The tips of my hair curled from the steam as I tottered into the onsen, lowering my head to evade the attention of other women. I was fifteen, constitutionally innocent, but I approached the world with a burlesque world-weariness that my parents found comical. Used to the elusory labor of writing, I felt ill-at-ease with all of myself exposed: this vessel so usually camouflaged in matronly silhouettes. My body itself felt charged, as if it were a blade cutting into local tradition. Not only was I out of place, I was also out of time. Compared to the bright lights and cutting-edge technology of Tokyo, there was a curated dimness to the onsen that was not simply a product of the steam—I wondered if it was to attract people such as me, searching for the aura of a primeval civilization. Perhaps I had just distilled all of tourism.
But as I enjoyed the bath, I was nevertheless steeped in something wondrous: exactly what, I did not know. In Tatsuhiko Ishii’s Bathhouse and other Tanka, his first collection of poems translated into English, Ishii posits the bathhouse as a site of historical and geographical convergence, and as an extended metaphor for the palimpsestic project that is at the heart of literature. Ishii is a tanka poet and has published a dozen collections of tanka since 1982. The tanka is a thirty-one-syllable poem typically written in one line, divided into five units that follow the syllabic pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 Literally meaning “short poem” in Japanese, is a genre of classical poetry that remains one of the major genres in Japanese literature and is sometimes considered to be the world’s oldest verse form. It belongs to the general Japanese type of poetry called waka, which used to refer to tanka as well as chōka (a “long poem”) and sedōka (a “head-repeated poem”), the latter two which diminished in popularity by the tenth century.
Tanka was most rigorously developed during the Heian era (794-1185), a period of great expansion for literature and the arts when Chinese influence declined and a national culture emerged. Murasaki Shikibu employed tanka when writing The Tale of Genji as a medium for characters of the nobility to communicate intimate romantic sentiments to another person. Not only was the tanka a vehicle for love, but it was also a demonstration of wit: in the Heian era, nobles would enter their tanka into contests that were held at the Imperial Court.
In modern times, tanka is still used widely by Japanese poets. Ishii pays homage to some of them in the second half of Bathhouse, describing his debt to them as a writer in elegiac verse. In his poem “To the Tanka Poet,” written in memory of the revolutionary tanka poet Tsukamoto Kunio, he interrupts his tanka early on to include a short autobiography of Tsukamoto, in addition to Ishii’s first impressions of him as a youth. After detailing Tsukamoto’s groundbreaking contributions to the tanka form after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Ishii writes that “yet, with Tsukamoto, I felt a vague scorn when I read his work for the first time: If these tanka of his are highly thought of, mine, too, should be appreciated…I had just begun writing tanka.” Another poet that he honored was Okai Takashi, for whom he wrote “Honeybee’s Wingbeat.”
The opening poems of his collection are similarly framed as literary allusions: the collection’s first poem, “The Void of the Sea,” explores Ishii’s feelings on the day he learned about Mishima’s death; the second poem is an elegy for Genji the Shining Prince, the main character of the Tale of Genji. For Ishii, the boundaries between the dead and himself are demarcated in a haze, a theme that echoes through Bathhouse as a whole. The third poem of the collection whisks us from the 1970s and Heian-era Japan to September 11, 2001, which Ishii calls “the night all mankind grew old.” He writes about the event obscurely, opening the poem with “Open (quickly) all the windows you have! Look to witness the sky-coursing evil intent.” He elaborates, “Would I were a boy again! Ah, since then I’ve listened every night, to Gould’s Bach / Everything and all, collapse and fall! At midnight when mankind’s afraid quietly —” The aversion to including any specifics about 9/11 almost efface the event entirely from the poem, lest one doesn’t read the “September 2001” included simply at the end.
To what end is secrecy employed? Ishii’s ambivalence toward modernity, demonstrated both in “The Night All Mankind Grew Old” and “Dante Park, Manhattan,” is not a political statement as much as it is a method of constructing an aesthetic of timelessness. His poems are nearly devoid of temporal markers, as if these tanka could be found in a Heian-era text just as easily as in a 21st-century poetry collection. Complicating this pantomime of atemporality are his frequent references to English and French intellectuals, including Auden, Voltaire, Proust, Nadar, Genet, Goethe, Dante, and Yishan. Moreover, many of the quotes that he includes from them are not translated into English. Why does Ishii leave them in their original languages? Is it an acknowledgment of the ultimate inability of translation to capture original meaning, and therefore are these quotes more symbolic than functional? Perhaps Ishii wants to limit his audience, just as tanka itself is a highly resistive genre: just as those of nobility were regarded as the only people capable of writing high-quality waka in the Heian era, and were also the people who most often received them, perhaps Ishii also intends his tanka to be read by those who match his extensive cultural fluency.
Regardless of Ishii’s aims, his frequent allusions to varied times and places render explicit the rich cultural milieu from which Bathhouse emerges. Indeed, the construction of the collection imitates a bathhouse in itself: an artifact from bygone times, the tanka remains a thing that is shaped by people and events in modernity, all while retaining the fragrance of its historical weight. (However, that the origin always endures is artifice itself, a myth we champion in order to believe that the beginning of things is never completely lost.) Bathhouse is steeped in the great tanka collections and intellectual texts that came before it, like man in an onsen: all of itself exposed. Porous, permeable, and vulnerable, the poem, far from being a writing of great artistic control, is the involuntary recipient of its genre’s history.
Lacing these pages are exquisite portraits and examinations of male relationships: between father and son, between brother and brother, and between male lovers. Each of the tanka dedicated to them are shot through with detachment, Ishii never providing the reader with a glimpse of his thoughts. In “Tokyo=Sodom, or Sniffing a Young Man,” Ishii writes that “in the night streets of sirens….I call out and stop a youth (in plain dress) wet behind the ears /…From the shower, the morning spurts out…before that…every corner of your body, I sniff.” Ishii’s verse is reverent, lustful, almost tender — yet these acts of intimacy unfold as if they were scenes from a film. The reader is not so much shut out from Ishii’s life as they are persuaded that such details would be extravagant, disrupting the intricate portrait that he paints.
In “The Night I Slept with My Father,” Ishii writes about his father’s death, interspersed with details about his relationship with his brother and his romantic escapades with male strangers. The grief of the event is all obscured; instead, the reader receives descriptions such as “the unceasing indigo-gray rain —. All the fruits on the family tree rotted and dropped.” Desire, agony, confidence, and loss are all obfuscated under the same apathetic veneer, each poem in Bathhouse distinct yet devastating in its uniform emotional register. The beauty of each tanka pervades its content, an infection of dubious morality. This is one of Ishii’s most genius touches, and part of what marks these tanka as supreme in quality. I remain caught in their lingering mist.