Review: The Unsung Masters Series, Pleiades Press
Despite the assumption that great works will stand the test of time, some great poets and writers have been inadvertently left to collect dust behind the old paint cans and the busted phonograph in the basement of the 20th century. Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series seeks to remedy some of that oversight, resurrecting great, overlooked writers of the last hundred years. Importantly, Pleiades Press isn’t merely content to republish selected works of an author; it also provides insightful critical and biographical essays that serve to illuminate the work itself. With two books published, and two more forthcoming, the series is filling a gap that until now went largely unnoticed.
The first two books in the series, on Dunstan Thompson, an American poet writing primarily during and after World War II, and Tamura Ryuichi, a poet revered in his native Japan but underacknowledged in the Western hemisphere, showcase fresh, distinct voices, each responding to WWII in their own ways. While Tamura (the surname comes first in Japanese) attempts to speak on behalf of a distinctly Japanese post-WWII mentality as well as on behalf of poetry itself, Thompson writes taut lines intimating psychological turmoil in his early poetry and Catholic-tinged meditative verse in his later poetry.
Thompson’s wartime poems often derive their resonance from their sense of interpersonal relationships. In this excerpt from “Songs of the Soldier,” as in other early Thompson poems, the violence of war (“Death blows the boys to ribbons”) is punctuated by glimpses of a wartime homoeroticism (“That sharp, unshadowed, surgeon’s light / By which heroes are turned inside / Out, their flamboyant guts put straight / Or lopped off.”). What’s striking is how seamlessly these elements complement each other.
You waited, excited, watched the door;
They wait for you forever, not
Caring how long. No new friends wear
Away your image, nor can plot
You damage. They keep true faith, their
Loyalty is endless. If a kiss
Woke you sometime, still living, swear
Love to the dead. A war means this (24-25).
In this excerpt the individual lover collapses into the insurmountable centrality of wartime. The reversal from the interpersonal (“their / loyalty is endless”) toward the larger social context of war (“swear / love to the dead”) is what undoes the desired fulfillment of eros.
While Thompson’s relationship to WWII centers primarily on interpersonal relationships, Tamura Ryuichi’s voice is more postapocalyptic, more concerned with articulating the ontology of poetic utterance in a postwar Japan. Though Tamura’s poetry frequently utilizes the first person, his is a much more universalized “I,” one that invites the reader to inhabit the poem (“I am vertical / I cannot stay horizontal,” he writes). As such, he is, as Wayne Miller points out in the introduction to the book, closely aligned with European postwar poetry. His attempts to carve out a place for language in the face of wartime devastation are perhaps best evidenced by his poem “Four Thousand Days and Four Thousand Nights,” published roughly four thousand days and nights after Hirohito’s surrender shocked Japan. The poem, which appeared in his first book and is here translated by Takako Lento, opens:
In order for a poem to be born
we must kill
we must kill many
we shoot down, assassinate, poison many we love
from the skies of four thousand days and nights
we shot down
the silence of four thousand nights and the backlight of four thousand days
simply because we wanted the trembling tongue of a small bird (14).
These plainspoken declarative lines recall Polish poet Tadeuz Rozewicz’s assertion, speaking of an old woman leading a goat, that “whoever thinks and feels / that she is not necessary / he is guilty of genocide.” But Christopher Drake’s essay, which the editors of this volume borrowed from the introduction to his translation of Tamura’s Dead Languages, informs these lines, explaining that Tamura, who initially avoided the draft by enrolling in Meiji University, was later declared unfit for naval service (“He was too tall to fit easily into the tiny cockpit of a zero fighter”). In July 1945, he was relegated “to artillery duty on the shore of Wakasa Bay[…] where a U.S. or Russian invasion was expected (74-75).” Drake continues,
The invasion never came. Tamura, unlike many of his friends in Kagoshima who were ordered to kill themselves as kamikaze pilots, survived; but he has never gotten over the experience of being certain he would die, and he has never stepped out of earshot of the voices of those who did die (2).