essence of so-called spring is found here more or less.” I wonder what the meaning is of this longing to ascribe an essence to a season and a place that may lack for being as such.

Repeatedly Hagiwara resorts to what one might call the unfounded simile: a comparison whose significance must be merely private, if it exists at all. In “Lonely Personality,” the narrator, “yearning like a worm,” finishes:

my obsequious strange personality / looking shabby like a crow / is trembling on the corner of a deserted, winter-withered bench.

He speaks elsewhere of a “heart like a tired horse,” but the stock image for this technique is the cat. Cats recur throughout many of the poems, and it is never clear what they mean. You have the sense they are something universal and have the basic value of the extant, which changes in accordance with mood and is sometimes sovereign, sometimes ominous, sometimes lost and nostalgic. Many of the poems show an estrangement from the living of which the cat perhaps becomes a signet: “look at the single intense sentiment that these living things have.”

“The Feeling of Spring” begins with the beautiful line: “It’s like the smell of the tar of cigarettes from France.” I believe I like this for personal reasons. My best friend in tenth grade and I used to smoke together in the showers of my high school gymnasium: usually Camel filters, but sometimes Gitanes that his French grandparents would give him; the latter were a treat, and my memory of the particular weight of their smoke in my mouth, tinged with naphtha from David’s brass Zippo, is still bright, and linked for me to the scene in 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle in which Marina Vlady asks for an American cigarette, because the French ones are too harsh.

One of the great dilemmas in poetry and poetic prose concerns the ideal degree of specificity. If one refers merely to a “bird,” as Nabokov and Eliot complained, this is lazy sentimentality; but description can easily grade into the pedantic, and then into realms that no longer have much to do with art. To say a person saw “a house” is often to say too little; to say she saw “a 1920’s Colonial Revival house with two chimneys, two dormers on either slope of the gabled roof, triangular pediments over the doorways painted a glossy cream color, raised panel shutters, and iron boot scrappers beside the granite steps” is, to one ear, correct, and to another belabored; to go further is to break with the fictive weave and move into the realm of architectural reportage. Imprecision is a common artistic vice, but it is also true that something about beauty has to do with the unknown: in The Beautiful Room is Empty, Edmund White writes: “For weeks we had circled each other wordlessly, my father up on a ladder, me with my eternal rake and wheelbarrow, his anger between us, mysterious as the stone the Muslims worship.” It would not worked had he said, “mysterious as the Ka’aba,” or if he had made clear, as he must have known, that Muslims don’t actually worship the stone. The comparison is beautiful because it invokes another world.

When is it permissible or desirable to emphasize what is necessarily true? In “Green Flute,” Hagiwara writes, “elephants with long ears are lumbering along.” Elephants’ ears are always long but it seems right that he has chosen to remind us of that here. Does their ears’ length seem burdensome to us, and does this add to the languor of their lumbering? Or is it that our very idea of the elephant’s ear, like most of our ideas, is the mere coupling of an almost forgotten visual cliché to a label, and has become a way of forgetting the independent reality of the shape and texture of an elephant’s ear until our attention is drawn to it by means of poetic description?

The poems tend to revolve around a phenomenal stimulus that provokes an undirected nostalgia. This is a common feature in the writings of the depressed, for whom the sight and touch of an object, the sound of words, and so on take on the character of a mirage. They do not have the feeling of permanence, and the depressed person longs for a more immediate phenomenality.

with our pitiful sensations / we can only see slight things that have appeared.