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The Poem Stuck in My Head

Kent Johnson’s / Araki Yasusada’s / Tosa Motokiyu’s “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang”

May 6, 2013 | by

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Pen names have long been a means for writers to inhabit another identity—to attain privacy, assume the acceptably literate gender, or play with the freedom of a psychic unburdening. But at what point does a pseudonym become obfuscation, transgression? What happens when a poem of witness—a poem set in the aftermath of the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a poem more compelling than many of its peers for its haunting, even oblique and morbid surrealist humor—is in fact written by a middle-aged white community college professor named Kent Johnson, rather than a hibakusha, or actual Hiroshima survivor?

It’s been over a decade since the poetry of Johnson’s heteronym, Araki Yasusada, excited, provoked, and even outraged the poetry community. The nuances of his “hoax” were revealed and debated; the manuscript “Doubled Flowering” was dropped by Wesleyan University Press. Johnson vigorously denied authorship, attributing the poem “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang,” along with manuscript’s letters and poetry, to Yasusada, and then, a potentially fictitious (and conveniently deceased) translator, Tosa Motokiyu. Scandal abounded, but “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang,” is beautiful and strange in spite of it all.

In the poem, the narrator’s daughter is reduced to a talking severed head, while her dark hair “comet-like, trail[s] behind…” The father-narrator is suggested to pluck her from the earth as unceremoniously as harvesting a single turnip, ripe with rot. Whether written in an English Department office in Illinois in the mid 90s, or found among a sheaf of yellowed papers belonging to the deceased Yasusada/Motokiyu, it places the reader’s unsuspecting feet on radioactive soil. That after the A-bomb a father should ask his dead daughter, “What on earth are you doing? ...You look ridiculous,” warrants lingering for a moment. With intimations of the cosmos and the juvenility of war, I find this poem more arresting than the hoopla surrounding its origins.

Some argue Johnson wrongfully appropriated a victim’s voice, others counter that Johnson himself was a victim, suffocated by expectations of truthiness. I’d suggest that sometimes the victim is the poem. By looking past the meta-politics of authorship, we may return to the Mad Daughter. We may also water ourselves, as vegetables in the ground.

Walking in the vegetable patch
late at night, I was startled to find
the severed head of my
mad daughter lying on the ground.
Her eyes were upturned, gazing at me, ecstatic-like…
(From a distance it had appeared
to be a stone, haloed with light,
as if cast there by Big-Bang.)
What on earth are you doing, I said,
you look ridiculous.
Some boys buried me here,
she said sullenly.
Her dark hair, comet-like, trailed behind…
Squatting, I pulled the
turnip up by the root.

“Mad Daughter and Big-Bang” first appeared in Issue #5 (1996) of First Intensity.

LuLing Osofsky graduated from UW’s Master of Fine Arts program in writing.

 

6 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. Kent Johnson | May 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you very much for commenting on the poem, LuLing. Just a small correction: The title is “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang.” Also, just to clarify that my relation to the Yasusada work and its larger archive is that of executor, and I have never claimed the texts as mine. The authorship of the two books will remain apocryphal, regardless of how many times people point to me as the writer (or to Dmitri Prigov, or to Forrest Gander, or Mikhail Epstein, whomever–very reasonable cases have been made for their presence, too).
    For those who may wish to read more on the Yasusada writings and the debate around them, a large collection of essays recently appeared in the UK from Shearsman Books: Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada (ed. Bill Friend).

    Kent

  2. Bill Knott | May 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    trying to remember how many translations of real Japanese poetry have appeared in the pages of TPR: any Tanikawa Shuntaro? Shiraishi Kazuko? Ryuichi Tamura? Mutsuo Takahashi? Gozo Yoshimasu? Ishigaki Rin? Ito Hiromi? —to name a few famous great poets of the Post-WW2 era. How many of these and other living Japanese poets has TPR featured? Any excerpts from Soh Sakon’s book-length poem “Mother Burning” about the firebombing of Tokyo on May 25, 1945, the largest incendiary raid of the war? etc.

  3. Bill Knott | May 7, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    but, given TPR’s origins in the secret police state world of forged identities and phantom ops and double agents and duplicitous assassinational acts of genocide, it’s not surprising that it prefers fraudulent plaigiaristic poems about the war crime committed against Hiroshima and ignores the testimonial verse of actual Japanese poets . . . down in that subterrean lab where they have his head hooked up to a life-support system, TPR’s old “control” Director Angleton must be grinning—

  4. bob | May 14, 2013 at 7:03 am

    I was about to comment that this was one of the odder things I’ve read. Then I read the comments…

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] Kent Johnson has authored, edited, or translated nearly thirty collections in some relation to poetry. A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara (Punch Press, 2011), named a “Book of the Year” by the Times Literary Supplement, was published in an expanded edition by Starcherone/Dzanc Books in 2012. His translation and annotation of César Vallejo’s only known interview is forthcoming as a chapbook from Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives in Freeport, Illinois. […]

  2. […] then I stumbled onto an essay about the poem “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang,” which is set in the aftermath of […]

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