Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Two Ladies

At the beginning of the 1960s, I was employed for several years as a member of the consular staff of the Embassy of Japan in Wellington. The obvious evidence of my place of work showed up at home in the ukiyo-e prints by Utamaro & Hiroshige & the Sengai sumi-e calendars that hung on my walls, the Kirin & Sapporo beer I offered visitors. The not-so-obvious evidence could be found on my bookshelves.

Certainly there was a reasonable amount of Japanese literature on those shelves, some bought before I started working at the Embassy—novels by Shōhei Ōoka, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima; Arthur Waley's translations of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon & The Tale of Genji; anthologies by Donald M. Keene & Kenneth Rexroth; D. T. Suzuki's books on Zen Buddhism—& some acquired during my time there—a delightful illustrated edition of Basho's The Narrow Road to the North, & R. H. Blyth's outstanding four volume Haiku.

But also there were a number of non-Japanese books, which I never would have been able to acquire if I hadn't been working at the Embassy. New Zealand, at that time, had not only a rather long list of banned books but also severe restrictions on foreign currency for private citizens.

Working at the Embassy allowed me to get around both things. Not only could I obtain a large number of U.S.-based small press publications & subscriptions to journals such as Evergreen Review, but I could also bring in as much of the Olympia Press catalog as I wanted to. So, also on those shelves were books by Jean Genet, Henry Miller, The Marquis de Sade, Laurence Durrell, J.P. Donleavy, Alexander Trocchi, Terry Southern, & William S. Burroughs. The Japanese books may have informed my aesthetics & my philosophies, but the imported books informed my writing style.

During this same period, in 1964, I came across an article by Burroughs, The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton-Smith, published in the Times Literary Supplement, in which he elaborated on his cut-up technique. It made a huge impact on me, though it was many years before I started experimenting along the lines he laid out.

He wrote of a fictional character, Lady Sutton-Smith, who keeps a journal which she divides into three daily columns. In the first is what she intends to do each day, the second is given over to what she actually did, & in the third are the thoughts she had & the observations she made during the day. Once the day was over, she would transcribe her entries into another book, but she would work across the page, ignoring the column breaks, as she transcribed it, so that she ended up with a non-linear but related narrative. (It's a long time since I read this piece, so my recollections of it may be imprecise.)

My take on Genji owes as much to Lady Sutton-Smith as it does to Lady Murasaki, though conceived as a confluence of streams rather than a reading across of columns.

The first stream is The Tale of Genji itself. It is the sine qua non, providing structure, sequence, characters, situations & quotes; slices of life of a particular time & place. But Genji is a timeless & universal book. Reading it a millenium after it was written means its interpretation can be affected by anything that has happened anywhere in those intervening years &, especially, by what is happening now. So the second stream—sometimes a multiple stream—is derived from results that flow from stochastically crawling through a search engine such as Google. The third stream is a recording of what's going on around you—cooking dinner, froghopping through YouTube—& what you're thinking about as a result of these multiple provocations—Eastern vs Western philosophy, the gender disparity evident in Genji & how much has it really changed, the presence or absence of the arts in our daily lives.

There is no template for how the individual poems draw on the streams, which one they start from, or how much of each is used. The only constant is that a reference to the corresponding chapter of Genji appears within the poem. As to how much of Genji remains, let me repeat the quote from Samuel R. Delany that I used as an epigraph to the collection:
And if you cut it in half again, it gets fuzzier still. But even if you have a square centimeter of the original hologram, you still have the whole image—unrecognizable, but complete.

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