Ever felt like abandoning, yes abandoning, your pointless stressful little jobs, bidding ‘goodbye to all that’, and shooting off to the white mountains, or getting yourself one of them canal boats, or perhaps settling down on a remote island, and spending the rest of your days dangerously close to nature, fighting the elements, the procrastination, the ennui? Thoughts like these are far from illegitimate for your average middle-aged gaijin teacher in Japan. As a friend of mine recently put it, ‘I've turned into a gaijin gypsy roaming from campus to campus with piles of paper and books no one is interested in’. A recent, and what seemed at first a surprising, departure of another friend to South America, coupled with my own visit to Okinawa few weeks ago, prompted me to seriously reconsider own current state of affairs. It’s not that I am in deep shit or any particular predicament at the moment. It’s all to do with ‘mid-life’ existential crisis and the usual thoughts and moods that accompany it — come to think of it I’ve always been attracted to all things existential, particularly in my formative years.

There is a Swedish proverb: ‘Those who wish to sing, always find a song’. I take this to stand as a broader metaphor, applicable to songs of various operative moods — ‘existentialist’ in this case. Well I ran into this short docu-video on the Guardian online last month, which introduced us to one Ante Vukušić, a meteorologist who has lived and worked on the mount Velebit, Croatia, for the past 37 years. In the 5-minute video we get a glimpse of this fascinating mountain range of extreme weather patterns, of the astonishing richness of wildlife (there are, for instance, over 2000 plant species — the whole of UK has 1180!), a place where you can meet a bear, a wolf, a lynx, a fox or a marten, a place where you could be snowbound for weeks on end, a mountain range where each peak has a unique view. And so, for the purely existential reasons this largely ignored clip (so far only about 70 hits on youtube) made quite an impression on me, even to the point of finding myself writing an inspired poem. Then an unexpected association crossed my mind, as I somehow remembered Auggie Wren, a character from the movie Smoke (1995), played by Harvey Keitel. The movie has to be one of my all-time favourites. Anyway, for me the link between the two men was instantly obvious and rather fascinating (despite Ante’s ‘I can’t grasp the idea of living in a city’), and so I challenge you to find it, and let me know the results — post a comment/email. First, here is the Velebit national park clip:

And here is that amazing photo album scene with Keitel and William Hurt, as the latter is perusing Keitel’s ‘life’s work’ with Auggie’s precious ‘you’ll never get it if you don’t slow down my friend’.

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Most people have heard of Okinawa, yet not many living outside of Japan would have heard of the Okinawan island of Miyakojima, located much closer to Taiwan than to mainland Japan. Even fewer people would be aware of an apparent ‘special relationship’ between Miyakojima and Germany. That’s right, Deutschland. Now, you would think Miyakojima and Germany do not have much in common. And you’ll be right, they don’t. Except that on the island there is to be found a longish road named after German Chancellor Schröder who visited there in 2000. The road stretches for miles, from the attractive airport all the way down to the Ueno German Culture Village, which is dedicated to the friendship between the two countries. The village boasts the original-sized Marksburg castle replica, the XIX c. German villa and a number of German traditional artefacts. The staff, among them the castle reception lady, look overeager to put their rusty German into practice at every opportunity (‘Du bist Deutschland?'). Pity my German’s even rustier. Slightly disappointed, she still seems delighted to meet a ‘European’.

As far as replicas go the Marksburg one in Miyakojima strives to emulate the original in as much detail as possible — including the major interior rooms like the Rittersaal, the painted Chapel Tower, and the Kemenate (bed-chamber). The castle also seems to have succeeded in preserving the mediaeval chilliness of the place — the original Marksburg’s Kemenate, for instance, was one of the few rooms to be heated with a stove — despite the fact that the outside temperature on the day was in the high twenties. I particularly liked the irregular, acute-angled, claustrophobic spaces between the inner walls of the castle and the keep, which instantly reminded me of Wiene’s Dr. Caligari expressionistic sets.

So, what’s the Germany-themed park doing on this tiny Pacific island? The story goes back to July 11, 1873, when a German merchant ship R.J.Robertson wrecked after being hit by typhoon and smashing against a large coral reef. The Ueno islanders rescued all of the eight stranded crewmembers and gave them shelter and food for 37 days, until the sailors were fit for the return to China and finally back to Germany. Having learnt of the incident, the German Emperor sent a memorial and gifts of appreciation to the Okinawan island. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

At the village one cannot help but march from one building to another to the tune of the Bavarian brass band coming from the PA system. One of these building is the strange ‘Children’s House’. It hosts an odd mix of children’s toys and books, on one hand, and two slabs of the original Berlin Wall and a photographic retrospective of the divided Germany, on the other. No concept to speak of. Nevertheless it was the opportunity for what I like to call the third-hand photography: the taking of a photo of a photo of a photo. Still, some haven't lost much of their emotional potency.

The last photo goes nicely with Matthew Sweeney’s poem ‘Breaches’ from his ‘Cacti’ collection — one of the few poems in English on the demolition of the Berlin Wall written first-hand. The poem starts:

Glühwein with honey at Potsdamer Platz,
at the breach that drew the biggest cheer
when the pastel-coloured Trabis drove through.
Slush underfoot, wrecking shoes.
In the darkening distance: the Reichstag.

The middle section of the poem gives some first-person reportage-like descriptions of the wrecking activities, and ends with the equally matter-of-fact

We took our tiny hammer and whacked chips
from that graffiti-daubed, astoundingly thin,
infamous construction, helping in our way
to make it disappear.

The historical symbolism of the places mentioned — the Wall, the Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz — would weigh heavy in any poem, and Sweeney’s documentary/picture-postcard voice gives his a releasing counterweight.

Other British poets have written on the subject. Bloodaxe called Ken Smith’s poem The Wall ‘the quintessential English poem on the Berlin Wall’ — due to potential copyright infringements I am not going to publish it, but here is the Facebook link for you poetry nuts: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=175423809210

On the same post you will find a link to the New York Times page containing 9 poems on the Berlin Wall commissioned by the paper on the 20th anniversary of the fall (where you can download all 9 poems as a single jpeg). The poets commissioned hail from US, Poland, Yugoslavia (Slovenia), Germany and Russia. Bloodaxe wonders why on earth there were no British poets included. Well, there were no Canadians, Icelanders, Mexicans, South Africans, Irish either. Being born in Yugoslavia myself, it’s only fitting that I should post a poem by a then-Yugoslav writer Tomaž Šalamun. I like the poem’s seemingly disinterested, laconic voice, and the way it works as a curious hodgepodge: bumblebees, a resurrected Artaud, Ron Padgett, the Pergamon Museum, the Great Depression, all laid out as evocative couplets like twinned remnants of an ancient wall. Click on the image to view the poem large.

It is funny, astonishing even, that the Wall is described by Šalamun as being ‘thick’ whereas Sweeney calls it ‘astoundingly thin’. Even if one took these descriptions metaphorically — ‘thickness’ may hint at the magnitude of separation, ‘thinness’ at the poet’s realization that the apparent thickness was in fact very fragile, or that Sweeney the poet had expected the wall to be much thicker — this poetic discrepancy calls for factual clarification. Having recently seen two original slabs in Okinawa, I recall that the thickness/thinness was no more than 20cm. Well, just to make sure I’ve consulted a few internet sources. Although there were variations in the construction, the final scores amount to this: the Wall was 4.1 m/13.5 ft high, 16 cm/7 in thick, 155 km/96 mi long. Made of concrete slabs. End of story.

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To All of You Workers...

Posted on Monday, May 02, 2011, under ,


In the age of financial/industrial conglomerates it seems the Workers of the world, Unite! slogan has never been more relevant. And yet Unions have never been weaker (correct me if I am wrong), Capitalism is winning even in China and Russia. The bastions of Communism, North Korea and Cuba, have pushed ideology to the edge of self-grandiose insanity. Kyoto city itself used to be a traditional stronghold of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), up until about mid-nineties when a major change in the voting system (multi-member districts became single-member districts), made it much harder for the JCP candidates to get elected. Still, in the city council election of April 2007 the JCP took 19 seats, only 4 less than the ruling LDP.
Anyway, Horikawa-dori around 11a.m. today was a sight to behold, so surprising in fact that, still somewhat shocked, I sat down and wrote this poem few hours later.

Different City

For a moment it feels a different city:
red banners, loudspeakers, chants,
the traffic at a standstill.
Then we remember it is Kyoto –
the flow is a two-row column
bracketed by colours, kanji
and union-logos, duly stopping
at red lights. I ask my son,
who is eight, what the fuss is about.
Hmm…Maybe they want money.

Unable to pass through
we make a pushbike detour
ending up at a local shrine
where two tiddly daughters
are throwing bits of bread
to the always hungry carp;
nearby a group of workers sit
on holy slabs, drink beer.
It’s a blessed Sunday after all.

Later I’m at a local grocery.
The mobile rings. It’s Luke,
confirming it’s the wages…
the higher wages they want.
The shop is empty. There are three
check-out girls standing by
the cash-registers, standing
and smiling. They probably want
to be out there with the crowds today.
I pay in cash, wishing for once
the onigiri weren’t a bargain.

May 1st, 2011

'Bandiera Rossa' turned raw punk-rock, courtesy of the Slovenian band 'Pankrti' from 1983. Celebrate the Labour Day, hopefully by thrashing your head about in existential despair.

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