My copy of Killing Kanoko came with a friendly note that said: "So cool that you're buying this book. I went to college with Hiromi Ito's daughter, Kanoko. She is brilliant - enjoy!" I looked again at the title, now getting an inkling of what to expect. Sure enough, the poem 'Killing Kanoko' deals with post-natal depression and visions of infanticide and abortion. It does so using deeply unsettling, brutal language:
Kanoko forces me to deal with all her shit
I want to get rid of Kanoko
I want to get rid of filthy little Kanoko
I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko who bites off my nipples.
There are no layers of delicate, distracting imagery obscuring the nature of these visions. Kanoko is brained with an alarm clock, covered in ants, repeatedly 'disposed of'. The line 'Congratulations on your destruction' is repeated again and again. Milk spills 'from my anus, from my mouth, from my urethra, from my vagina'. The whole piece rings with torrid dementedness. It's scary, and one can only suppose it's meant to be.
One of Japan's most highly regarded contemporary poets, Ito is a difficult thing for Western tastes to adjust to. It's hard to say exactly how much of this difficulty is down to her radical style and how much is due to the process of translation; the versions we have here sometimes seem over-literal (the title 'So as Not to Distort' has been translated elsewhere, more comfortably, as 'Don't Squash Them!') and are typeset in dense, unattractive blocks. Repetition is used frequently and aggressively, suggesting that these poems are built more for performance than page (Ito is known for her unusual readings, sometimes involving tape recordings or drums). Poems typically come to a close amidst a bombardment of recycled lines and images, as if caught in a cyclone of their own creation. 'Healing Kanoko's Rash' bizarrely ends: "(Abbreviated from here onward)" after about half a page of the same line varied only in increments. In the first piece in the book, 'Harakiri', this style of ending mimics the chanting of a suicide fetishist who seems to be (I'm not entirely clear) masturbating whilst disembowelling himself.
What ugliness there is in her work is an assault on our prudishness when dealing with matters of sex and death, and our casual fetisisation of the female body.
This isn't some seedy reading of ambiguous language. There's clearly self-inflicted stabbing and there's clearly 'jacking off' - I'm just not sure of the narrative order. Elsewhere in the book, there's much more of the body and its functions, always named directly; birth, miscarriage, menstruation, rectums, labia, diarrhoea, menopause, blood and vomit all come up. On page 18, 22 lines end with the word 'masturbate'. Ito, according to Jeffrey Angles' introduction, deliberately rejects '"artfully" worded language ... classical metrical patterns and terse style'. Instead, her poetry is intended to capture plain, spoken language in all its coarseness. Angles overstates his case a little:
Her poems so skilfully capture the idiosyncrasies of spoken language that they often give the illusion that they are pouring directly from the mouth of some narrator onto the page.
The 'shamaness' comparison he later comes to is more convincing than this assertion we're seeing a kind of unedited transcript. Note, for instance, that when it comes to vulgarities, while some slang is used (as quoted above) the clear preference is for technical terms. Again, it's difficult to know if the translation is wrongfooting the reader in this respect, but even taking that into consideration, it's hard to imagine anyone speaking aloud with such frankness. As to its directness, the idea of 'artful' wording is frequently to convey truth or feeling more accurately than can be done using normal speech, which is murky by design, calibrated for vagueness, diplomacy and backpedalling. What one gets with Ito instead is a confrontational exactitude. What ugliness there is in her work is an assault on our prudishness when dealing with matters of sex and death, and our casual fetishisation of the female body. All the erotic connotations of breasts are swept away by repeated emphasis of them as swollen, painful baby-plugs. On the rare but notable occasions she is playfully sensual, the implication of sex has overtures of animal hunger:
My man swallows them down
Thick like saliva
Smooth like buttocks ...
He also thought in his heartrending way
I have reached him
The food I secrete
Secreted deep, deep
Into the man I love.
('So as Not to Distort')
Of course, there is more to Ito's poetry than sex and gender issues. Her style particularly suits writing about food and language, and her more surreal excursions are joyfully strange and beautiful. But her frank discussion of women and their bodies is an overpowering theme. It's hard to imagine a more direct address to these topics than this, from 'The Sexual Life of Savages':
"The part you insist is the female genitalia is the clitoris.
This is where we feel pleasure ...
When you were young
Were you anorexic?
Were you bulimic?
Did you have a period?"
"I am pregnant."
"Are you having sex?"
"Yes, I am."
Dr F sez: In this age of sophisticated alchemical weaponry, I sometimes forget that there's a certain power in the old ways, when studied (and practiced) long and ardently. Hiromi Ito, if I don't miss my guess, must be about 200 or 300 years old. What she achieves in these verses is undoubtedly somewhat crude by my standards, but a big enough knife is always a good negotiating tool. Of course, the idea that I underestimate it simply because I am, at present, a man is perfectly preposterous.