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.