Wild Grass on the Riverbank, poetry by Hiromi Itō, reviewed by AK Afferez


(Be carried from your native land to foreign soil, where you will grow wild and propagate)

Marking her return to poetry, Wild Grass on the Riverbank by Hiromi Itō is first and foremost a textual space where language can seek out the wildest, most visceral modes of expression. This lush, entangled narrative poem follows the coming of age of a young girl, who is shuttled back and forth by her mother between a wasteland—reminiscent of arid Southern California—and an overgrown riverbank based on the city of Kumamoto in southern Japan.

More than a Bildungsroman in verse, more than an epic for the modern ages, Wild Grass on the Riverbank subverts traditional literary and symbolic binaries—poetry vs. prose vs. drama, stream of consciousness vs. fragmentation, folk tales and traditional songs vs. modernity and pop songs, childhood vs. adulthood … Told from the point of view of the young girl, the result is a collage narrative that takes us to the furthest limits of what is visible and tangible in the human experience. Whether in verse or in prose, the poem forms an unfettered flow of thoughts structured around repetition and refrain, expressing saturation, and materializing the grass and vines that overtake everything in the landscape.

Itō is known in Japan notably for her frank and unabashed depiction of women’s sexuality. She has been hailed as a “shamaness” for her uncanny ability to bring to life voices on the page—subjects, as her translator Jeffrey Angles states, “relegated to the periphery of acceptability by the traditional concern for respectability.” Wild Grass on the Riverbank continues this tendency, forcing us to always interrogate the norms imposed by literary and social mores:

The riverbank kills every living thing and makes corpses out of them
The riverbank brings back every kind of corpse to life

As the poem progresses, the malaise grows: a depiction of an endless journey makes way for the depiction of the agony, death, and second life as barely moving corpse of the stepfather figure in the wasteland. When the mother takes her three children back to their old home on the riverbank, the grotesque is amplified: the father they left behind has become himself another desiccated corpse. These corpses do not ever regain full humanity, but they are also far from the popular depictions of zombies—they add complexity to a cyclical view of life and death by inserting within it a resurrection that is neither holy nor truly apocalyptic.

On the riverbank, the children are joined by hallucinatory materializations of the wild plants growing there, notably the eponymous Kawara Alexsa (an alternate spelling of kawara arekusa, literally “riverbank wild grass”). The plants thrive everywhere, overtake everything: their presence places organic growth at the center of the poem. Natural, organic life here resists any human attempts at harvest or control, so much so that the young girl aspires to become a plant herself, to join this unrestrained growth:

(I want to become part of the riverbank)

(I want to become a plant that grows vines)
(I want to become a plant that grows spikes full of seeds)

(I want to be naturalized)

The section entitled “Michiyuki,” which exacerbates the collision between the natural world and the waste and scraps from the human civilization, is very much reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, in particular the first lines of “The Fire Sermon” (and it is no coincidence if the wasteland, arechi in Japanese, is one of the two major landscapes in the poem). Yet nature is a much more ambiguous and powerful force in Itō’s work: while there is constant decay on the riverbank, it is not subordinated to any representation of spirituality like it is in Eliot’s poem.

The introduction Angles writes illuminates the strategies he used when translating. Itō’s poetic language is a highly hybridized one: when writing in Japanese, she resorts to countless defamiliarization techniques, notably by subverting traditional syntax and word order, so as to better expose the mechanics of language and maximize its poetic potential. In Wild Grass on the Riverbank, since the narrator is a child adrift between two languages, the language of the original poem emphasizes plasticity. Angles’s translation of this highly ductile and hybrid poetry cannot reproduce the effects the poem has on the Japanese reader, but achieves analog effects on the English-speaking reader.

This is best seen when dealing with the plant names, in particular in the second section titled “On the Riverbank.” In Japanese, plant names are composed of several elements, each having its own specific meaning. Angles chose to translate the Japanese names by their Latin counterparts, but when the child narrator’s speech dislocates these names, he translates the Japanese fragments as they are: “For instance, when the text includes the complete plant name hime-mukashi-yomogi, I translate it as Erigeron canadensis (the scientific name for horseweed), but when the word hime appears alone, I translate it literally as ‘princess.’” Angles’s translation both fully expresses the code-switching that goes on in the narrator’s mind and creates new possibilities for the poem in the English language through semantic ambiguity:

A clump of cosmos (one name we knew) had not yet grown to maturity

Cosmos—both flower and world, in the process of growing and maturing, a process witnessed by the child who is experiencing her own awakening. Through this young girl, Hiromi Itō examines what it means to claim one’s status as inherently migrant and capitalize on the poetic possibilities of hybridity. Wild Grass on the Riverbank, in Angles’s translation, is a reminder of what language, like grass, can do, if left to “grow wild and propagate.”

Wild Grass on the Riverbank, by Hiromi Itō (translated by Jeffrey Angles). Notre Dame, Indiana: Action Books. 103 pages. $16.00, paper.

AK Afferez is a writer, translator, avid traveler, and sporadic blogger with a fondness for aliases (real name: Héloïse). She grew up in Michigan, studied for a bit on the East Coast, and currently lives in France.

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