Thursday, January 29, 2009


Fog thick morning –
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
my clarity
with me.

Lorine Niedecker

Reading this poem by Niedecker reminds and reassures me of something I all too often tend to forget. That the things you most long for, such as warmth, clarity, or the very sense of home, do not exist in themselves. They are carried around with you and overflow, emanate from you whenever some thing, some place, someone responds and sparks them to life.
I suppose that is the meaning of finding a place for yourself in the world without depending too much on unrealistic expectations or on others. It is also the meaning of true, tranquil friendliness and affection.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

twelve travels

Andy Goldsworthy, Maple Leaves
Ouchiyama-mura, 19 November 1991*

Amidst all the hustle and bustle of this most hectic of months, it is just so good to find an archipelago of peace and quiet, especially in the company of a friend. An imaginary archipelago that bears, of course, little resemblance to the geographical Britain from where these twelve artists come or through which they have passed. They take us not just on twelve, but on innumerable travels in space and time, from the picturesque and pastoral landscapes of Constable and Turner, through Mona Hatoum's exilic territories, to Andy Goldworthy's and David Nash's ephemeral encounters with the natural elements: stone, snow, frost, water, leaves, wood...
An afternoon is too little time to take it all in, and I do hope to return - at least to be astounded again by Goldsworthy and Nash. Words fail me when I try to describe the moving, inspirational beauty of their art. I shall return there - and here, as soon as time allows.

The exhibition Twelve Travels: British Art in Sensibility and Experience is currently at the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo, and will be running till March 1.

*Image taken from the website of the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

know thyself...

The world would be a much better, breathable place, indeed, if most people stopped being so regimented, so compartmentalised, and paid more attention to things like these.

Discipline of self-restraint is an easy one; being clear-cut, negative, and usually based on some accepted cultural values. Discipline of following desires, always doing what you want to do, is hardest. It presupposes self-knowledge of motives, a careful balance of free action and sense of where the cultural taboos lay - knowing whether a particular "desire" is instinctive, cultural, personal, a product of thought, contemplation, or the unconscious. Blake: if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, 'til all he sees is through narrow chinks of his caverns. Ah.

Gary Snyder, "Lookout's Journal", from Earth House Hold.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Freedom, Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957)

The defenceless men and women with nothing but common beauty. The passionate and the passionless. The obdurate heart, and the little piping, brittle one. The bristling mind hiccuping with ideas, and the dull one, a flat plain under the black arc of an empty skull.
Jack B. Yeats, The Amaranthers (1936)

Another little gem, found quite by chance, that has set me musing again, somewhat wistfully. It has also reminded me of how little I know about W.B. Yeats's younger brother, a painter but also a writer of considerable talent.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

slowly unfolding certainties

In spite of the fatigue that nearly always follows, I do love to work in the small hours, often till dawn. To pause every now and then, drink a cup of tea, take a book from the poetry shelf, at random, open it and find little gems like this:

Folded message

All I've got is one eye and two brains
to love you with and I'm so concerned
especially at night for your peace
since the directions are uncertain
meagre and costly for two as for one
but to the tune of a progressive reluctance
we shall one day attain some kind of summit
don't you think? These are verifiable things:
that in the presence of two hundred screaming
aircraft known as 'the future' our slowly
unfolding certainties keep us upright
even in the pitch dark while the alarm clock
in my chest keeps me gentle, where
would you be about now?

Peter Riley, Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2000), p. 96.

Friday, January 16, 2009

keeping the ice from forming

Jonathan Williams, alluding to Orpheus's power to entrance nature with the beauty of his singing and lyre playing, once wrote of the poet's job that "if it is possible to move rocks and trees, it is just possible to keep the ice from forming in other human hearts".
Of all the myriad definitions of poetry I know, this is the one that strikes a deeper chord with my experience as reader. And, of all the myriad poems I love, Robert Creeley's "Myself" is the one which more fully embodies that Orphic power.

Myself (click to listen to Creeley's reading)

What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not—but still
not changed enough—

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory—
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness—
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
"Taught them not this—
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . ."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

un-furusato, on second thoughts...

furusato (3), in a slightly edited version:

buckets & balls

Koki Tanaka, Buckets & Balls

Like life itself. Sometimes you hit the mark, against all odds; sometimes you don't.

Chance is (almost) everything and, within it, the possibilities are endless. On both sides, up or down - or in the middle...

Prince Pickles & Miss Parsley...

A must-read on Japan's rising militarism and neo-nationalist gimmicks, travestied as kawaii Hello-Kitty-style mascots.

Japan: The Price of Normalcy

In the early 1990s, the Japanese military adopted a cute mascot by the name of Prince Pickles. He’s a little guy with a big head and big eyes who lives in a tranquil country bordering on some pretty dangerous territory. In three action-packed comic books aimed at young people, Prince Pickles overcomes his naïve belief that a land at peace needs no army. He enlists in his own country’s forces to defend against the predations of the neighboring Evil Empire. He endures intensive training. He helps with disaster relief. He goes on peacekeeping missions. And of course, after these mini-heroic efforts, Prince Pickles gets the girl, his comrade-in-arms Miss Parsley.

The transformation of Prince Pickles is meant to represent the recent history of Japan writ small. In her groundbreaking new book Uneasy Warriors, Sabine Fruhstuck describes Prince Pickles’s transformation as a coded message from the state to its citizens that “knowledge and appreciation of the military can be or should become a normative element of growing up. “Only a state with a military is normal and mature, and only a man with military experience is a real man.” If a fellow who is only two feet tall and looks like a toadstool with eyes can “grow up” with such aplomb, surely young Japanese men have nothing to worry about, even without access to a Marine Corps boot camp to affirm their masculinity.

Prince Pickles is not the only pop culture gimmick that the Japanese military has used to improve its image in recent years and overcome the deeply engrained pacifist tendencies of the Japanese population. In recruitment posters, professional female models proclaim in English, “Peace People Japan, Come On!” A music festival sponsored by the military brings in 40,000 people for annual performances that include sexy young women from the pop music scene. The overall message is that Japan’s new military is fun, flirtatious, and yet family-oriented – a far cry from the message that the U.S. military projects of strength, determination, and leadership. If the U.S. Army is from Mars, its Japanese counterpart is clearly from Venus. Such are the inescapable influences of Japan’s kawai culture of Hello Kitty and giggling schoolgirls.

Don’t be fooled. The new Japanese military is far from cuddly. (continue reading here)

John Feffer, “Japan: The Price of Normalcy” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 2-3-09, January 10, 2009.

(Images taken from the same source)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

experiencing time

Visuals by Shoko Ise / Audio by Steve Jansen

Speaking of all-time favourites, and of Sylvian, Jansen et alia, I have suddenly recalled this most unforgettable exhibition that was being hosted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography exactly one year ago, STILL / ALIVE. All the works on display - by artists Shoko Ise, Jin Ohashi, Koki Tanaka and Toshihiro Yashiro - were remarkable in their own way and linked by the common theme "images of time" - stillness and movement. I was, however, absolutely mesmerised by Shoko Ise's video installation "Swimming in Qualia", with the original soundtrack by Steve Jansen. I must have spent a couple of hours there, transfixed, looking, listening, sensing. Here is an excerpt from an illuminating text by Tetsuro Ishida, the Museum curator, included in the exhibiton catalogue:

Swimming in Qualia is the name of the new work created by Ise for this exhibition. A host of shivering silhouettes beside a blue window, railroad tracks seen through the window of a speeding car, trees in a dim forest, waves on the shore, a random mass of lotuses in bloom, a withered landscape, all presented in a monotone video. These are not things that people go out of their way to look at, things normally only seen in momentary glances. "Qualia", however, is a scientific term in brain and cognitive science, where, in contrast to things in themselves it refers to the qualities perceived in things. Qualia include not only visual qualities but also physical experiences created when all five senses are involved, so that even when the same things are in question, perceptions of them can vary without limit. As subjects for scientific investigation, qualia are not yet well understood. This work swims instead in the sea of ambiguity created by what we sense. Two videos use the same video footage in scenes in which sequence, duration and tempo differ. One is 20 minutes long, the sequencing is relaxed, the music lacks rhythm. The other is short, the sequencing is up-tempo, the rhythm is minimal, 72 beats per minute. Musician Steve Jansen was in charge of the soundtrack. The videos are projected on the two walls of a corner on screens five meters wide, allowing visitors to experience in parallel the two different temporal feelings created using the same footage. It is impossible for the audience to focus on both screens at once or to grasp the whole in a single gaze. The structural elements of both are controlled digitally, by numbers, and, while the images are in digital high definition format, there is also an ambiguous physical quality, like cheeks being stroked by a breeze. Emphatically speaking, there is a multifaceted unease to this experience of time. (p. 99)

I am so glad to have found a downloadable extract of this work on You Tube. A similar piece can be found on the samadhisound website.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

snowed under...

... not so much metaphorically, with work, but literally: snow is falling everywhere today - silent, inexorable. Can't keep my eyes from the window, and my thoughts are roaming, daydreaming, far, far away from what I should be doing now, with piles and piles of accumulated work in front of me.
A gloss on Clark's lovely rain poem* echoes in my mind like a soothing mantra:

as snow falls on the town
it is snowing in my heart
on the red and the grey
the blue roofs of my heart
snow is steadily falling
all the gutters of my heart
are choked with dead leaves
through the golden eaves
snowflakes slowly percolate...

*The poem is "as rain falls on the town", from Sixteen Sonnets (Nailsworth: Moschatel Press, 1981).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Getting close by going far away / Going far by staying here...

Were I to pick up my favourite album in 2008, I would not hesitate to choose Thomas Feiner's the Opiates Revised. I was already a fan of David Sylvian and Steve Jansen, but Feiner was quite a revelation. Songs like this moving "For Now" will remain favourites for many years to come, if not forever.

For Now

Getting close by going far away
Going far by staying here
To the kind of place where lonely is travelling best

Leaving ill and well alone
If all fails, all fails

Let the clock strike upon this resting hour

For now... for now...
Leaving point despair
Leaving point hope

Getting lost to find a way back home
Getting back by letting go
Make another footfall
In the flow of things

And death is just a breath away
But so is life
Seeing this, but knowing not which scares the most

For now... for now...
Leaving point despair
Leaving point hope

Whatever worry running through the veins
When you go, you go
Whatever worry racing the head

When you're there, you're there

Getting close
Abandoning hope

Leaving point despair
Looking up from the rush of things
In a point of life that is now
A point of life
For Now

furusato (3)

One does not have to be a member of something.
(Donald Richie, Journals, March 21, 1992)

Despite everything, it's such an immense relief to be back to my elective un-furusato. Whenever I return from a sojourn somewhere, Donald Richie's wise words echo in my mind:

Japan [...] allows me to like myself because it agrees with me and I with it. Moreover, it allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me - I am considered too much the outsider for that [...] - and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me. Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself. (The Inland Sea, p. 42)

Yes, a one-member society, or: the realisation that, in the most essential things, you are irremediably alone, wherever you are. It's certainly not the easiest place to live in and make close friends, but something in this archipelago deeply agrees with me too. Japan is bearable for me because I am, and will always be, a foreigner. Again, I cannot but fully endorse Richie's view: "I think if I didn't feel like a foreigner, I woudn't be here. If I were Japanese, I wouldn't stay here ten minutes".

Once an English friend, after having lived in Japan for almost 15 years, sadly confessed: "I have no one I can call a friend here". A friend is someone whom you can trust and who trusts you, someone who has time and space for you, with whom you can go out for a leisurely walk in the forest or a picnic - and there are no such people in this country anymore, according to him.

Well, he might have been exaggerating a little, but I do acknowledge the pitfalls of friendship and intimacy in this island of "half-opened doors", as Pico Iyer calls it in his moving introduction to Richie's book. Yet, while I do agree with Iyer's suggestion that "the foreigner in Japan, more than anywhere, stands at the edge of an intimacy that is closing slowly in his face", I've also been increasingly pondering on whether our valued concept of intimacy might not be somewhat misplaced because too unilaterally western.

In any case, this eerie feeling of forever living between half-opened doors won't go away, and you've got to adapt yourself to this constant struggle with layers and layers of social conventions and unwritten rules, shyness, nervousness, reserve, diffidence, hesitation, fear, evasiveness, unresponsiveness, and loads of other sentiments and shadows I cannot even begin to fathom but which persistently hinder any feeling of an envisaged intimacy with the "other". It's like, say, contemplating the winter sun behind a thick glass door. If you resist the urge to give up and humbly return to wherever you came from, then you just have to go on peeling off layer after layer, with infinite patience, and in the vague hope there are - there have to be - exceptions to the (in)famous saying concerning the heart, the core of the onion: that it has none.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Sado Island, Niigata

A journey is always something of a flight. You go to reach, but you also go to escape. [...] Now, to escape is no sentimental gesture, it is survival.

Donald Richie, The Inland Sea (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2002), p. 17.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

furusato (2)

Giorgio de Chirico, Gare Montparnasse

Departures are typically seen as painful moments, but not with me - and most definitely not when I am departing from this strange, unwelcoming furusato of mine. You think that the much struggled-for geographical and emotional distance has mended old wounds, but only the surface remains dry and hard. Underneath, they are as deep and serious as ever. The blood won't stop and they will ache forever, especially in certain weathers.
The family can be the most repressive and claustrophobic of social institutions, but catholic families are the worst of all. The double standards, the affected piety, the self-righteousness, the persistent neuroses, the obsessive concern with outward appearances and public facades create so many antibodies, restlessness and an aversion to rules and conventions (plus, all too often, a fierce atheism) in certain people - usually the most sensitive, intelligent and/or artistically inclined - that there is no other alternative but to run away to some distant place. It is a matter of life or death, of sanity or madness. There is no return and even the briefest visits are hard to endure.

How I empathise with the odd bananas in de Chirico's paintings!

Friday, January 2, 2009

taking the lids off things (and off people)

Nothing is, I feel, more vital than this. And, at the same time, nothing is more difficult to incorporate into our habits of thought, attitudes, actions, rhetoric, routines, relationships. Yet, despite ourselves, we do it all the time: while differentiating certain things and people, we do not - we cannot - really separate them; we mix up everything, because every thing is a 'going on', as Tim Ingold puts it. I cannot separate what I am from what I am thinking and saying and doing, because:

"The wind is its blowing. Similarly, the stream is the running of water. And so too, I am what I am doing. "

If things occur, as entanglements within a texture, rather than existing as discrete, self-contained entities, then as we follow the materials from one thing to another we cross no boundary. Some critics may find this hard to understand. I myself have been accused of 'conflationism', of muddling everything into everything else. Surely, it is argued, a first prerequisite for any kind of action in the world is that the actor is able to tell one thing from another, or to distinguish a phenomenon, P, from what is not P. How could anyone who did not recognise such distinctions get on with their lives? They would be forever adrift in blundering confusion. The mistake, here, is to assume that differentiation implies separation, that to recognise the difference between A and B is to place them on opposite sides of a categorical boundary. Let us suppose that A and B are places, and that we take a trip from one to the other. We know that we are at A when we start out, and at B when we arrive. But if, somewhere en route, I were to stop and ask 'are we still in A or have we crossed over to B?', you could reasonably reply that there is no cross-over point, no boundary, but that we will be in B once we get there. For each place is identified not by its contents, enclosed within a perimeter, but by its positioning within a field of relations that continually unfolds in the course of people's inter-place movements.
I think it may be more helpful to imagine the world not as a giant museum or department store but as a huge kitchen, well stocked with ingredients of all sorts, and where things are continually on the boil. In the kitchen, stuff is mixed together in all sorts of combinations, generating new materials in the process which will in turn become mixed with other things in an endless process of transformation. To cook, containers have to be opened, and their contents poured out. We have to take the lids off things. Indeed, faced with the anarchic proclivities of his materials, the cook has to struggle to retain some semblance of control over what is going on. So does the gardener have to struggle to prevent the garden from turning into a jungle. However much we try, through feats of engineering, to construct a world that conforms to our expectations - that is, a world of discrete, well-ordered objects - our intentions are confounded by the life's refusal to be contained. We think that objects have outer surfaces, but wherever there are surfaces life depends on the continual exchange of materials across them. If, by 'surfacing' the earth - as in the construction of a paved road - we block that exchange, then nothing can live. In practice, however, such blockages can never be more than provisional. Attacked by roots from below, and the action of wind, rain and frost from above, the surface eventually cracks, allowing plant growth to mingle and bind once again with the light, air and moisture of the atmosphere.

Tim Ingold, in Overcoming the Modern Invention of Material Culture, eds. Vítor O. Jorge and Julian Thomas (Porto: ADECAP, 2006/2007), pp. 315-17. Emphases added in the second excerpt.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

on friendship (5)

For friendship
make a chain that holds,
to be bound to
others, two by two,

a walk, a garland,
handed by hands
that cannot move
unless they hold.

--Robert Creeley