Book Review: Kanji Poems by David Galef


Kanji Poems by
David Galef
World Poetry (2015)
ISBN: 9781625491411
Reviewed by Willard Spiegelman

How often does a new poetic type swim into our ken, arrive on the scene unannounced? When, and why? If poets are concerned, not to say obsessed, with finding their voices and staking claims to originality, why do so few of them make new forms? Voice is one thing, form” another.

The limerick appeared in the early eighteenth century, but it didn’t take hold and flourish until the following one. In the waning days of Victorian and Edwardian nonsense, Edmund Clerihew Bentley gave us his own eponymous light verse quatrains. Fifty years ago, the late Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, both playful masters of poetic form, cornered the market on the double dactyl in Jiggery Pokery (1967). Hecht, with Paul Pascal, had actually invented the form in 1951. Countless evenings of parlor poets intoning “Higgledy-Piggledy” ensued. A new anthology of the glittering folderol is scheduled to appear next year, edited by the younger wits Dan Groves and Greg Williamson. Williamson, too, gets some credit, for an even denser, baroque form, which to my knowledge no one else has ever attempted: the “double exposure” (2000), which is really three separate poems: lines in standard type making up one poem, alternating with lines in boldface, that make a second poem. The third combines the two separate ones, now read from start to finish, durchkomponiert whole that is greater than the sum of its two parts. Whew.

Robert Pack made Rounding It Out, a volume of “sonnettelles” (1999), his own portmanteau meshing of the sonnet and the villanelle. Most recently, we have Tyehimba Jess’s “syncopated sonnetsand other divided lyrics (a version of what Williamson has done), combining hip hop performance and doubled poems that can be articulated variously: one voice on the left, one on the right, or the two mingled straight through.

In the twenty-first century, many of these forms, including the more established villanelle and sestina, look like deliberate exercises in clever archaism, or glittering extensions of the category we sometimes dismiss as light verse. Can they be serious, or are they fated to be mere pyrotechnics?

The urge to make it new, or rather to make something whose structure resembles no previous ones, persists. David Galef’s Kanji Poems does not actually create a new form nor does it re-invent old forms so much as experiment with the ideas of macaronic verse, intertextuality, and, especially, the relationship between text and commentary, or call and response, early and late. These short poems, none longer than a page, are both invented and found. Each is based on the dictionary definition of one Japanese calligraphic “character. Each takes its cue from the unfolding, expanding connotations, variations and combinations of that single figure. The “characters” in the book originate in written strokes, which morph into the people (characters) who populate the book’s pages. They put me in mind of both Howard Nemerov’s epigram “the point of style is character,” and the proliferating characters of James Merrill’s epic Changing Light at Sandover, who originate—as does all poetry—in the 26 letters of our alphabet, arranged and re-arranged in manifold ways. Galef’s poems signify creative lexicography at its best. The poems are a scholar’s work, and they demand an equal scholarly receptivity from a reader.

This is not to say they are pretentious, didactic, or overtly referential. Galef has made narrative poems and anecdotes based Japanese culture and language. He has translated that culture, and its language, into contemporary demotic American. But words like “original” and “translation” require expansion. After all, the Japanese took the kanji characters from Chinese ideograms two thousand years ago. The written image remains the same in both systems; the pronunciation differs. Already, things are changing, heating up. And of Galef’s poems we are forced to ask: What is primary, what secondary? How are we intended to read each lyric: the translated dictionary definition (as an epigraph) first, and the Galef poem (as a subsequent commentary) next? That’s one way. That’s how our eyes move down a printed page. Because it precedes the main text in space, we tend at least to glance at any epigraph, although it may have been an afterthought in the mind of the author, who attached it to his work only after completing it. Often, we just skip over it, thinking it a mere grace note. That’s not the case here. For these poems, Galef took a character and then made his own meditation or commentary upon it. The unfolding kanji dictionary “definition” is an original “found” poem. The epigraph is no piece of inconsequential homage. Galef’s poem, subsequent but not subservient, pays homage to the epigraph.

There is another way to proceed. We can ignore the epigraph, perhaps at our peril, entirely
or perhaps just initially. (And then we can go back to the epigraph to take the measure of its relevance.) We can take each of Galef’s poems on its own terms, an English lyric we respond to as if nothing other than it is at stake. Consider, for example, the shortest of the 64 poems, “Equivocation”:

Oh, certainly,
but not necessarily,
not all the time,
not entirely,

On its own, the little lyric turns itself around, like a man contemplating a decision, having second thoughts, changing his mind, mulling it over, and slowly but surely moving 180 degrees to the other side of the question. Is the final “no” a rejoinder to the opening (as if moving from positive to negative poles, saying “not at all”)? Or is it a new, more modest qualification, as if saying “Not all of the time, but some of the time.” Or, “No, not entirely”? And notice, as well, the lovely balancing rhyme that encloses and complicates the poem: “Oh. . . no.”

But then: start over, with the originating epigraph, the kanji character “hitsu.” Galef precedes each poem with the figure itself, then its Japanese pronunciation, along with a string (some of these are longer than others) of changes in the character and its uses. Here’sthe entry for “hitsu”:

HITSU certainly. kanara(zu) positively, invariably. kamara(zushimo)

(not) always, (not) necessarily, (not) entirely.

In other words, with a couple of linguistic twists and turns, something becomes its opposite. First you are certain; then you are not. The mind changes, along with language. Everything is always in transition.

The fun of Galef’s poems derives from the pleasures, the game, of watching such transformations occur. As with English words, Japanese kanji often have several meanings, as well as different shades of meaning or feeling. Everything depends on contexts. Just as rook can mean, in English, a chess piece, a bird, or (changing from noun to verb) to cheat someone, the ideogram nama may mean raw, fresh, born, draft (beer), and so on, with two or three different pronunciations. The average Japanese-free reader will see at the start of each poem a dictionary entry for an ideogram, abridged a bit but still showing a fair range of meanings and contexts. Those entries all come from the second edition of Nelson’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary, acknowledged at the start of Galef’s book. In their odd linkages and bound meanings, these entries make for a found poetry, linked within and between by evocative connections. If you read any poem and then look back at its headpiece, you’ll see how many lines are suggested by the totality of meaning in one character. Start with the epigraph and move to the poem. Start with the poem and move back to the epigraph. The game works either way. Chance and logic go hand in hand in any artistic process.

At their best, the individual poems do not require a reader’s experience of their origins in kanji definitions. Take “Soaring,” an almost-sonnet, with quatrains of exploration that build to a marvelous final simile:

I fly through your life,
skipping pages that don’t concern me,
letting them scatter or blow away
like the many kites I have lost.
I drive fast over your beached body,
splashing in the shallows,
slipping over parts I once omitted,
sending out waves of surprise.
In truth, I find you shocking,
your tremendous self so strange,
an absurd touch turned serious,
like an unexpected
               cliff in a meadow.

The epigraph lacks entirely the erotic undertow of the poem. The character goes from “fly”and “skip (pages)” down to the adjectival “unexpectedand “fantastic.” The eroticism is Galef’s original addition. No linguistic scholarship is necessary. Without the epigraph (the figure HI, meaning to fly or to skip, skip pages or fly a kite, etc.), all we have is an erotic poem of familiarity and surprise. The loved one is a landscape and a text both well known and also always capable of surprising, novel revelations. When one is soaring, one is like an eagle, borne aloft and on the look-out, attentive and predatory, willing to strike, to take advantage of what lies below. The sexual frisson in the last two lines comes as a result of what Galef makes of his sense of the unexpected. It’s as if this man of the book and of the flesh, of study and also of lived experiences, comes to play upon his lover’s body with all the eagerness of a novice learning a new language. A turn of an idiom equals a turn in perceptual understanding. Shallows and depths are equally surprising.

Kanji Poems has twelve sections, each surrounding a single topic, each more redolent of old Japan than its contemporary equivalent, but also timeless: Relationships, Family, Village, Individuals, Improvisations, Women’s Complaints, Men’s Complaints, The Old Era, Disillusionment, Decline, Old Age and Death, and Sum-Up. This last is a single poem section. The poem is called “Wing,” based on the figure for feather, plumage, wing, blade, paddle, fan and bird counter (!). It is a poem of finality and ongoingness, about a father who tickles his son’s nose while the boy sleeps, so that he’ll dream of flight. The last three of its four tercets are a blessing and a farewell:

As I feather our nest,
my wife’s plumage increases.

Soon she may take wing.
But my feather is also a paddle

for the rice cooker, a fan
to catch the stagnant air,

and even a blade to slice through
the lengthening afternoons
that I sit alone, counting the birds.

All of Galef’s poems deal with the multiple kinds of metamorphoses we encounter in our daily lives. These begin, on the page, with linguistic transformation. They proceed, in his fertile imagination, to other kinds of shape-changing. A father blesses his child. The man’s wife may soon disappear. He keeps house; climate changes. He is left alone. We are all left alone, sooner or later.

The book’s penultimate poem, “Trip” (part of the series on old age and death), takes a sober look at the individual and collective life we all lead. It reminds us as well that Galef, himself an inveterate world traveler, understands the human truth of all journeys. It’s not that the paths of glory lead to the grave—Thomas Gray gave that truism its most famous articulation two and a half centuries ago—but that the journey, not the arrival, matters (T. S. Eliot’s much different variation). Galef urges his audience to learn the language of “the barbarians.” To a Japanese, any foreigner is traditionally a barbarian. And he tells us “conduct yourself as if in school,” a dictum this professor has always observed. His poem ends with an unpitying reminder of our common end:

One day you’ll be gone for good,
as at the end of a sentence,
bound for a place small as a dot.

The gentle word play on “sentence” as articulation and judgment exemplifies Galef’s deft handling of language and its relation to our world. Everything changes. That is our human sentence. How we handle the changes can be measured by the notice we take of our surroundings and by the sentences we make from our encounters, experiences, and discoveries.


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