Thursday, April 17, 2008


* * * * (Note: Translations were done many years ago, and may be in need of revision.)

André Breton (1896-1966), French dada poet and novelist later turned Surrealist, famously made the distinction between dadaism and some of the other coeval artistic movements in Europe when he wrote that “Cubism was a school of painting, futurism a political movement: DADA is a state of mind.” It was this emphasis on interiority and phenomenal representation that led Takahashi Shinkichi 高橋新吉 (1901-1987), the subject of this article and the author of the following dada collection of poetry, Makuwauri shishū 「まくはうり詩集」 (1921), to later assert that dada was merely an imitation of Zen, and that Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and other European founders of dada were, in fact, latent Zen Buddhists.

Like Zen, dada was a way of seeing and interpreting the world in a way that denied the existence of the self or ego, doubted the possibility of knowledge, and, perhaps most similarly, relieved language of the burden of having to convey truth. As time went on, artists became more conscious of a connection between the two, and by mid-century, according to William Seitz in his The Art of Assemblage, “It was the knowledge of dada, in part, which led certain modern artists, after 1945, toward Zen Buddhism.”

Dada found its way to Japan around 1920, and somehow managed to survive as a preeminent movement for over a half a decade, with only six key figures. The movement began with the publication of several informative, though not entirely flattering, articles about dada’s development in Europe, including those by the more sympathetic critics Tsuji Jun 辻潤 (1884-1944) and Katayama Koson 片山孤村 (1879-1933). In his article “A Study in Dadaism,” published in 1921, Koson delineated the three artistic principles required for practicing dada art, namely, “bruitism, simultaneity, and the use of new materials in painting.” Another critic, Kawaji Ryūkō 川路柳虹, published favorable reviews of dada in the Waseda University literary review. There was also Moriguchi Tari 森口タリ, perhaps the most favorable critic of dada, who wrote for the Waseda University literary review several scholarly articles, including “The Poetry and Painting of Dadaism.”

But it was Tsuji Jun, the well-established critic and translator of foreign literature (mainly works by Max Stirner and Oscar Wilde), who proved to be the most influential of the dada advocates, and who provided Takahashi Shinkichi with moral support from the outset, even writing for him the postscript to Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi 「ダダイスト新吉の詩」 (1923). In 1922 Tsuji published two articles on dada, “Misunderstood Dada” and “Talk on Dada,” and, together with Takahashi, played a key role in dada’s permeation throughout Japan. Though it was Tsuji who in 1921 discovered Takahashi and soon after made possible his writing career, the friendship between the two did not endure after Takahashi abandoned dada for Zen; Tsuji instead moved toward nihilism and a kind of Stirnerean individualism.

Perhaps the most important writer to have been immediately influenced by Takahashi’s dada poetry was the young poet Nakahara Chūya 中原中也 (1907-1937), who would later become one of Japan’s most esteemed Symbolist poets. Chūya was only sixteen when he first read Takahashi’s Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi, which so entranced the budding poet that for several years it was all he read. After dada had more or less disbanded, Chūya continued writing dada poems until discovering French poet Arthur Rimbaud, at which point he began to move toward Symbolist poetry. Traces of dada, however, can be found even in Chūya’s later poetry, and he is still considered by many to be, at least in part, a dada poet.

Takahashi Shinkichi, the central figure in Japan’s dada movement, was born on January 28, 1901 in a fishing village near the city of Matsuyama in Ehime prefecture, in northwestern Shikoku. Shinkichi was largely self-educated, having attended only commercial school from 1913 to 1918, the year he decided to secretly run away penniless to Tokyo. This first peregrination to the capital would later be recorded in his dada novel Dagabaji Jingiji monogatari 『ダガバジジンギヂ物語』.

In 1920, his poem “Honoo o kakagu” 『焔をかかぐ』 won a prize in the newspaper Yorozu chōhō 『万朝報』, the Tokyo-based paper that soon afterward introduced Takahashi to dada through several articles about Tristan Tzara and other European dadaists. But Takahashi soon left Tokyo and returned to his hometown in Ehime, where he found a job at the local newspaper and began to publish various poems. In 1921, the year he became an apprentice monk at a Zen temple, he began a first edition of Makuwauri shishū 「まくはうり詩集」, which he showed to the newly befriended Tsuji Jun, who would later edit and write the postscript for the 1923 collection, Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi.

During the next year he made the acquaintance of futurist artist Hirai Kenkichi 平井謙吉and novelist, poet, and critic Satō Haruo 佐藤春夫 (1892-1964), who would write the introduction to the edited 1923 collection. 1924 would see his return to Tokyo and the publication of his first novel, titled simply, Dada 『ダダ』. It was after this publication that Takahashi’s writings and studies would take a turn away from dada and toward Buddhist literature, culminating in 1926 with his throwing overboard into the Korean Sea the manuscript for a second dada novel.

Takahashi’s transition from dada to Buddhism, however, may have been smoother than he portrays in his diaries, since both systems of thought hold as one of their fundamental assertions the notion that “the word is useless and poetry is to be abandoned.” In the end, dada, ironically, served not as Takahashi’s introduction to European culture and literature, but rather as an introduction to his own native tradition.

For the following translation, I have tried to follow the advice of Vladimir Nabokov, who observed that “free translation” is a term “which smacks of knavery and tyranny,” and that the primary duty of the translator should be to remain as faithful as possible to the linguistic features of the original work.

The following translation is intended for the reader interested in poetry.

* * * *

A Collection of Cucumis Melo Poems

Makuwauri shishū まくはうり詩集 (translated by Ryan Morrison)


Shall we begrease the glee?
Might get slippery
Might as well be dead

the girl with the sallow face
blue-yellow girl
the girl

unknown man

All those wanting to eat the oden stew
made from putrefied sun, encephalon
welcome to the darkful dada-hermitage
bulging out of your skulls like rice cakes.

downstairs is red felt carpet

a collapsible dining table
and rice crackers

the Metropolis


Owing to the sun falling
Only on my right cheek and my left cheek’s freezing
I’m sick of walking
Despite wearing these new tight-fitting drawers
I slip into the embankment choked with steaming manure
Without dissolving into tears.
Passing under the arm toward the heart’s vicinity
The dim flickering autumn winds
Deride both the red dragonflies
And me
Thrashing us with culms of bamboo
No time to brush them aside
Seeing the river surveyor
Throw down his snipe
Seems a terrific atrocity
To the schooolgirl heading home behind me.
Pressing my brow against the telephone pole
To bear it up
I hunkered down, into a ball.


When scrubbing the sliding screen
the red cur drinking water, auburn tongue
the boatman’s wife
scrubbing tubers the scuffle over the crucifix
and the greens that flowed toward her

terrific windstorms
the dreaded premature ejaculations and blackouts
rain-shutter ricketing
the wooden joist collapsed between the mats
out sprouts green bamboo
should our shanty be whisked away
so long as we hold on all’s okay
a rope tied round its withered reeds
the sliding door’s eclipsed my head

but if you’re going to buy paper
buy potatoes instead
these fingertips that picked up the scrub brush
now felt cold
riding the sliding screen toward the light grey bank out beyond
body quivering
I stopped these cogitations.


went to buy koniak
dead drunk flames rise from the red split wood
tongue the sky’s base, an empty coffin.
a middle schoolboy came carrying octopus legs
boiled them in the earthen pot
eat the koniak, middle schoolboy
now that it’s moist

he said that inside the mattress
his stomach is cold and hurts

in the midday autumn the sky is towering
bringing hog’s-meat he came again
to where in the eye half-shut with sleep
toothpowder had been scattered.
“Shall I give up the ghost?”
“now here me this, middle schoolboy
descending the embankment:
marry neither the housemaster’s daughter
nor the temple girl, yet feast
leave no taste on the testamentary
which even without sugar is saccharine”



Mother’s child
dreamt of crimson rice

Father’s granddaughter
pissed a green-blue liquor

the son and granddaughter went their separate ways
their dreamage and urine never mingling.



It’s always afterward the slaughterer feels the weariness
For every filly two hundred million spermatozoa
Was the nursling
Tightly held between rich swollen dugs
Not asphyxiated when his mother, full of sin,
Waxed aroused watching the figures of copulating horses,
Watching their very horseness?
It is written: “The vagina’s mucous membrane
Is presumably an alkaline,
Though it may soon turn acidic.”
I remember what they had said.
Still they do not hear
Agreeable weariness
Two withered legs
Innumerable men
For what reason do you not call to one another, spermatozoon?
Deep are the sins of women
Sakyamuni’d been in error.
Is it not that each month
But one egg is secreted
I think
One must think
Were there no gradation to the sin
We would have planned in advance no penitence
For the murder or masturbation
Accompanied by that same weariness.


Nothing can be done about her lips being thick
on the street all is closed
the face of the earth frozen over
the sound of clogs echoing out endlessly—
clip-clop the glass door at the barbershop
the white curtains, cold pummels the face
the earthen floor at the greengrocery electricity is leaking onto
onions were faintly quivering.
but at my back
a figure wrapped in a manteau
clearly visible with a sideways crawl
a faint shadow
flowed from my feet
and, noticed, startled me.

A spider crouched into a ball
on the empty elbow of an empty chair.
for being so cold-blooded so overfed
her ichthyosic arms coiled
and so are her thighs the woman
by now had sunk into slumber
still the
two shadows are
leaning absently against the electric pole
still, lighting a smoke
my hand trembles
in effort to seize her exhalation
might she have been
an apparition
the young boy
holding in his piss
not knowing
the stars and moon
are already relieved
turns his head upward under the lantern hung from the eaves
under the latten umbrella-light
its interminably apologetic face
wrapping the scene
in a sympathetic hue
but surely there is no reason
for a woman to be in each arm
for how many hours had it been,
my walking alone?
the two shadows
follow apace unsevered
turning back turning back I
see the furtive
and tardy arrival the standing at attention
of the strangeness of things I try to disrobe,
throwing the manteau over the bridge.


was not in.
His wife gave me a mandarin.
It was about to snow.
A man
the young woman hybridous in tow
cried into the streets,
let us heed the will of the Lord.
Returning home along the river
I stopped by the outhouse
Through a loose board
blew from below
a biting breeze.

I bit through the sleeve-grass
into the orange’s pulp.
Let us heed the will of God.
My teeth are set on edge.


The degraded painter Mister Z
Despises the spring fall and future
And over the last twenty years
His mother has worn out her bat-
“What is sandwiched between its shaft,
You see, is a pearl.
No matter what a thing is,
There is nothing that doesn’t resemble a meal.”

“Surely we’re not to eat the vainglorious hog;
But will we, mother, be able to wipe our sweat
Though the rags are yet to dry?
Should we naught the spring and fall,
What’ll be left to draw
With these benumbed hands?
I am not a sharp
Perceiving dog.
I can’t make out
The future’s fragrance.”


Dandelions were blooming
The rickshawman trotted over.
Carrying away somebody’s lover.
Steam trains absent and so are the electric trains.
A cardiac arrest.
This one-street town
With not
That much dust.
Kneeling dejected,
He’s dead already isn’t he,
Poor bastard
Hauled in
To the first confectionary shop.
Poor mister
Shot himself in the stomach.
Having lost the bet
And soon were heard
Rumors of my return.
Can the rickshaw tread reposefully along?
Is what I say unreasonable?
Can death be avoided if we’d just stay calm?
Dandelions fond of
Yellowish tubercle bacillus.
Will my lungs ever improve


The socialist to the prosecutor
said in a low voice
You feel quite nice when you board the plane
but the dog still got away.

now settle down and tell me
is it really something
like the rarefied air
this love

an indulgence?
the gamut of things
seen as one in a cerulean hue
to whom among us hast thou given such eyes

there is but one tongue
gnawing off that tongue
and not gnawing off that tongue are the two things humans can do.
tell me eremite

is there a suicide
ending not in death
would Sakyamuni or Christ revived
be only meeker than the dead

is the oft-said word gramercy
any different than matters of conscience
again I was thinking would this have been the loincloth
of a indigene? and you

aren’t you worried about your family
sure they’re something to worry about
for they too are sometimes my possessions

and is it not a paltry thing
your ego
a kind of vestment
you ought to remove

rage against it with resolve
for courage will be needed to course in an instant
all of forever
and then shall ease the throbbing in the head.

[Poems taken from: Takahashi Shinkichi zenshū 高橋新吉全集. 4 vols. Seidosha, 1982. Makuwauri shishū can be found in Volume One.]


Anonymous said...


Ryan said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


here are the poems from Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi which are in need of translation:

1. 断言はダダイスト
2. しんDA廉吉
3. 写声蓄音機
4. オシ
5. 「性」ダヽ詩三ツ
6. 衂血
8. サクランボ
9. Dは
10. 一九一一年集
11. 創作 ダダイストの睡眠

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic essay. I can't tell you how much i enjoyed reading it.