Hiromi Ito

Fierce, witty, and vibrant—and dubbed by Anne Waldman as “a true sister of the beats”—Radical feminist poet Hiromi Ito is a key figure in Japanese poetry, noted for her innovative experiments with language. Waldman goes on to praise Ito for celebrating “the exigencies and delights of the paradoxically restless/rooted female body.” As her translator, Jeffrey Angles, observes, she “taps into the cultural unconscious of Japan, or perhaps even womanhood as a whole.”

Often described as a “shamaness of poetry,” Ito debuted in 1978 with the collection The Plants and the Sky (Kusaki no sora). The leading voice in Japanese women’s poetry throughout the 80’s, she also published several essay collections on child-rearing including Yoi oppai, warui oppai (Good Breasts, Bad Breasts) and the series Onaka hoppe oshiri (Tummy, Cheeks, Bottom). In the mid-90’s, she took a break from poetry and began writing fiction, receiving critical acclaim for such works as Ra ninya (La nina, 1999). Returning to poetry with Kawara arekusa (Wild Grass on a Riverbank, 2005) and Toge-nuki: Shin Sugamo Jizô engi (The Thorn-Puller: New Tales of the Sugamo Jizô, 2007), Ito established a unique narrative space by interweaving folklore and contemporary poetry. Focusing on the themes of the body and voice, and delving into her own life, she transcends the genres of poetry, fiction, essays and translation to express the universal.

Upon the publication of her first book in English, Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito (Action Books, 2009), Jerome Rothenberg noted her “relentlessly exuberant mind, situated somewhere between bliss and nightmare.”

Recipient of several prestigious Japanese literary prizes, including the Takami Jun Prize, the Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize, and the Izumi Shikibu Prize, Ito has also published translations, notably Karen Hesse’s Newbury Award-winning novel Out of the Dust (Biri jô no daichi) and Doctor Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.

Poetry Center Reading:

Fall 2010

Marjoram, Dill, Rosemary

The pleasure of another’s embrace is so strong
I want nothing more
Even though situations change, I make the meals
I use the essential spices and oils
Marjoram
Dill
Coriander, fennel
Garlic
Rosemary
The people I take care of

I caught cold
The man said
The man who talks about catching cold always looks pale
He says he can’t hear because he’s caught cold
He says he can’t breathe through his nose because he’s caught cold
He says he can’t even understand the Japanese he overhears anymore
And so with all of the power in my body
I want to rain my breast milk and saliva
Upon his bad nose, his bad throat
To restore his organs to health
I want to rub and stroke him

In her sweet voice, my child too
Has a touch of cold
My youngest follows suit, her cold continues
Her habit of grasping my nipples also doesn’t disappear
When grasped, my nipples hurt
They are withered, not a drop comes out
Grow old
We grow old
Menopause should have come
And so the many daughters whom I have born
Soak up the dripping from my youngest daughter’s nose
Wipe the diarrhea pouring from my youngest daughter’s behind
Just like they were
Hundreds, thousands of mothers
Into this, they pour their accumulated desires
With her treatment, my youngest
Accepts the caresses of her older sisters
Her body becomes wrapped in song
She hears meaning in fragments
For such a long time, brown sugar, sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet
Meaning is in fragments without meaning
Sweet, sweet, sweet, coriander
Rosemary

My older sister told me she wanted to have her last child at thirty-nine
My older sister who grew up with me, five years my senior
That’s what she thought when she saw that man
That man with the axe under his arm
That man with the axe under his arm and the nose ring
She schemed to have sex with him but
When she met him, her desire to give birth had faded
My older sister’s girls are very big now
My younger sister’s dream
Is to wander her whole life
To have children in distant lands with native men
To scatter children in those lands
Or so said my younger sister who grew up with me, two years my junior
Taking the children she wants
Leaving the children behind she doesn’t
Wiping out the children she wants to kill
Marjoram
Rosemary
Fennel, coriander
We can still have more
We can still have more
If I gave birth again, I would live
With my older and younger sisters
If we wanted to touch each other erotically, we would do it
If we wanted to have sex, we’d go outside and do it
That’s is our promise
I’d eat with my sisters
My companions
Through speech and silence
We’d embrace
And listen to the sounds of
Each other’s breath
Through the night

From KILLING KANOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO,

Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books, 2009)

Father’s Uterus, Or The Map

In that room various body parts
Are stuffed into various bottles
We saw various deformities, various strange diseases
We could have seen various dead bodies but
The men didn’t want to go there
That’s why all I saw were parts of bodies
Body parts that had changed color in the liquid
No chance
Of them coming back to life

Look, that’s my father’s arm
The men said pointing to an arm all dried up
That’s my father’s skin
The men pointed to a patch of skin ridden with disease
That’s my father’s stomach
The men pointed to a stomach with ulcers
Those are my father’s testicles
The men pointed to testicles with elephantiasis
Those are my father’s bones and spinal column
Those are my father’s joints
Those are us, the children our father gave birth to
The men pointed to fetuses with hydrocephalus
And that is you
The men pointed to a breast with cancer
And that is my father’s uterus
The men pointed to a uterus that had grown teeth
There were a row of teeth pushing the flesh aside
I wanted to say
This is a disease, a deformity
But I did not
That is my father’s uterus
When we were boys, our father often thrashed us
Those are the cruel uterine teeth that punished us
One began to sob
Another began to dance
Meanwhile the boys suddenly broke the bottle
With the uterus with the teeth
Regardless of whether it was their father’s or anyone else’s
Regardless of whether it was the result of disease or deformity
The bottle broke
Tears and medicinal fluid
Teeth and glass shards
I thought
These actions are merely maudlin
But I did not say anything
“When I open the map and think about where I want to go
There is my father, standing everywhere on the map
I become desperate to find someplace he’s not
My father stands everywhere
My father stands everywhere on the map, I point and he’s there”
I am telling this story I heard somewhere of father and daughter
When one of the men gives me a map
A map marked in a foreign language
I know the contours of the land
I know the names of places too but
I can’t read the language
The men can read it however
So whenever I look at the map
That language
The men who read that language
Watch me with tactful eyes

Of course the man who gave me the map
And immediately started to stand watch
Regretted his actions
He writhed with regret
Be quiet (I wished)
Drop dead (I wished)
He should die the dullest death imaginable
Dashing chewed gum to the floor or
Disappearing suddenly in a burst of wind or
Starving to death or something
Still the man gives me a map in order to keep watch
No matter when, no matter where, he is standing there in the map
He appears even inside the bottles, come back to life
But the man regrets
He writhes with regret
No choice but to leave him be
Call out and
Immediately he is standing there
He is going to thrash me
The man’s blood vessels brim to overflowing
The same way they have dozens, hundreds of times
Father, older brother
Husband, lover, teacher, whatever I call him

From KILLING KANOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO,

Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books, 2009)

The Maltreatment of Meaning

Can you speak Japanese?
No, I cannot speak
Yes, I can speak
Yes, I can speak but cannot read
Yes, I can speak and read but cannot write
Yes, I can speak and write but cannot understand
I was a good child
You were a good child
We were good children
That is good
I was a bad child
You were a bad child
We were bad children
That is bad
To learn a language you must replace and repeat
I was an ugly child
You were an ugly child
We were ugly children
That is ugly
I am bored
You are bored
We are bored
That is boring
I am hateful
You are hateful
We are hateful
That is hatred
I will eat
You will eat
We will eat
That is a good appetite
I won’t eat
You won’t eat
We won’t eat
That is a bad appetite
I will make meaning
You will make meaning
We will make meaning
That is conveying language
I will use Japanese
You will use Japanese
We will use Japanese
That is Japanese
I want to rip off meaning
You want to rip off meaning
We want to rip off meaning
That is the desire to rip off meaning
I want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
You want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
We want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
That is, language is nothing more than raw material
I will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
You will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
We will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
That is replacing words mechanically and making sentences impossible in real life
Rip off meaning
Sound remains
Even so we search for meaning. The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger one sticks one out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger I stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger you stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger if we stick one out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger that sticks out
As for me, meaning
As for you, meaning
As for us, meaning
Is meaning, that is
Do not communicate
As for me, do not communicate
As for you, do not communicate
As for us, do not communicate
Do not do that, that is communication
Meaning ripped apart and covered in blood is surely miserable, that is happiness
I am happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
You are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
We are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
The blood-covered meaning of that is blood-covered misery, that is happiness

From KILLING KANOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO,

Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books, 2009)