Some initial notes towards a decolonized imagination of poetry
With thanks to Naomi Hirahara, Jen Hofer, and Vickie Vertiz
This thing called the United States thinks it’s fine to be monolingual. It keeps resurrecting the Manifest Destiny zombie, trying to spread the English bug even though the US has no official language. The parochial English-only zombie can’t think multilingually and mistakes that for strength. With a barely functional brain, it can only slowly shamble, groan, and hunger for flesh. Luckily, the vampire is multilingual. Long-lived, long-sighted, well-read, the vampire initiates its bitten others into an inter and extra-national network.
Why does most US American poetry want to be a zombie?
Vampires (code switchers, multilinguals, including so-called “heritage speakers” and we who know other languages in passing fragments) take the national entity of the US as a temporary artifice, but we too are US American poetry. Regardless of what language we write in. Because we have been here for a very long time. And we’re always learning new ways to thrive.
The Japanese-language poetry of issei (first-generation) Japanese immigrants. Working as gardeners in the Los Angeles area for decades, they wrote Japanese senryu about their daily life challenges. From ガーデナー風雲録 (Gardeners’ Pioneer Story), edited by Sankyaku Seki:
Gepu mada zumanu mowa o nusumareru
One more payment to go…
My lawn mower
Senryu—similar in form to haiku but not in content. Traditional haiku are season and nature-based, perhaps a bit like the Western tradition of the “pastoral,” though Western pastoral poetry often idealizes nature, romanticizing it as an untouched source of inspiration. People are usually missing, except in the form of a solitary nature-lover/observer.
In the US, most people don’t live close to “untouched” landscapes. Is there such a thing? Manifest Destiny is zombification—genocide, displacement, colonization, pollution. And then covered over by flowers. But who tends this pastoral? Who makes sure its aesthetics please the privileged viewer? It doesn’t tend to itself, though in the white fantasy it does. In the US today, especially in California, the “missing” laborer is often Latino (see Ramiro Gomez’ art—”Gardens Don’t Tend Themselves”). In Los Angeles before World War II and for decades after, it was often a Japanese American gardener. The pastoral is not “natural,” it is made, and at great cost.
Joyelle McSweeney, poet and theorist of the “necropastoral,” has defined it as:
…a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of “nature” which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects. The Necropastoral is a non-rational zone, anachronistic, it often looks backwards and does not subscribe to Cartesian coordinates or Enlightenment notions of rationality and linearity, cause and effect.
Many things lie underneath the pastoral landscape, including skeletons, as is the case with the US settler colony. Above it, the “nature” that covers it is shaped by hired hands. To recognize the necropastoral demands, among other things, that the living bodies of the gardener, landscaper, day laborer rise to the fore.
This is why US American zombie poetry hates vampires—we make things messy. US American poetry should be bitten by multilingualism. Actually, it’s been bitten already, but doesn’t realize it. Zombies don’t have very good memories. They try to take elixirs and legislate remedies. Imagine a pure past that never existed. But vampires challenge the nativism and parochialism of believing that non-English poetry is exclusively from outside the US. And that the movement of literary translation is only from outside US national borders to inside. Vampire poetry is already everywhere.
The issei Japanese gardener as friend of the necropastoral. Thousands of contingent laborers caring for middle and upper-class white yards and gardens:
Fufu te aita tochi wa tanin no mono
The land we developed was owned by others (trans. Sankyaku Seki)
Together we developed other people’s land (trans. Kenji Liu)
And then imprisoned, along with hundreds of thousands others, because of white zombie wartime hysteria. And yet the issei continued to write. From ガーデナー風雲録 (Gardeners’ Pioneer Story):
馬小屋に 住んで 人参 喰わされる（馬小屋川柳の記録)
Umagoya ni sunde ninjin tabewasareru
They put us in barns and made us eat carrots (trans. Sankyaku Seki)
Putting us in horse stalls, they made us eat carrots (trans. Kenji Liu)
Word options, word choice. The process of translation consists of political choices. Demonstrating those choices makes the seemingly clear surface of a translation messy. The difference between a barn and a horse stall might seem small, but whereas a barn might seem almost prosaic, a horse stall seems confining and inhuman. Knowing the history of Japanese American internment and the horse race tracks that served as government staging grounds, a choice is made.
But why say “putting,” rather than “imprisoning” or “forcing”? The original senryu tells us what happened by implying—in a word-for-word translation, no one is doing anything to the speaker. The speaker is simply living in a horse stall. But we know that can’t be the whole story. The senryu is written for a Japanese American audience that knows what’s happening. Decades later, translating into English for a completely new audience, how does one convey what happened and why? The translator makes a choice to add someone doing something to the speaker.
But in keeping with the original Japanese, the so-called “passive voice” (which is usually a zombie value judgement stigmatizing a communication style) is used. It rides the line between pointing a finger at someone and not. For someone to put you somewhere implies they have some kind of power to do so. To imprison would also imply this, but the original senryu doesn’t contain that sense of being locked up, despite our historical knowledge of internment. “Sunde” is simply to live or reside.
On the other hand, it does contain “ninjin tabewasareru,” which definitely has the connotation of being forced to eat carrots. So this is where the senryu’s sense of imprisonment is found, and where it is also developed most forcefully in the English translation.
Among the pastoral’s furnishings—horse, carrot—the necropastoral bubbles up from language. Partly because the translator wills it, partly because this is the life of the poet-laborer who gardens the pastoral. It was always there. The pastoral was always bitten.
Vampires possess a kind of charisma that makes multilingualism attractive. Vampires are stylish, hot, and we’re not very puritan. We see the bigger picture and smile toothily at the limited vision of zombies. A national border is not the natural state of things. Neither is monolingualism. We have seen myriad peoples and nations come and go. Though we have honor and dignity, we don’t follow all the rules. Our everyday lives traffick in crossings. We can curse you forever in more than one language.
To purchase ガーデナー風雲録 (Gardeners’ Pioneer Story), contact the Southern California Gardeners’ Association. Also see Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California by Naomi Hirahara. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the AWP16 panel, “Asian American Writers Reinventing Los Angeles,” convened by Ginger Ko.
Featured Image Credit: The late Isamu “Sam” Hirahara, Naomi Hirahara’s father and the inspiration for the Mas Arai mystery series. via The Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles Japanese Daily News)