Hiromi Itō's Killing Kanoko

For reasons too unworthy to mention, earlier this fall I missed Hiromi Itō ’s reading which was jointly sponsored by Mills College and Small Press Traffic. However, I have just begun to read her book Killing Kanoko, translated by Jeffrey Angles, published by Action Books, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2009. In his Introduction, Angles tells us that Itō was born in Tokyo in 1955 and she "came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s thanks to a series of dramatic collections of poetry that completely transformed the ways people were writing in Japan. In a recent collection of contemporary poetry, the poet Kido Shuri described Ito’s contributions to the world of poetry in the following way:

The appearance of Ito Hiromi, a figure that one might best call a ‘shamaness of poetry’ (shi no miko), was an enormous event in ‘post-war poetry.’ Her physiological sensitivity and writing style, which cannot be captured within any existing framework, became the igniting force behind the subsequent flourishing of ‘women’s poetry’ (josei shi), just as Hagiwara Sakutarō had revolutionized modern poetry with his morbid sensitivity and colloquial style."


Angles continues: "As Itō’s reputation as a ‘woman poet’ grew, she took increasing exception to her position within the literary world, believing that by subsuming her writing under the category of woman’s poetry, the publishing industry was simply lumping her in with a broad array of female writers and obscuring the differences among them. Instead, she insisted on being recognized as a poet without the delimiting adjective ‘woman’ that might pigeonhole her work.

At the same time, however, her writing gravitated increasingly to issues of the feminine body, sexuality, and motherhood..…In the late 1980s Itō became eager to leave her husband and change her surroundings, so she set her sights on America…Through her refusal to give in to the restrictions that twentieth-century Japanese institutions of poetry placed on what could be considered ‘poetic,’ Itō has consistently challenged dominant concepts of poeticity and, in the process, pointed out the inadequacy of more mainstream poetic styles to embody contemporary experience ” (Angles viii-xi).

Itō came to the States permanently in 1991 and now lives in Encinitas with her partner Harold Cohen. In 2006 her long narrative poem Wild Grass on a Riverbank (Kawara arekusa, 2005), won the Takami Jus Prize, “awarded each year to an outstanding and innovative collection of poetry. In September 2007, her “long and fantastic narrative,” The Thorn-Puller (Toge-nuke, 2007), “won the fifteenth Hagiwara Sakutarō Prize, given each year to an innovative work of literature by the city of Maebashi (Angles).”


Itō's work is mesmerizing and disturbing. She pushes at the boundaries of what can be written. From what I can tell so far, Itō seems to be working in flat registers. She makes of anaphora a sandpaper abrasion, deploying lists, phrases, clauses as machines that expose a banal and dull violence. She plays with substitution, cutting up and replacing words, body parts, myth, relation. Language acquisition, particularly language acquired outside of daily immersion, becomes a matter of drills, memorizations, conjugations, substitutions. Its artificiality and staged circumstances, nevertheless reveal disturbances, troubling ideologies. Somehow, in the midst of this quiet and methodical play of substitutions, Itō's writing manages to sneak up on the reader, to surprise. The work is not beautiful, or linguistically dazzling (at least as revealed by this translation),  but rather it stuns differently, in some way that escapes easy identification, but enthralls nevertheless.

Here are two poems from Killing Kanoko:

The Maltreatment of Meaning

Can you speak Japanese?
No, I cannot speak
Yes, I can speak
Yes, I can speak but cannot read
Yes, I can speak and read but cannot write
Yes, I can speak and write but cannot understand
I was a good child
You were a good child
We were good children
That is good
I was a bad child
You were a bad child
We were bad children
That is bad
To learn a language you must replace and repeat
I was an ugly child
We were ugly children
That is ugly
I am bored
You are bored
We are bored
That is boring
I am hateful
We are hateful
That is hatred
I will eat
You will eat
We will eat
That is a good appetite
I won’t eat
You wont’ eat
We won’t eat
That is a bad appetite
I will make meaning
You will make meaning
We will make meaning
That is conveying language
I will use Japanese
You will use Japanese
We will use Japanese
That is Japanese
I want to rip off meaning
You want to rip off meaning
We want to rip off meaning
That is the desire to rip off meaning
I want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
You want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
We want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
That is, language is nothing more than raw material
I will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
You will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
We will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
That is replacing words mechanically and making sentences impossible in real life
Rip off meaning
Sound remains
Even so we search for meaning. The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger one sticks out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger I stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger you stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger that sticks out
As for me, meaning
As for you, meaning
As for us, meaning
Is meaning, that is
Do not communicate
As for me, do not communicate
As for you, do not communicate
As for us, do not communicate
Do not do that, that is communication
Meaning ripped apart and covered in blood is surely miserable, that is happiness
I am happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
We are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
The blood-covered meaning of that is blood-covered misery, that is happiness (50-52).


As my eyes followed the footprints spotting the ground
I realized a rabbit had been killed
I learned the ones going straight ahead were the fox’s
The ones going hop, two prints, hop, two prints were the rabbit’s
“Hop, two prints” and “straight ahead” intermingled
Then became just “straight ahead”
There was no trace of blood
“Hop, two prints” did not run amok
I am barefoot
I took off shoes then took off my socks
I’ve laid myself completely bare
You see that
When I took off my shoes and socks
There was fur growing between my toes
Blood was oozing from the space between them
You see that
I am writing
You see that
I want to show it to you
You are also writing
I see that
I think to myself
A man who writes so beautifully
What a beautiful
Man, men, women
You finish writing and put it away
You don’t seem to want to show me
You put on your shoes
And set off across the snowy field
I remain there
If I am “hop, two prints” in the snowy field
My fate is to be caught by “straight ahead”
Surely that will happen in morning
When it grows light here (78-79).

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