Perhaps thanks to Joyelle McSweeney’s Dead Youth, or, the Leaks: a play in 4 acts (2014), which is also a closet drama a la Goethe or Gertrude Stein and thus perfectly amenable to the theatrophobic—pertinent to our interrupted spectacle?—I have been excavating for leaks. It is hard to believe that this poem, or play, is pre-Trump-era, pre-Covid-19. Wait a second. That isn’t hard to believe at all.
DEAD YOUTH 2: What a day at the races.
DEAD YOUTH 1: It’s hard work, this afterlife (25).
Everything accelerates in late capitalism.
What oozes comes from what is; whatever is contained nonetheless transmits. When a virus forces us to understand the essential place of virality in the commonplace transmission lines of what was, I wonder how we will relearn the architectures of what is. In my quasi-mobile cloister, I probably obsessed over breaches in lanes of usual passage and destination. For one thing, perhaps I read more plays than I would have over the semi-blockaded months of a trying 2020. Those demanding my attention have been Matsubara Shuntaro’s Mountains (山山, yamayama), Keep Your Front Up (正面に気をつけろ, shōmen ni ki o tsukero), and Your Estate (君の庭, kimi no niwa); and any Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill that I hadn’t read.
Matsubara is a playwright of eructating verbal utterance. Mountains has yamayama throughout as a sort of bleeding motif that ever multiplies the referents such a term is supposed to evoke—that is, of alps, but also of plenty and accumulation; Keep Your Front Up has maitta na! for its dominant phrase and tone—done! as in we’re done for! or I’m done!; and Your Estate in the Chiten production of October this year, the first show I had seen since March, made stochastic choral soundscapes of bonjin, meaning lay person, a term in the context of the play that members of the royal family use to describe commoners, a term that also comes to be the subject of politically charged inversion in this critique of hypocritical Japanese neoliberalism. The intervals that stud a Pinter play such as The Dumb Waiter leak our secrets too. Churchill’s utterances, especially perhaps in Far Away, disclose concealed horror at each of their resistant, adamantine cuts.
Since I’ve been researching material for writing on contemporary Japanese performance, the last couple of years have been fortunately spent with philosopher Karatani Kojin, a figure whom only readers of Fredric Jameson seem to know anything about. Nation and Aesthetics: On Kant and Freud would be my recommendation. It has a deceptive title; while the philosophical skeleton of the work is certainly Kant and Freud, the nervous system is essentially modern political theory and area studies—its imagined discussants are Benedict Anderson, Hardt and Negri, Alexandre Kojève, and then, betwixt and between all that, Marx—and the flesh is circulating debates about the status of nationhood in a comparatist East-West debate about alternatives to globalisation.
I am struck by the economy of intellectual means by which Karatani can make compelling deconstructions of the tightest of capitalist knots, that is, the Borromean entanglement of state, capital, and nation. Like Jacques Rancière’s work, Karatani makes dramatic assertions with just a few tidy citational and epistemological buttresses. Sometimes the walls appear too insubstantial for the gravity of the argument; but like Rancière’s work on aesthetics, this work on nation and economy has not been asked in this way, so the contingencies of rebuttal essentially remain to be seen. In particular, I have not yet seen a more convincing or more novel historical and philosophical account of American capitalism, and Japan’s entanglement with it, than Karatani’s.
Selected Works: Yi Sang (2020), edited by Don Mee Choi, translated by Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, and Joyelle McSweeney is much bigger than I expected of this poorly known Korean poet of the Japanese colonial era, Yi Sang. There is so much visceral spree in here, a gristly cornucopia of ill-temper, misery, and resistance. Nakayasu, an awesome poet as well as Sang’s translator for the Japanese-language material, kindly visited my university to present a lecture, and this included some of her corpus of translations, including her translation of ‘Fragment Scenery’ (「破片ノ景色」hahen no keshiki), a poem from the Japanese-language output of Yi Sang featured in the selected works. Students were first stunned by the lively, fragmentary orthography of the original poem, something which Nakayasu has superbly transposed into English. Questions revolved around strategies for rendering those idiosyncrasies in the Japanese into English. The habit of people reading translated works in the original is to grossly overstate the difference of the original; in this case, Nakayasu has generated a very exciting tonal impression and linguistic adventure after Yi Sang that reminds us of the enormous value of translation and of the broadcast of poets divided by spheres of literacy. By all means study Japanese, study the colonial history of Korea, study Korean, and then read ‘Fragment Scenery’. But, while you develop your language and history education, a gifted and brilliant translator has found a way for English to accommodate what Yi Sang has left in poetry, and it screams ‘IN JUST WHAT WAY AM I EXPECTED TO CRY’ (90).
Can you believe that even while his crops were failing in Nhill, John Shaw Neilson’s father self-published his poems with the little money that the family had, only to then lose the print run to fire that razed many buildings in the Nhill area, including the office for The Mail newspaper who was to be publisher for the poems. It’s like a bad joke. In this Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson, the poet we know best, J.S.N., then remarks, ‘Dad used to say, that it was rather an advantage that it had got burnt because most of it was not correct enough for a book’ (40). The stunning perseverance, and puzzling belief in one’s poetry, staggered me when I read this recently.
The autobiography is so full of melodrama, and yet presented in such a glum, lethargic, but radiantly innocent way by J.S.N., I found myself rethinking my impressions of this weird lyric poet. I feel I am starting to understand poet Michael Farrell’s particular interest in the poet. I mean, I like Neilson’s work too, but the nature of this enjoyment is somewhat elusive, at least for me; somehow, Neilson’s work skirts aspects of what I don’t like about W.B. Yeats’ work, work that it matters little whether you like or not, right? In other words, I find myself liking the lyric peculiarities of Neilson’s work whose only resemblance that comes to me with any fidelity or accuracy would be early Yeats, but a Yeats I don’t particularly like.
Maybe that is the fun of poetry. Something oozes there that tends to be off-putting in other contexts. Neilson never seems to try to poeticise colonial Australian life as he lived it, since the autobiography shows just what a mundanely miserable life he led. I certainly wouldn’t ask for Neilson’s stunning inventory of injuries. Curiously, as far as I know, this common thread of his life, physical injury, gets little mention in the poetry. Nonetheless, when I look back at Neilson poems, I see how the primary colours, the fetishising of particular objects and symbols, the crispness and humility of the words of adoration, add up to a sincerely naive lyric of idiosyncratic shape developed out of a strange blitheness to its own lack of self-awareness. That’s what powers Sean Bonney’s poetry too, most of all his last book, Our Death (2019). Bonney was the closest thing to Percy Bysshe Shelley since, well, Shelley.
Sincere revolutionary belief, no matter how lacking in hesitation and self-criticality, does seem to require a certain relinquishment of embarrassment about anthem, lyric, looking in the mirror, an allowance of ‘Utopian raving as a brief flash of paranoia’ (91), etcetera. Perhaps that isn’t quite accurate. This quality in Bonney after Shelley could be described as the ability to deliberately overcome the hesitations that manifest as self-criticality. The rest of us wish we had a set of blinds for every looking-glass, and ear plugs for every echo.
Please forgive the fact that I have very little that might be timely to say. Meanwhile, the leaks.
Corey Wakeling is the author of three books of poetry, latest being The Alarming Conservatory (Giramondo 2018), and works as a lecturer and critic in western Japan. His monograph on Samuel Beckett, Beckett’s Laboratory: Experiments in the Theatre Enclosure, appears in May 2021 with the Methuen Drama imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.