Hiromi Itō
translated by Jeffrey Angles
Action Books ($16)

by Lucas de Lima and Sarah Fox

Hiromi Itō has enjoyed literary acclaim in Japan since the 1980s, particularly after the publication of On TerrItōry 2 (1985) and On TerrItōry 1 (1987), both of which broke new ground in their forthright explorations of the female body, sexuality, and motherhood. Itō grew up with a shamaness grandmother and a mother who “believed in magical spells,” and she extends this spiritual tradition to her own work as a self-proclaimed shamanic poet and performer. Her fascination with Native American poetry and cosmology led her to the ethnopoetic movement and an introduction to Jerome Rothenberg, who encouraged Itō to visit the United States in the early 1990s. She relocated to Encinitas, California, in 1997, and currently divides her time between there and Kumamoto, in southern Japan. Despite sustained literary prominence in Japan, Itō has remained a mostly obscure presence in American poetics.

Sarah Fox: First of all, hats off to Action Books for continuing to shove at the margins of poetic convention with Killing Kanoko, a project deeply rooted in feminist, shamanic, and oral traditions. Not exactly trend ideologies—I suspect that few American poets would feel comfortable aligning themselves with such seemingly sacralized associations.

Lucas de Lima: It’s hard to think of a North American counterpart to Itō, isn’t it? Maybe that has to do with our preoccupations as postmodernists—how, by holding promiscuous linguistic play as our poetic ideal, we aim to disengage from ideology altogether.

SF: Well, I might argue that Anne Waldman and Alice Notley are among Itō’s North American sisters. Both embrace shamanic expression and the vatic. Both also reveal, and re-imagine, the feminine in mythic time, and share a blatant and outraged rejection of patriarchy. Itō contributes to their feminine mythopoesis, and helps model an alternative ideal. Her association with Rothenberg, too, involves her in his advocacy of poetry’s visionary, mystical potential. But I think we both agree that Killing Kanokokicks some serious ass and is one of the more original collections we’ve come across in awhile.

LdL: Agreed; KK is a force to be reckoned with.

SF: For me, Itō models a truly innovative feminist aesthetic—in terms of both form and content. Readers may be anxious to nose around in the poet’s infanticidal fantasies and scatological excess, and may even wonder how Kanoko, Itō’s actual daughter, feels about all this—I mean, in the book’s title poem Kanoko is despised, and murdered, by her mother! But first, I’m eager to examine Itō’s shamanic framework. Her elevation of poetic objective to shamanic act elicits a complex reading of the more audacious and shocking personal narratives; I might even suggest that the poems have magical intention. If we think of the poetic voice as shamanic, perhaps we could read the text as exorcism, or a ruthless enactment—both cleansing and metaphoric—of repressed cultural impulses.

LdL: Yes, there’s a highly oral, aural, and visionary quality to Itō’s lines, as if they were being transmitted to and through her in real time. Simultaneous rather than linear, Itō’s spatiotemporal reach evokes the shaman as much as the pregnant body. Porous are the boundaries between speaker and subject in her poetry. Take the first poem “Harakiri,” in which homoeroticism foregrounds the ritual suicide by disembowelment that, having once caused Yukio Mishima’s death, now excites a certain Mr. O (the moniker, of course, is a throwback to that classic of S&M literature, The Story of O). Mr. O, we gather from translator Jeffrey Angles’s annotations, acts out scenes of harakiri for erotic pleasure. The speaker, initially merely witness to this subcultural eroticism, seems to occupy Mr. O’s subjectivity through the immediacy of the final lines: the first- and third-person pronouns suddenly disappear in a “weird and kinky” identification/obliteration of voyeur and queer exhibitionist. Ushering in the masturbatory ending, after all, is the line "He said he could commit harakiri face-to-face with a woman, he'd be in seventh heaven." Perhaps the speaker joins her subject through what Saint Genet’s version of shamanism would look like—a sadomasochistic avowal, on all fronts, of sexuality and its regulatory construction. So, participation and perversion. In a way, Itō is very Lady Gaga.

SF: Talk about bad romance! She does share Gaga’s affection for grotesque parody and erotic hyperbole, no doubt. I felt the influence of Kali on the poems’ trajectory of shameless destruction: anarchy as the catalyst for radical transformation. (I’m thinking especially of depictions in which Kali, wearing a necklace of skulls, stands triumphantly on the head of Shiva, her tongue sticking out with irreverent insouciance.) The more redemptive outcomes of destructive events emerge in the book’s final piece, “I Am Anjuhimeko,” which is Itō’s retelling of a Japanese folktale. Originally recited by traveling storytellers, the tale was only recently written down, having been transmitted telepathically, “over 20 centuries,” through a spiritual medium. In this story, a young girl is confronted with a series of horrific tasks—in Itō’s version they involve attempted murder and multiple rapes by various manifestations of the father/taskmaster—on her quest towards shamanic initiation. The story has, in a sense, three narrators—the girl Anjuhimeko, her original storytellers, and the medium, all inhabiting the “I.” By retelling this story, Itō adjoins to the polymorphous “I,” and declares her allegiance to mediumistic and oral forms. Over and over again, the narrator asserts, “I am Anjuhimeko,” a sustained projective identification. The allegorical resonance of Anjuhimeko’s narrative allows Itō to assemble a simulacrum of the book’s collective voice and demonstrate how the mythic mirrors and absorbs the autobiographical. She speaks as both mother and daughter in the narrative’s assorted embodiments of those roles, and consequently recontextualizes, if not converts, the annihilating energy of her more personal revelations—the meaning of destruction in the preceding poems is renegotiated. ”I Am Anjuhimeko,” and hence the book, resolves in gratification: “all I have is language, I respond with language, I respond, and as I respond, I sense the desire of the leech-child I carry on my back slowly being satisfied.” The leech-child is Anjuhimeko’s symbol of salvation—the offspring of a yamanba (trickster witch).

LdL: Notice how one of the manifestations of the father in “Anjuhimeko” is destroyed precisely through his own mirroring: “. . . when he saw his reflection in the water, his mouth was ripped open so wide his lips extended to the back of his neck and his teeth jutted out in every direction. . .” As you suggest, such oral grotesquerie condenses the modus operandi of Itō’s feminist-shamanic project. For her, it’s always necessary to embody, hyperbolize, as well as disfigure phallocentric speech to the point of fatigue or, in this case, violent dissolution. Hence the need for a yamanba to deflate the “huge, huge, huge phallus,” which she lustfully achieves while “completely wrapped up in having intercourse.” Quite a feminine power fantasy, especially when you throw in sublime leech-children.

SF: Yes, it’s an exhilarating finale. I see the yamanba as a vessel for the sublime—she endows Anjuhimeko’s shamanic authority at the end of her “wretched” journey. The yamanba enacts a revised, healed version of feminine sexuality: ecstatically commandeering the now disembodied and powerless object of Anjuhimeko’s abuse (a “rediscovered phallus” she had “located in the past.”) She illustrates uninhibited self-expression (“listen to what kind of voices I make! watch what kind of expressions I make!”), and echoes, in the forfeiture of her offspring, the poet’s infanticidal performance in the book’s title poem. There, Kanoko is like a “leech-child,” who “pilfers my nutrients” and “wants to bite my nipples off.” Itō’s Kali-esque mantra in the poem “Killing Kanoko,” congratulations on your destruction, supports the poet’s objective to liberate herself (by obliterating child, father, husband) in service to language, the channeling of shamanic/poetic utterance. In “I Am Anjuhimeko,” Itō accommodates the full breadth feminine experience—maternal, filial, sexual, victimized, annihilating, nurturing, generative . . .

The poem “Snow” likewise describes a literal shamanic enactment. The speaker observes the ill fate of a rabbit by tracking its footprints alongside those of a fox. She begins to undress, notes that fur has begun to sprout from between her toes, and instantaneously transforms into an animal—as shamans often do on their journeys. “You see that / I am writing / You see that / I want to show it to you . . . / You finish writing and put it away / You don’t seem to want to show me.” Rather than repress (“put away”) confrontation with death, the speaker “want[s] to show it to you,” and does so by actually embodying the metaphor—becoming the rabbit who awaits the devouring fox. The white fox, or kitsune, is a noted trickster figure in Japanese mythology, sometimes associated with the female demon goddesses known as Dakini.

LdL: Don’t tricksters traditionally bring fire, language, and other tools of civilization to humans? It seems Itō assumes the rabbit’s role in order to burrow inside the ambivalent power figure of the fox—literally and figuratively.

SF: Yes, that’s good! She invites her own destruction. Again, the evocation of Kali, the dark feminine force of time, death, and transformation: surrendering oneself in order to transcend the gendered conditions of creation. It’s enacted in almost every poem. Itō ruthlessly evades remorse, rejects decorum, reconfigures ethos, in a vocal register at once demotic and incantatory. Her poems graphically report both the mundane physical details of a woman’s life (pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, masturbation, defecation, leaking fluids, breast infections, diaper rashes, etc.) and the darker edges of feminine desire and despair. In “Logical Like a Baby,” she recounts the chronic diarrhea of her infancy and its corresponding obesity in later childhood (“I was the fattest in my whole grade at school.”) She credits her “cure” from diarrhea to her mother’s post-weaning loss of interest followed by her father’s growing monopolization of her, which “fattens” her. The poem makes transparent early psychological patterning and its persistence in consciousness and family systems. When the father began to interact with her (“Father had not just shown his desire to monopolize me but had started to act upon it”), the mother “started treating me meanly.” Itō elaborates on the psychic extension of early relational patterns by bringing the father as sexual object into the poem’s present, in which both poet and father engage (or do not engage) in writing poetry and in masturbating:

On days I cannot write poetry, I do not masturbate
On days father can write poetry, he masturbates
On days I can write poetry, I masturbate
On days father can write poetry, he masturbates
On days I can write poetry, I do not masturbate
On days father can write poetry, he masturbates
On days I cannot write poetry, I masturbate
On days father can write poetry, he masturbates

Variations on these lines repeat—like a refrain, like a child acquiring language—dozens of times in the poem, positioning the banal events of physical daily life and its privacies alongside the complex interplay of psychic presences and pressures. The Oedipal drama of Itō’s childhood is transposed onto Kanoko, whose own chronic diarrhea makes “the area from her rectum all the way to her labia began to grow inflamed.” Kanoko “[pulls] at her own labia. / In other words, she couldn’t stand not touching herself.” At this point, Kanoko’s father (“Daddy” in the poem) enters the narrative, to masturbate or not masturbate, to cause the speaker to get fat or not get fat, to prompt Kanoko herself to “[masturbate] for Daddy” and “[get] fat for Daddy” and “[have] diarrhea for Daddy.” Here, Itō underscores the inevitable philos/aphilos between mother and daughter—from both perspectives—as it arises specifically in response to the father’s monopolizing interventions.

LdL: Like Pasolini before her, Itō posits the body as a site of transgression as well as destruction. Hers is a message of shit in a culture of death. The body is so pronounced, exaggerated, its capacities and failures constantly rehearsed, that it stands in for poetry. Or better yet, poetry’s flailing puppetry. It’s no coincidence that the text insists on linking poetic composition and masturbation—both circumscribed, self-involved, yet potentially seditious acts—so intimately. In other words, the body enacts the limitations of signification while providing a way through the latter: a means of momentarily irrupting our subjection to language. I think this possibility for extralinguistic excess is the occasion for “Logical Like a Baby,” especially in light of the poem’s frame in childhood and the thwarted pursuit of a coherent, precultural, prelinguistic self.

SF: Do you think the speaker reclaims autonomy over language, and body, by finally eliminating the father from her incantations? The poem’s closing word, “iiyoo,” is actually Kanoko’s: iiyoo repeated in eleven one-word lines, a kind of tail. “The day the diarrhea stopped, Kanoko started to say iiyoo.” In his notes, Angles describes iiyoo as a “childish pronunciation of the words meaning ‘That’s nice’ or ‘That’s good.’” It’s not a proper Japanese word at all, but rather, as you note, a prelinguistic projection of meaning and/or self-identification—the baby’s native logic undistorted by cultural determinism.

LdL: Yep, Itō’s sheer use of repetition suggests just how hard-earned the speaker’s autonomy is in the end. For me, though, such reiteration is as boring as it is heroic. Whereas repetition for a Language poet might serve as an anti-closural device that loosens and proliferates meaning, in Itō’s writing its primary quality is tedium. This isn’t to say that her poetry’s echoes stagnate. On the contrary, they’re uncannily generative because of their dullness, like hypnosis gone awry. Itō, to invert Baudelaire’s phrase, creates an oasis of boredom in a desert of horror. Even in a refrain as ironic and damning as “Congratulations on your destruction,” the speaker explodes the negative space of death by filling the page with it. That line—a stand-out from the title poem—achieves, above all, the paradoxical effect of propagation by naming its Other again and again. Call it a backwards biology, if you will.

SF: The structure of repetition also accommodates the multiple projections and thematic mirroring throughout the book, most notably between Itō and Kanoko—the infant girl reflecting the infantilized mother/wife, in one sense, and thus the object of infanticidal fantasy as explored in “Killing Kanoko.” Itō recognizes, in Kanoko, both a reflection and a product of a culturally prescribed identity, and the poem seeks a mutual destruction where identity and infantilism are “disposed of.” At the same time, Itō exposes—as an ideally cathartic event—suppressed maternal fury in response to an infant’s demands on body, time, and autonomy (“Kanoko eats my time. . . Kanoko forces me to deal with all her shit. . . I want to get rid of filthy little Kanoko”). Her acknowledgment of an essential hatred for her infant recalls Winnicott’s theory of the “good enough” mother, one who provides reasonably successful attachment for her child by accepting, rather than repressing, her emotional ambivalence. Also, Melanie Klein’s concept of the “devouring mother” whose breast is met by the “devouring infant”—a reflective sadism co-existing with the sexual, emotional, and physical gratifications of breastfeeding for both mother and infant. In “Killing Kanoko,” Itō channels a collective maternal rage—for which she continually congratulates herself—with shamanic ceremony that in its fanaticism has, as you suggest, a paradoxical cleansing effect. I’m reminded of the medieval women mystics who professed great gratitude to God for “killing off” their children so that they could devote themselves entirely to spiritual merger.

LdL: Infanticide in the poem is tantamount to exorcism, consisting in a kind of passionate detachment. By killing Kanoko, Itō not only liberates herself for her own poetic-shamanic pursuits, but she also frees her daughter from future enslavement to motherhood and phallocentrism. It’s also possible that Itō is liberating herself by allowing the text to subsume the narrative voice. Kanoko’s name overshadows the “I” on the page, amplifying and complicating the drama of individuation you’ve identified, in which Itō lives and Kanoko dies. Notice the multiple “Kanokos” on the same page where an “I” alone constitutes a line. If doubleness, in the Freudian sense of the word, is a harbinger of death as well as unfulfilled, but possible, futures, we could say that the text also entertains the idea of Kanoko killing her mother. All in all, a pretty radical disruption of the ideologically inscribed mother-daughter dynamic.

SF: It certainly is. The poem, in fact, employs two narrating voices—in separate columns—and also engages in intertextual conversation (with Magda Denes’ book In Necessity and Sorry: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital), reiterating its doubleness. We might think of “Coyote” as the antidote, or alternative power structure, to “Killing Kanoko.” Here, Kanoko’s affiliation with the mythical coyote produces a multivalent cultural re-imagining. Itō alludes to Joseph Beuys’s 1974 performance piece, when he isolated himself in a small room with a coyote for three days. Itō addresses her own sympathies with Native American mythology through her enlistment of the coyote figure (equivalent here to the fox/kitsune of “Snow”), while also paying homage to her matrilineal shamanic heritage. Kanoko’s exchange with the coyote confirms her birthright to intuitive rapport with the animal world (where Beuys separated himself from the coyote by erecting physical boundaries, Kanoko and the coyote—at least in the world of the poem—enjoy an unobstructed interchange).

LdL: “Coyote,” in this sense, displaces Beuys’s performance onto the feminized familial scene. If Beuys was apologizing to the coyote—thereby indirectly and symbolically apologizing to Native Americans overall—Itō is apologizing to Kanoko for letting her leave the womb and initiating her into culture. But Kanoko’s exchange with the coyote—centered on their collaborative and nearly nonsensical revision of the Buddhist “Heart Sutra”—pollutes as much as it purifies. Coyote and child don’t recite the mantra correctly because they are themselves re-signifying what it is to be female, victim, and most controversially of all, human. Kanoko, by virtue of her contact with the coyote, lives the dream of dehumanization. The agent of spiritual invention and cultural transformation, she calls to mind Europe’s enfants sauvages, or wolf-children, whose flight from civilization collapsed our most fundamental categories of identity.

SF: Notably, the father’s participation is considerably diminished in “Coyote.” Itō attributes a slightly altered quotation from Beuys to the father: “I wanted to concentrate just on the coyote / I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing other than the coyote / And I wanted to trade places with him.” She insinuates that unlike Kanoko, or the feminine generally, the father is denied access to animistic merger. He “insulates” himself against chthonic interplay and subsequently stands outside of the drama. That’s more or less all we hear from him in this poem, although Itō catalogues extensive biographical details of daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and sisters. Elsewhere in the book, “my father is everywhere,” as violent obstruction to feminine autonomy. In “Father’s Uterus, Or the Map,” Itō describes a room in which the father’s “various body parts / Are stuffed into various bottles,” among them an exhibit of his “uterus that had grown teeth.” The father’s body: dismantled and reduced to relic, his feminine or maternal aspect (uterus) not only floating around in formaldehyde, but rigged to devour (in this case, and from his vantage, one assumes the teeth are a threat to the father himself—if he gets too close, that nasty uterus will eat him up). His “insulation” from somatic intelligence in favor of a clinically verifiable (cartographical) system reflects his antagonism towards nature itself, which he denigrates to the symbolically feminine. In Itō’s vision, the father is explicitly abstracted. As a map for navigating the underlying configuration of dominant culture, it’s a pretty dismal picture.

But Itō transcends this in “I Am Anjuhimeko”—indeed, she symbolically situates Kanoko (as “leech-child”) at the threshold of matriarchal renaissance. Here, the revisionist heroine is subjected to patriarchy, completely violated—literally raped—by it, but exploits those abuses for transformational gain.

LdL: Indeed. Anjuhimeko breaks the shackles of patriarchy by becoming a woman with shamanic agency. In response to the leech-child’s desire, she recognizes language and poetry as instruments of her shamanic technology. In this affirmative scenario, mother and child empower and complete each other by symbolically feeding and gratifying one another. The outcome, then, of individuation is equanimity: a reclamation of relationship and matrilineal rites/rights. “I Am Anjuhimeko” thus declares the book’s transgressive ethical core by ultimately redeeming motherhood, feminine sexuality, and sexual otherness as sources of transcendence. And by conjuring, on the page, a shamanic performance, Itō opens a channel for healing to her readers—at least those brave enough to celebrate the potency of her shadowy revelations.

SF: In addition to its many aesthetic and intellectual pleasures, Itō’s poetry has practical applications and wide-ranging cultural relevance. While the agents of empire blithely congratulate themselves on their increasingly perilous acts of planetary destruction, poets like Hiromi Itō locate in poetry’s ancient but ever-present and life-affirming technologies a powerful mode of resistance as well as a vehicle for cultural and personal transformation. It might be reasonable to consider whether we can accept anything less from the poetry of our times. Killing Kanoko is a stunning achievement, one that will surely inspire continued translation of Itō’s oeuvre, and establish her as a significant presence in American poetry.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010