Kazuko Shiraishi - As a teenager, she was involved in the surrealist VOU group, and later became known as Japan’s leading Beat poet, reading her poems to jazz, and championing artistic, spiritual, and sexual expression:Thought is an otter's scream / The sexual legs of chickens / Killed by your old lady / Boiling in a pot / Women's pubic hair...the strong, black soul of Saint Coltrane / In heaven

Kazuko Shiraishi, My Floating Mother, City, New Directions, 2009.

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Exciting new work from one of Japan's most acclaimed living poets.
This exciting new collection, My Floating Mother, City, contains poems from Kazuko Shiraishi's most recent books published in Japan, including The Running of the Full Moon (2004) and My Floating Mother, City (2003), which received the Bansui Poetry Award and a Cultural Award from the Emperor of Japan. Also included here are three amazing long sequences including "Sendai Metro, Greece Street," translated into English for the first time.
Japanese beat poet KAZUKO SHIRAISHI (b. 1931) is appearing in New York this week in conjunction with the release of the third book of English translations of her work, all by New Directions (in Japan her publications have appeared much more frequently). First came Seasons of Sacred Lust, in 1978, edited by KENNETH REXROTH. Its highly charged eroticisn garnered much attention, as did its reverence of jazz; reading deeper, Shiraishi’s nearly surreal imagery and wild juxtapositions proved highly evocative. Let Those Who Appear came out in 2002, proving that she had remained active and creative in the quarter-century interim; her focus had, on the evidence of its selections, switched to ecology. And now there’s My Floating Mother, City, which at first glance may. - Steve Holtje

Born in Vancouver in 1931 and raised in Japan, Kazuko Shiraishi rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s as a countercultural figure, moving in the orbit of the American beats—she was the first to translate Allen Ginsburg into Japanese—and traveling the world performing her poems to the accompaniment of jazz. Her early work, written in relatively short, unmetrical, casual-sounding lines and rife with bizarre, surrealistic imagery, is deliberately opaque, and for every poem that still works well—such as “Tiger,” with its menacing opening,
All day long
A tiger kept coming in and out.
The room was falling into ruin and
Broken arms, legs, and chairs were
Crying at the sky
—there’s another, such as “My America,” whose too-great debt to the beats renders it stale:
The night train to Chicago
Let’s take the A train
Lou Rawls’s “Goin’ to Chicago Blues”
We were so blue
As blue as tomorrow’s blues.
My Floating Mother, City, a new English-language collection of Shiraishi’s recent poems, opens with the poet turning back to those days, re-reading her first book, Falling Egg City, which was published when she was twenty. As she begins “The Day I Visited Falling Egg City     50 Years Later,” she’s confident of what she’ll discover there:
I went     to Falling Egg City     yesterday
I thought it was the old place of 50 years ago.
The images and characters from the poems remain familiar: an elephant man, and a lion who is
from way back when     anyone would love to live
his life     that way but
And it is from that “but” that the rest of the book springs. For as she reads, Shiraishi realizes that while the book of her youth may be the same, she is no longer the person who wrote it, having been irrevocably changed by time and life:
a leap     is already
a tragedy     it is the same with any
                    will and fate.
That the quotidian tragedy of time is signified by the familiar, yet utterly changed landscape of youth is our first indication that the presiding spirit of My Floating Mother, City is Odysseus, who has played a part in Shiraishi’s poetry since the early days. Odysseus has long represented the plight of the exile, changing in a different way and at a different pace from the homeland for which he longs; as Chinese-American poet and novelist Ha Jin explains in his book of essays on exile, The Writer as Migrant,
When Odysseus actually lands on the shore of Ithaka, something extraordinary happens. . . . As if a stranger, Odysseus fails to recognize his own homeland. His confusion originates from two facts: first, in his twenty years of exile, he has changed and so has his memory of his homeland; second, his homeland has also changed, no longer matching his memory of it. . . . [O]ne cannot return to the same place as the same person.
Odysseus’s presence in My Floating Mother, City is made explicit soon enough, in “Travel Is a Dream You Do Not Come Out Of”:
I wonder if Orpheus who returned from the land of the dead
and Odysseus who returned to the island of Ithaca
both woke     from a dream
Orpheus and Odysseus, the sweet singer and the wanderer in search of a home, appropriate for this aging, peripatetic poet, who in these poems wanders from Japan to Berlin to London to Iowa and speaks by turns for herself, her grandmother (plunged into bureaucratic limbo because of a lost passport), and various friends and influences. The poems in this volume are simultaneously more staid—their imagery more controlled, relying far less on the simple shocks of juxtaposition—and more free-flowing than her earlier work. Shiraishi writes here in long lines with interpolated breaks that look strange to the eye, but fall naturally on the ear. At times she deploys those breaks to give the poems a wave-like rhythm, reliable yet never staccato, the separated phrases taking on the comfortable pace of breath, as in these lines from “Even a Phantom Gets Thirsty”:
we don’t know what will become of     tomorrow
nevertheless     there is also something I have understood
even a phantom     gets thirsty
At other times, the lines feel more like a muted call and response, as in “The Cave of the Soul     Shrouded in Mist”:
the heavens are cloudy     never clear up
day turns to darkness     instead of sunflowers.
Shiraishi’s language, at least in these translations by Yumiko Tsumura and Samuel Grolmes, is relatively plain, and while at times it can seem too conversational, at others Shiraishi uses that stripped-down simplicity to impart the power of myth, as in “Sumiko’s Summertime”:
she began to bake
the bread of loneliness in her oven     but the guests
who had come to eat     one by one
deer     fox     hares badgers   and birds     and young girls and boys
all     disappeared     and the woods are empty
the woods     and the magic disappeared.
Several of the poems offer distant echoes of haiku and tanka, as in the closing lines of “Intimacy,” where what has seemed a sprawl of thoughts unexpectedly resolves itself into a compact reflection:
mankind is deserted even by intimacy     on the autumn globe
crying like a cricket with a broken leg
ah, someone is chirping     in the grass field
inti    inti    in   ti   macy
But through all the techniques and styles, it is Odysseus, “the Ulysses of my soul,” to whom Shiraishi returns again and again; he serves as a constant companion for this poet of multiple homelands augmented by a lifetime of travel and reading across cultures, trafficking in “a comfortable language and     bits of / uncomfortable other languages.” The best poem in My Floating Mother, City, “Sendai Metro, Greece Street,” pays homage to Bansui, who was the first to translate Homer’s account of Odysseus into Japanese,
this mere boy
who every night envisioned a strange ship
          tossed on the sea and blown skyward.
Each time he tried to climb onboard,
he was flung backward.
A visit, perhaps imagined, to Bansui’s widow off the Sendai Metro stop leads to reflections on desire, a calling, the home we ache to return to (“intimate stories about a cushion, a fire”), and the exile we can never truly escape.
And it is through the inspiration provided by Bansui, “one of Odysseus’s intimates,” that we begin to see hints of a solution to the problems of time and change that haunt the book, posed directly in “Can Can”:
many years have gone by like that     it’s the same even if tens of years go by
this is what it means     to fall in love with a myth.
For it is in Sendai, thinking of Odysseus’s loyal dog, the only one to recognize him on his return, that Shiraishi begins to see that,
Here the past turns backward
          or forward
               from day to day,
past and present both given
          to dreams beyond dreams.
The change that separates us from the past need not be insurmountable, if we remember that it is a continuity rather than a break; each moment points both ways, and with attention, imagination, and sustained engagement we can just make out the twists and turns that got us here. The breathless ramble of “An Hourglass” lays it out:
also when I dove into the time called a birthday like being covered up in bed I found myself inside a tunnel and could see both ways     the way I came from and the way I go from now.
The book of fifty years ago is still there for us, as strange yet familiar as a recurrent dream; all we have to do, Shiraishi suggests, is open it. -  

Let Those Who Appear

Kazuko Shiraishi, Let Those who Appear, Trans. by Yumiko Tsumura, New Directions, 2002.

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Over twenty-five years ago New Directions, at the urging of Kenneth Rexroth, published Seasons of Sacred Lust, a selection of poems by a young Japanese writer, Kazuko Shiraishi. Since then the book has gone through several printings and toured around the world, accompanying Ms. Shiraishi to almost any country one can think of, places where she gave readings and participated in various poetry events. Indeed, because of Shiraishi's travels, Seasons is probably one of the most widely-distributed books in the New Directions catalog.However, by now Seasons has become dated. It has been followed by more than fifteen new collections and Shiraishi has matured beyond her early Beat-related work; her poetry has developed an impressive range and depth. Let Those Who Appear contains selections from various recently-published books as carefully translated by Yumiko Tsumura and Samuel Grolmes. The title poem is from Shiraishi's 1996 book which received three prestigious awards in Japan -- the Yomiuri Literature Award, the Takami Jun Poetry Award, and the Purple Ribbon Medal from the Emperor of Japan.

“In the poems of Kazuko Shiraishi East and West connect and unite fortuitously. In her poems, Japan and Europe have entered into an inseparable marriage. Something very special and unusual defines these poems. On the way to a world culture, to a comprehensive world literature, Kazuko Shiraishi's poetry marks one step. And it refutes Kipling's dictum that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. In Kazuko Shiraishi's poems this meeting has already happened.”
Gunter Kunert
Championed by Kenneth Rexroth, who inspired her early work, poet Kazuko Shiraishi has won numerous awards in Japan since she began publishing in the 1950s. Let Those Who Appear is the first English-language volume of her work to appear in over 25 years. Translated by Yumiko Tsumura and Samuel Grolmes, professors of Japanese at California's Foothill College and the College of San Mateo, respectively, the book contains selections from several of Shiraishi's recent books. Born in Canada but moving to Japan in childhood, the now septuagenarian Shiraishi writes loose, whimsical, often witty verse (""The antibiotic of the Amazon bee has the smell of hashish It's a good smell!""), but many of the poems have serious undertones as she addresses environmental destruction, poverty and social injustice. - Publishers Weekly
Kazuko Shiraishi was described by Donald Keene as "the outstanding poetic voice of her generation of disengagement in Japan." Born in Canada in 1931, she moved with her family to Japan in 1938. The contrast between laidback Vancouver and the fervent nationalism of Japan at that time was a formative influence on the young Shiraishi, and left her feeling an outsider in her own country. In the late 50s, she moved to Tokyo, almost single-handedly creating the Japanese "Beat Generation." She performed with many American jazz musicians, and translated Allen Ginsberg into Japanese. Indeed she worked so closely with Ginsberg that Kenneth Rexroth—another friend of Shiraishi's—was prompted to describe her as "the Allen Ginsberg of Japan."
In fifty years, Shiraishi has written twenty volumes of poetry and prose, her most famous book being Seasons of Sacred Lust, published in English by New Directions in 1970. This same imprint has now published the collection Let Those Who Appear, which brings together a selection of poems first published in Japanese between 1988 and 2000. Shiraishi confounded all my expectations. She's nothing like the classical Japanese poetry of Buson or Issa, or the modern Zen poetry of Shinkichi Takahashi. Far from minimalist, her poems are expansive and improvisatory, akin more to Gary Snyder than any of her compatriots. Nonetheless they have a strong Buddhist sensibility, emphasising the unity and sanctity of all forms of life:
Breathing      a ripple      in that shiny single grain that single moment
I see myself      in many millionths      that cell
Her subject matter is wide-ranging: a concern for the oppressed and the environment, the contrast between the natural world and the ugliness and destructiveness of modern civilisation:
Birds      don't sing anymore
Mermaids      have disappeared
Only the statue of the bird of death
Covered with black oil
I was looking forward to reviewing this book, but finished reading it somewhat deflated. There is little rhythmic variation between the poems, and the "improvisatory" element sometimes seems forced and naive. Shiraiki is reputedly a spellbinding performer when reading her poems—perhaps the printed page is not her best medium. - David Preece

I’ve met the poet Kazuko Shiraishi three times, on each of her visits to New York. Shiraishi made her latest trip to this city in the spring of 2002, to mark the publication of “Let Those Who Appear,” the second book of her poems to be released by New Directions, the prime American publisher of poetry. New Directions has accorded that honor to no other Japanese poet.
The first time I met Shiraishi was in the early 1970s, when she was taking part in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and came to New York to see me. A few months earlier, I had published “Ten Japanese Poets,” a collection of Japanese poems translated into English, which included work by Shiraishi. It doesn’t require special candidness to say I chose her because of the titillating title of her book-length poem, which she completed in 1970: “Seinaru Inja no Kisetsu” (“The Season of the Sacred Lecher”).
In fact, Shiraishi, then in her early 40s, was at the height of her notoriety as a “sex poet,” even a “penis poet,” as she ruefully acknowledged. But “The Season of the Sacred Lecher” is not an unrelieved description of sexual acts. Composed under the influence of jazz in general and, in particular, John Coltrane, who once made an observation to the effect that he could discover what he wanted to express only after playing solo for an hour or more, the poem has a number of exploratory passages.
Still, it also has lines like:
I’ll pick up a man on the street, pick, suck, roll him into a cigar . . . I think of the small flesh, the dailiness. I want your flesh that dances into the dailiness in fragments, consumes itself and disappears.
Now you aren’t a “sweet tooth,” but “sweet spoon.” I lower myself a little before life’s real or serious abyss and make the spoon brim with honey, poison (Honey is poison, yes?) and let it flow from my lips into throat, from throat into breast from breast down toward the deep well.
Shiraishi, who was born in Vancouver but taken to Japan before the Pacific War broke out, spent the years of postwar chaos in a tizzy of sexual adventures. As she put it in her autobiographical sketch, “a green-eyed sailor, an Arab merchant, a Turkish military officer who readily shed large drops of tears, and an array of other men dizzily showed up and went away.” The title of her 1970 book, in any event, was alluring enough for poet Kenneth Rexroth to use it for a selection of her poems he edited for New Directions in 1978, choosing to translate the title as “Seasons of Sacred Lust.”
The second time I met Shiraishi was in 1985, when a New York group organized a festival of Japanese poets. During the extravaganza at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, I saw her “perform” with a band, a hallmark of her reading. By then popular internationally, Shiraishi was expanding her subject matter to cover concern for mankind, the Earth, animals and political conflicts, as is clear from “Let Those Who Appear.” For this small selection, translators Samuel Grolmes and Yumiko Tsumura have picked poems from the seven books of Shiraishi’s works that have appeared since 1984. Not one of the poems has to do with sex, unless imagining an ancient Aegean queen urinating in the title poem is considered sexual.
The poem Shiraishi apparently wrote during the Persian Gulf War, “The Marathon Man Heading For Destruction,” may typify the poet’s recent concern. It reads, in part:
The sickness of earth’s time is heavy Mankind thinks belief and desire Justice and diplomacy are all the same No longer embarrassed about anything Belief in power rules the world
But as I quote these lines, the poem eerily reads as though written to portend the present conduct of what a foreign policy commentator has called the “hyperpower.”
Because of her earlier notoriety, and because of the heights she has attained in her career as a poet, I should discuss the idea of Shiraishi as “a black sheep, an outsider in her own society,” as Grolmes and Tsumura characterize her. “Black sheep” is a term she used, in English, in her 1996 collection of autobiographical essays. In that book, she described her life in Japan as a struggle to prevent “banishment.” When she was labeled a “sex poet” or a “penis poet,” she obviously felt she was being maligned.
To a great extent, however, I think she enjoys being regarded as a black sheep. She once told me that she was invited to sit on a panel of judges for a haiku contest. She guessed she was asked to do that, she said, precisely because she was an outsider to the tradition-bound haiku world. The field of haiku in fact is commodious enough to allow a range of innovators. But in the main it remains, as I said, tradition-bound. Obviously, though, haiku people invited her, and her status as an outsider was the reason.
Shiraishi certainly is not a black sheep in the sense of someone ostracized. She has won a number of prizes, among them the Yomiuri Literary Prize and the Takami Jun Prize awarded to her 1996 book, “Arawareru mono-tachi o shite” (“Let Those Who Appear”). And the Order of the Purple Ribbon she received in 1998 is not an award for a particular work, but for a lifelong contribution to literature and the arts — for “innovations and improvements.”
What do her fellow poets actually think of her? Some evidently consider her a little too “loud,” her style a little too diffuse. But then John Ashbery, the premier poet in America today, has a coterie of detractors.
Asked how he assesses Shiraishi’s achievements, my tanka poet friend Tatsuhiko Ishii replied: “She may not have created a new school of poetry or anything like that, but her status as a lone star has been an encouragement” — to those, I think Ishii meant, who want to make it by maintaining an independent stance. - Hiroaki Sato


Kazuko Shiraishi, Seasons of Sacred Lust, New Directions, 1978.

read it at Google Books

Seasons of Sacred Lust is Kazuko Shiraishi's challenge to the conventions of Japanese erotic poetry. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Shiraishi was taken to Japan by her family just prior to World War II, and her first poetry (written at age seventeen, published at twenty) emerged from the violence and ugliness of postwar Tokyo. Her earliest work, associated with the avant-garde magazine Vou, shows her talent for vivid, bizarre, almost surrealistic imagery. Her later writing, coming out of her deepening involvement in the world of modern jazz and her increasing emphasis on the performance of her poetry, dramatizes a society of estrangement and alienation where music and poetry provide the only values, and sex the only solace, in a disintegrating world. This selection is translated by a group of Japanese and American poets: Iluko Atsumi, John Solt, Carol Tinker, Yasuyo Morita, and Kenneth Rexroth who provided an informative, perceptive introduction.

The Gurlesque has been blowing its pink and black bubbles in Japan in various ways for the last 40 or 50 years. In particular, I am thinking of the visual artist Yayoi Kusawa, who as early as the 60’s made her polka-dot habitats and gold-spray-painted furniture with flowers and phallus shapes sprouting from it. And, of course, I am thinking of Yoko Ono, who performed her Cut Piece first in 1965.
Also active in the scene was the poet Kazuko Shiraishi who was publishing her risqué, outlandish poems in Japan in the 60’s and early 70’s. In 1973 she was invited to spend time at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She was championed by Kenneth Rexroth, who translated some of her work (along with others) into English. Her book Seasons of Sacred Lust was published at Rexroth’s urging by New Directions in 1978. The book consists partly of long erotic, jazz-inspired “descents” that at once lament estrangement, chit chat, and pay tribute to an urban night-time hedonism. Among the titles of the lengthier poems: “The Man Root,” “Seasons of the Sacred Sex Maniac,” and the homage “Dedicated to the Late John Coltrane.” Here’s a section of that one in which you can see her improvisatory abandon where spacey, surreal, and smutty morph fluidly:
With your extremely heavy
And short pilgrimage
Full of fleeting eternity
Spirit traveling
You were mainly blowing thoughts
Thoughts are eyes, wind
Cascades of spicy sweat
Streaming down your forehead
Thought is an otter’s scream
The sexual legs of chickens
Killed by your old lady
Boiling in a pot
Women’s pubic hair
Alice or Aisha
Thoughts are the faceless songs
Of pink stars
Squirming in the sky
Of every woman’s womb
On the cover of Seasons of Sacred Lust, Kazuko Shiraishi appears in a patchwork of photos. Posing with satin blouses, fans, flowers, cat-eye makeup, and in one holding a microphone, she’s a provocateur. She often performed her poems with jazz accompaniment and would recite, as she said, in her “Samurai movie voice.” She said that Allen Ginsberg, John Coltrane, and Henry Miller were all inspirations.
But there’s certainly something else, something girly and grotesque and blushingly brutal in her work. Reading her is kind of like getting your cards read at a motorcycle/go-go club by Hello Kitty and Chococat. This is not meant to diminish her work; it’s worth considering her stance, which is willingly naïve at times and lets in a wider range of sensitivity. Here’s a little of “The Man Root”:
Sumiko, I’m sorry
But the penis shooting up day by day
Flourishes in the heart of the cosmos
As rigid as a wrecked bus
Other short lyrics in the book appear with animal titles. She creates these mini-
beast masques, a sort of sexualized anime.
That man is a rhinoceros-oyster
He is so big and strong,
But with a heart like a delicate petal.
Don’t be cold to him
Don’t fall in love with him for fun!
If you love him seriously
You will know that
Nothing could be more fearful
Than his love, a love of an oyster-rhino.
If he ever discovers
You are unfaithful, Carmen,
He will take you down the road to death
On his horn,
Instead of kissing you with his gentle eyes.
Don Jose is a rhino-oyster.
Like Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama, Kazuko Shiraishi is still producing in her eighties. Her most recent book My Floating Mother, City came out from New Directions in 2009. The Gurlesque lives on:
I can no longer become six nipples, nor a male with a tail
time is moonlight in front of the graveyard
the Doberman’s syle Debussy music becomes a raging storm
whooaah whooaah
coming into now the joy without even the smell of death
on top of hot raspberry soup becomes a vanilla ice-cream girl
(“April is the Melancholy of a Doberman’s Nipples”) - Molly Bendall
Kazuko Shiraishi (Vancouver, 1931) had her breakthrough in the 1950s as a female poet who was unconventional in all respects. After cutting short her studies at the prestigious Waseda University, she published her debut collection The City Where It Rains Eggs (Tamago no furu machi, 1951) at the age of 20. The work which also led to her breakthrough outside Japan in the 1970s shows influences of the American Beat poets, especially Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), with whom she has also performed, and such jazz musicians as John Coltrane.
Her early childhood was spent in Vancouver, but when she was seven, she moved to Japan. This early period outside Japan has surely acquired a certain symbolic meaning: an enlightened period of freedom and love that always formed a contrast to Japan and that seemed to resonate in the avant-garde status of her poetry in the 1960s and 1970s.
From the outset, Shiraishi has the name of being an outsider, or, as she herself has put it, a “black sheep”. Her reputation as an author of especially erotic poetry, as put together in the translated collection Seasons of Sacred Lust from 1978, has for decades made people somewhat blind to her work during the past quarter century, in which – always associative, visual and rhythmical – she has not only begun to write increasingly long poems but often makes the suppression of all forms of life by human cruelty and culture, a theme of her involved poetry.
Recent work by her has been included in her collection My Floating Mother, City (Fuyû suru haha, toshi, 2003) the title poem of which will also be read at Poetry International 2009. This poem has also been inspired by the death of people close to her: especially her mother, but also Allen Ginsberg.

© Ivo Smits (Translated by John Irons)