A search for love through a surrealist landscape
By Cyril Wong
Responsibilities of the Obsessed
If all reality is unimpeded, interconnected dreaming, then what use is left for words like 'real' or 'dream'? It is, I believe, a fair question — one that poet Goro Takano answers in leaps and bounds from the flowering of his own private and troubled dreaming. Responsibilites of the Obsessed is his latest offering, a collection of 'narrative' (I use the word very loosely) poems born out of the interstices of consciousness. Surrealism is still an underrated art, especially in poetry — a dangerous realm within poetic discourse which even poets do not dare to engage with for too long. If contemporary poetry has been criticised for being too obscure (i.e. demanding too much of the reader's intelligence and interpretive investment), surrealist poetry scares even more 'regular' readers of poetry away. If 'regular' or more accessible poetry frames us within mostly predictable parameters of linguistic conventions, combined with the safe comforts of semantic surprises through metaphor and analogy, surrealist poetry yanks the rug from under our feet, stealing even our feet and leaving us suspended with little left to stand on, or twisting wildly in mid-air.
From André Breton to James Tate and now Goro Takano, surrealist poets defy even the category I have chosen to seal them in, this tentative field called 'surrealist poetry'. It gives me a thrill when some aspect of art shocks me out of my usual way of seeing things; the more thrilling if such art also leaves me slightly unhinged or insane. It takes courage to roll on the floor in madness, drooling at the mouth, and then to be able to stand upright again. Takano's poetry demands such courage in a way that regular poetry or prose does not, especially not in resolutely 'pragmatic' places like Singapore, where we are obsessed with the ever-contingent and intersecting linearities of culture, identity and verbal coherence (look at how safe this country's 'literature' has remained). In Takano's opening prose poem ('Blast'), an obese novelist with writer's block follows the instructions of a preacher on his television to hold his baby out the window for an hour to demonstrate his capacity for love. The novelist drops the baby, which then transforms into an exploding nuke on the way down. His publisher next shows up on the scene to ask: "How do you know this is a dream?" Finally, the publisher tells the novelist that the dream is "right here" in a package with a doll inside, coupled with "a list of available nationalities"; and with this package in hand, the novelist is soon "led smoothly to the next blast".
What does it all mean? And is language sufficient when we draw out the poem's meanings in neat, logical sentences? Or should we, in one sense, leave our reactions to the poem alone, allowing such reactions to explode or implode into stories within stories of meaning and epiphany inside the mind? And if we 'strain' for meaning, should we not question this socially conditioned impulse to make sense of things or to put things into banal categories? Surely the mind is as infinite and full of possibilities as any quantum universe. For this reader, much of me was nonetheless moved by the sense of the writer's (I refer to both the novelist in the poem and to the author of the poem) responsibility to his craft and to his newborn, and that need to test both within a space of dreamt-up challenges. To write and to love are twin obsessions, and Takano's book is about the obsessed, about obsessions and their corollary responsibilities. A central sense of responsibility is negated, paradoxically, by the incommensurability of the realities of which the writer is attempting to take responsible ownership. To write or to love can mean, at the same time, destroying one ineffable reality or replacing it with something less genuine: the imposition of a terrifying simulacrum like a doll, "perfectly disjointed" (as described in Takano's poem).
The certainty and the ever-blossoming revelation of irresolvable paradoxes as couched in nightmarish scenarios become the consistent logic energising these poems. Sometimes the poems can be funny. In one case ('Imprisoned: A Renshi', a long poem that reads initially like a hilarious tribute to Kafka), a dentist tells the male speaker that he will soon have "two more heads, / two white wings, a vagina, and more..." and as the patient is unable to foot the "criminal" bill, he becomes "one of his concubines". The surreal can be ridiculous, which Takano allows for, as even the silliest situations have something to say about the changeability of selfhood and slippery notions of truth. More seriously, in another scenario, a hobo enters a café and approaches a man reading a philosophy book. The reader asks the hobo randomly: "Don't you think our nostalgia is sometimes dangerous? The more strongly we expect our homeland to be the same...the more violently we may deprive others on it of their independent stories...", following which the hobo throws his hardcover book "(titled Human Development) like a cannonball and it strikes home" against the man's forehead, the same philosophy book (we soon find out) the reader himself had originally been perusing. The concerns obliquely articulated are serious — the perspective (rendered in the past) I hold on to nostalgically can become the very thing that pushes out an alternative view in the future, often violently — but the whole process of forging perspectives and imposing them is rendered here as simultaneously a crude human joke that we enact everyday in public discourses and within ourselves with great banality, even as the resultant violence that occurs can be more than figurative. The blow to the reader's brow might also be read as being akin to a Zen master knocking his student on the head with the ruler of an epiphany, compelling him to wake up from an inveterate desire to preserve a fossilised frame of mind, and allowing fresh thought or new truths to flow in.
A particularly touching piece ('A Buried Ode') takes us into the poet's own soul (I suspect, rightly or wrongly), providing an added dimension of intimacy and poignancy to a largely deliciously nightmarish book. If there is violence here, it is emotional and psychological: a father's primal terror at seeing his child being born. Because of such terror, the speaker in the poem dashes out of the hospital to dig a hole in a cemetery, "tunneling his way into himself" and into the past, recounting the history of a marriage against a backdrop of war. An extended metaphor of vigorous excavating and pushing out becomes drenched in images of wetness, even blood: "lips looked probably like a vagina delivering a baby...nipples dripping milk...his own murmur almost overflowing the hole". The speaker, speaking in the third person about himself, speaks also to his own baby: "I may even dare to lick your bloody body clean" after garnering courage to accept fully his sudden state of fatherhood. It is a courage born out of the invigorating moisture of poetic language that has strained itself to the point of violence in making sense of something traumatic. The wetness expressed here also signifies a coming-to-terms with the brutal physicality of existence, an acceptance that turns into love. This development on being a father culminates further in a later poem, 'Tanka: A Man and His First Newborn', a moving paean to fatherhood, where the father-speaker views his awakening child as "a seaflower / swaying slightly / deep in a warm current" with newfound calm and insight.
The violence of language in conveying or translating the ineffable is summed up most forthrightly in the final scenario ('With One More Step Ahead') in which a supposedly female speaker addresses a symbolic doctor. The poem opens with this stanza:
This poem could be read as being communicated by the poet's own wife (she describes her husband as "a hard-working poet, until our kid was one year old"). It is one way of reading this piece, but the poem switches gears later on from being just an exercise in ventriloquism: "Which of us is a husband, or a wife? / Who cares?" Like all the poems that came before this, the speakers are all, in a sense, "'systematically' mad", or they deal with situations that rip into inherited systems of thought and language; linearity becomes a loop in a Möbius strip that is nonetheless the slanted road along which the poet navigates fields of dreams upon dreams, filled with desires to conquer fears or reveal truths about writing and relationships, truths about truths. To translate the mysteries of the unknown in poetry, leaving them somewhat intact (since no absolutely 'original' truth may be found), is surely to court madness while remaining resolutely sane. And everywhere in this book, the poet's speakers in their respective scenarios brave internal turmoil while mapping out their 'truths', as well as the internalised violence of marginalisation and alienation wrought by oppressively overarching narratives, with their preference for a more constrictive linearity.
The speakers, perhaps as metonymic manifestations of Takano himself, are all grappling with a frightening sense of loneliness and alienation, but their voices are underpinned by a longing for reconciliation and the positive rewards of relationships. This final responsibility of the obsessed speakers in the book is ultimately to one's sense of the always-elusive other through the infinite mystery of love; this wish for a tender and open-ended completeness, a return to oneness, is expressed fervently by the speaker in the closing lines of the book:
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013