Takahashi, Mutsuo. “Poems of a Penisist” (translated by Hiroaki Sato), University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Matsuo Takahashi is one of the leading poets of Japan as well as a leading essayist, a literary historian and critic. He is primarily known as a prolific poet who has published more than 300 anthologies of poet and has been compared to Walt Whitman in the way he celebrates the male form. He treats homosexual desire as something sacred and he writes with beauty and passion. Of all of his poetry, the poems in this volume are the most homoerotic and included here is “Ode” a thousand line erotic epic and the entire book is regarded as one of the most important in the area of homoeroticism. Male homosexuality has had a long and established history of Japan (which is interesting because I never really considered it a country with such a tradition and I do not why I felt that way). Reading about the little man in Takahashi’s epic “Ode”, we see that his behavior mirrors that of the West. Interestingly enough, Japan has never made homosexuality illegal or a criminal act but the country is built on Confucian ideals where marriage is important and family is an integral part of society. I have read that men who do not comply with these ideals is regarded as untrustworthy socially and suspicious. Perhaps this is why we sense a touch of self-pity in Takahashi’s poetry when we read the protagonist lamenting what alienates him from the rest of society. Even more interesting is that all of the poems in this volume deal with homosexuality in some way, the poet does not write about the overall theme of societal prejudice or self-loathing that is a result of it. He actually seems to eschew social comment and he does not intellectualize and this could be the main reason why his work is so fresh and new to us in the West where the opposite is certainly true.
The book is divided with the first eighteen poems (which I am quite sure has nothing to do with the Hebrew reference to eighteen meaning life) were written in his early years—his teens and twenties. They are certainly more immature and boyish. After these we come to the more mature poetry in which love and lust are treated certainly more maturely and we become aware of themes of sin and guilt. Ultimately after having a few short prose poems, we arrive at “Ode” which was written in 1971 and is regarded as the poet’s most significant and important work and as one of the most extraordinary poems in all of Japanese literature. It is an extended erotic fantasy and is about parts of the male anatomy and settings for sex. The poem is intensely physical. With these poems in translation, we, in the English speaking world now have the chance to read Takahashi and to appreciate the beauty of his words. His honest celebration of the male anatomy and body reads beautifully and the idea of sex between men becomes almost holy—Takahashi gives us pure and beautiful expressions of his own sexuality and deep love for other men.
Few poets bring as much skill and passion to their poems, especially those about homosexual desire. His explicitly gay work celebrates desire, finding joy in the male body much as Walt Whitman’s poems do. The poems eagerly name body parts as they probe desire and longing.
“Ode” celebrates Takahashi’s erotic and promiscuous life “much as a priest celebrates the Eucharist”. This 1,000-line poem begins with a parody of the Mass: “In the name of / Man, member, / and the holy fluid, / AMEN.” As the speaker seeks out sex in the places most frowned on by his society, he is reborn, saved by each new encounter. The glory hole, for example, takes on spiritual significance. Only what is “made flesh” satisfies.
“Poems of A Penisist” is one of the most important collections of poetry on homosexual desire and sex written in this century. The characters in these poems do not compromise–they see the world as outsiders (“a faggot that fingers point at”) but being outsiders brings them joy and meaning. As the majority society mocks and condemns them, their joy in their identity as gay men, as individuals who enjoy pleasure with other men, gives them strength. (There was once a time when men in America reacted in quite the same way before they began to conform to the rules of the larger society).
In these poems, we see present and past coming together as family memories are explored and we get the idea that the speaker of the poems when young prepares for a life that will be erotic. Just to give you a taste of what to expect I have included two of Takahashi’s poems here and I am quite sure that once you read them, you will want to read the rest.
You are a murderer
No you are not, but really a wrestler
Either way it’s just the same
For from the ring of your entangled body
Clean as leather, lustful as a lily
Will nail me down
On your stout neck like a column, like a pillar of tendons
The thoughtful forehead
(In fact, it’s thinking nothing)
When the forehead slowly moves and closes the heavy eyelids
Inside, a dark forest awakens
A forest of red parrots
Seven almonds and grape leaves
At the end of the forest a vine
Covers the house where two boys
Lie in each others arms: I’m one of them, you the other
In the house, melancholy and terrible anxiety
Outside the keyhole, a sunset
Dyed with the blood of the beautiful bullfighter Escamillo
Scorched by the sunset, headlong, headfirst
Falling, falling, a gymnast
If you’re going to open your eyes, nows the time, wrestler
The God Statue I Love
Your body is made of lily and sex
Piles of strong-smelling, night-illuminating lilies
Upon them your pageboy has spread the ointment of nard
For the lower half of your body you wear a bullfighter’s tight
The elegant joints of your big fingers press on the brocaded
Beneath the costume, between the two overpowering thighs
Wrapped in highly fragrant clouds
Sleeps a beautiful lion cub, I think
The gentle beast is made of particularly splendid lilies
The suspenders press into your dark chest
The night sky framed by the lions silky hair
Hooked to the chain of stars a medal shines like the moon
One arm, gathering the flow of muscles, like a river
Leisurely hangs towards the center of the earth
The hand grips a whip
The leather lash of the whip snake-coils on the ground
You will suddenly jerk it up and imprint a swift welt on the
From the wound brilliant blood will spurt
I will put your standing figure
On the horse’s fluffed buttocks, in the shining sky at dawn
On your shoulders
I shall put the wrestler’s head as thoughtful as a forest
(I clipped it from the pictures in a sports magazine)
In the name of
And the holy fluid
(The spelling in the poems is exactly the way they appear in translation).