Bathhouse and Other Tanka is Tatsuhiko Ishii’s first volume of poetry translated into English. In Bathhouse and Other Tanka and in my lived experience, the bathhouse is a confounding place of both intimacy and distance. Here, in this church of public nakedness, we expose our bodies to one another. This is a kind of radical vulnerability, a way of being at our most undefended among strangers, a sentiment that resounds in Ishii’s stripped-down prose. Still, when confronted with the sag, snap, and shape of another, one realizes that seeing someone nude doesn’t mean you know anything about them. If anything, the mystery of the other deepens. That scar running down a woman’s calf, the series of pockmarks on another’s arm: all of these point to an interior that is simultaneously brandished and held away.
Such is the world of Bathhouse and Other Tanka. In one poem, written as an elegy for Genji from Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Ishii writes, “I sorrow over his heart deep in amorous attachments. Of what a / man ought to be (a human ought to be).” In these poems, ephemera wreathe convictions on how one ought to live. We see glimpses into the speaker’s heart, only to be pushed back and offered a description of romance or nature. In another poem, this time written as an elegy for Yukio Mishima, the speaker flits between interjections of the “Dies irae” in Latin and meditations on yearning for death while remaining alive. Sacred Catholic language provides artifice, while alternately obscuring frank glimpses into the suicidal thoughts Ishii offers and takes away, rocking readers between crystalline sentiments and foggy anomie.
In these poems, the give-and-take of intimacy and distance is specifically attached to the society of men: inviolate fathers, murderous sons, and lithe male prostitutes. Bathhouse strives to articulate taut and slanted relationships between men who love and hate one another in equal measure. Lust sits alongside apathy, with speakers as prone to musing as to murder:
To clear Father, his soiled name…. Looked after
by my son in a
previous life, and, dying
Whoever he may be, the son is a patricide… Looking
up at the
peak soaring black in the predawn dark
Speakers also voice homoerotic admiration:
The soul’s (fragile) armor? The young man’s (smooth
body in the buff
There is no linear through line driving its way through these poems, no thesis about the way men ought to be with one another. Instead, there is only the passive togetherness of the bathhouse, of these male bodies that exist wetly next to one another, mired in their own musing.
Undergirding this society of men is the poetic form Ishii writes in: the tanka. The tanka is a classical form of Japanese poetry that breaks its lines into a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count. I was taught about the tanka alongside its cousin, the haiku, in American creative writing classes, where the form was presented to me as a syllable-counting game, a mere word puzzle to be solved on one’s fingers. Ishii’s tanka do not exist as little blurbs bounded by trite rules, but rather in long, heady sequences, the overall effect of which serves to highlight the swirling contemplation of love, loss, desire, and disgust he conjures. After all, during the Heian period, tanka were used as a form of communication between lovers. Ishii’s tanka retain some of that ancient veneer, agony obfuscated by apathy, the body of the beloved, just out of damp reach.
Publisher: New Directions Page count: 160 Price: $18.95 Key quote: “Deep at night a big incident! My heart taken by a small-framed, / skinny, little shit / Yet another incident? The boy I’ve picked up has a dimple (and a scar) / on his cheek.” Shelve next to: Garth Greenwell, Yukio Mishima, Alexander Chee, Murasaki Shikibu, Chen Chen Unscientifically calculated reading time: Four long soaks plus three bursts while waiting for the shower to heat up