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Unstable Identities




Jane Joritz-Nakagawa 



Louis A. Sass wrote that Daniel Paul Schreber, author of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness:


seems to be writhing in the coils of an epistemic/ontological paradoxendlessly shifting between two interdependent yet incompatible visions, the experience of his own consciousness as both a constituted object and the ultimate, constituting subject (Sass, The Paradoxes of Delusion, p. 77).


I moved to Japan with the idea that the destabilization that I expected would lead to a new sort of stability, or new type of instability, in terms of the way I looked at and felt about things and the way I wrote.  


Of course over the years the local language culture literary history art landscape sensibilities and daily experiences et al here have crept into my English language poems (I write poetry in Japanese thus far only as an exercise, not for publication) though at the same time the work I do retains western characteristics, as I write in English and continue to read western writers as well as learn about eastern ones. 


Early culture shock experiences gave way gradually to a new hybrid self/lifestyle/existence, being an exile on numerous levels (non-Japanese, feminist, vegan, liberal, relativist, environmentalist, poet, etc.) now feels normal, the poems I write now are hybrid, though what the reader gets from them (I am sure specifically Japanese references can't of course always be detected by everybody, though some references may be relatively obvious) may be something like the partial image a Japanese stranger may obtain by sight alone when encountering my conspicuously Caucasian self on the street (I live outside the major cities where conspicuously non-Japanese-looking people are more of a rarity than in say Tokyo).


Recently I've become somewhat increasingly obsessed with some of the more traditional forms of Japanese culture, art and literature. The last work I finished is a kind of haiku sequence, something I have been publishing piecemeal in various journals though the portion below is newly written and unpublished:


in a sealed cave

black night

stranger to words


drowsy branch

strangely warm

honey and wine


glorious reign

a cup of miniature

sorting the gleam


a pillow

no one has used

restless and familiar


in the nomenclature

by which stars multiply

irreducible fragments


the lake's mirror

clear and transparent

darkening fruit wilderness


together and alone

item found on the carpet

once surprised me


nothing to do

filling a broken drawer

tower hides mountain


on a long stroll

legs become stone

windows reflect neon


silent field

overwhelms the day

I wave weakly  


blurred skyline

disturbed by birds

a sliding of angles


exhaust fumes

one eyed cat

things I've seen


yellow parchment

under my wing

the endless night


orange butterfly

the terrifying self



covered with cold

unsafe conditions

my shoulder drops


immigration office

blonde girl in sparkly clothes

in broad daylight


a single word

bits of trash

I call my name


ground merges with buildings

on an empty street

the sky becomes language


Japanese poetry of course includes various formal types as well free verse, avant-garde work, and prose poetry (a volume in English titled Japanese Prose Poetry by Yasuko Claremont may be of interest). I started writing a fair number of prose poems in recent years, both influenced by Japanese prose poems and by Western writers.


Here is the most recent one:


The shop was a mess of confused color and noise. The day will shine.  

Cherry blossoms unmasked hidden wounds in the tired metropolis. So I 

jumped out and ran across two intersections. In the middle of your bursts of 

laughter. My favorite tree lived in the park. Yours was.


Cherry blossoms unmask hidden words in the tuneful metropolis. Critique is 

ultimately respectful. Ideas lead to the fractured I and the dissolved self. 


There is no love which does not begin with the revelation of a possible world.

The more consciousness the more despair is always merrier. Critique 

ultimately discarded.


This culture happened by accident. We don't expect the aid of a waking for

this is not a dream. Having a self and an eternal (fractured) self. Ideas lead 

us to a fissured metropolis hidden by laughing trees.


A person's resiliency can be measured by the power to forget. Full of 

screams and crying. Yours was. The park was a mass of conflated 

jumping within intersections.


The dark will triumph. So I slept in and waited for the power to forget.  Full 

of dissolves and scrapings by. This resiliency which never happened.   

There is no word which does not begin with the improbability of love. 


The original impetus for this work was a line in a poem by 20th c. poet Mitsui Futabako titled “Kizu Hiraku” (open wounds; see my 3rd line above) but this poem contains references also to European writing such as work by Cixous, Deleuze, and Kierkegaard among others.


It's hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season in Japan as I write this in spring 2013. I can't dislodge the concept of cherry blossoms from my archetypical image of Japan, any more than I can Hello Kitty or Miffy who have appeared in other of my poems. A poem I wrote called "The Lighthouse" (thanks both to the publisher Two Ravens Press of the anthology Entanglements: New Ecopoetry and to White Sky Ebooks for publishing it) is as follows:


Though my eyes are scattered I can hide the emptiness within with a

vermilion coat and blue eyelashes. No one will notice that Milton's

light has dimmed. I put a verb under every umbrella in case you feel

like running. The temple is supposed to mean something but nobody


is sure. I thought the cherry blossoms though torn and

dirty would last all year but the wind swept through the

house knocking over father's funeral photograph. I know

I am supposed to stay under a heavy object such as a major


appliance. If you pluck a grey hair by its roots doves appear the

next day. But that is the ending to last year's story. Even if a wound

looks like a freshly ploughed field I cannot feel responsible for your

lost baggage. The truth is I am allergic to everything red and blue, and


worry anti-depressants will ruin the sun's melancholia. But I could still

watch it from afar while pretending to smile. I hope the sea may be colder

than ever and know once I submerge my toe in it it won't come

back. Silly to believe birds know the best way to fly to the beach. Skin


cancer is the goddess' revenge on the vain and foolish. Just because

I've said it doesn't mean it's not true. Sunlight tries to squeeze

into every room but fails. The house I grew up in was a dark

cave even though my parents were wealthy. The dog was let out every


Sunday. How foolish to return. I am more afraid of happiness than I

am of the sun's anger. I would like to liven up each house with a piece

of rotting fish stolen from the temple. If the lighthouse is painted pink I'll

no longer be allergic to it and when the sun resembles caramel latte I'll



move. I'd suggest birds prefer the sea to the sun but the wind would argue.

Even if I am a man so old I can scarcely carry the newspaper to the trash bin. 

If the drum is beaten with a stick somebody will answer the telephone though my

slippers are missing and none of this is actually visible from the lighthouse. 


I wrote the poem above upon the death of my (Japanese) father-in-law while in Yokohama for the funeral; it contains a mishmash of Japan (often deliberately distortedyou are unlikely to find rotting fish in temples here nor old men with blue eyelashes; I've also mixed up the seasons; there are references to 3-11, etc.) and the west (e.g. Milton's sonnet, and for me Hopper's lighthouse paintings, etc.). Oh and I did not grow up in a dark cave, which is also the image that begins the “haiku” sequence above.


Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro wrote about "contradictory self-identity" as well as "absolute nothingness" which I believe occupy a central place in my poetry (see in English for example a book titled Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School for some information about Nishida and his group); of course the Kyoto School philosophers are themselves offspring of a kind of marriage of or conversation between eastern and western philosophy.


As Artaud wrote:


One thing that is remarkable is that the very fact of my existence is never for me, as you observe in yourself, the object of serious doubt; there always remains something of myself, but it is very often poor, clumsy, weak, and almost suspect (in Selected Writings ed. Sontag, p. 47).


Or Julia Kristeva:


 all identities are unstable: the identity of linguistic signs, the identity of meaning and, as a result, the identity of the speaker (in Dana Cavallaro's French Feminist Theory, p. 78).


Japan is not actually the 17th c. Japan depicted in Derek Mahon’s “The Snow Party” but for someone born in the U.S. where this week the NRA is proposing armed guards in American schools, the relative peacefulness of Japan even today, oftentimes not entirely unlike the image in that 1970s poem (I’ll leave aside for now the matter of possible interpretations concerning the “silence” in the final stanza of the poem) is noteworthy. The note to the line “Two tongues for Japan” in Mary E. O’Donnell’s poem about FGM titled “Excision” (in the book Pillars of the House, p. 157) claiming that while Japanese women can only use “women’s language” men here can use either is not entirely correct.  Gender (in)equality will remain outside the parameters of this essay for the most part but I can add that within Japanese poetry are a great many women writers going back to early times; one recommended book might be Hiroaki Sato’s Japanese Women Poets.


Perhaps the possibility of and/or desire for a sense of meeting, even if fleeting and across unstable boundaries in a decentered landscape in flux, is captured by the ending of Helene Cadou's poem "A coeur ouvert..." (published bilingually in the book Women's Poetry in France 1965-1995, p. 108):


C'est aujourd'hui

que tu m'arrives

D'un pays sans frontičres

Et sans commencement.


Today is

When you reach me

From a boundless land

Without origin.





copyright © Jane Joritz-Nakagawa 




Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of ten full length collections of poetry as well as chapbooks, fiction, and essays. Her most recent book is Plan B Audio (Isobar, 2020). Email is welcome at: janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.