Nostalgia, sentimentality, old age and Japanese language camp

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“even N, who founded the modernist magazine Luna
while Japan prepared to invade China
got sentimental after he went on his pension

…when he was young N wrote “I say strange things”
was it the monster that pumped tears from his older eyes?

-From “My Imperialism” (Ryuichi Tamura)

I started yet another conversation with a reference to attending Japanese language camp. This never ceases to amuse others, some thinking it sounds like the height (or depth) of total geekery, some thinking it sounds too similar to something like a forced death march or a Japanese internment camp. But alas, no, I studied almost all the languages my high school had to offer (German was the only exception, which made the Frau teaching German feel quite left out). Back in those fearful days of American decline (ongoing), when Bush senior caused an international incident by vomiting at the Japanese prime minister’s residence, and we all thought Japan was going to take over the world, we on the American west coast were hedging our bets, picking up our hashi and “nihongo o benkyooshimashita日本語を勉強しました. The Japanese were in fact helping us – subsidizing us – giving us money and camps and all the rest so we could immerse ourselves in Japanese language and culture for weeks at a time in the rural woods of western Washington. Never mind that I was never a “camp going”, group activity kind of girl – I tried to tell my teachers that I did not have the money for such a thing, but the school district had money to burn, I guess, and had never had a student like me (not that I was remarkable – it is just that I was the only one who ever willingly took so much language study at once). They paid for the camp.

The point of this – although I am not terribly nostalgic about those days, some characters from Japanese language camp come to mind sometimes. I only keep in touch with one guy – and got a letter from him yesterday. He shared some rather alarming news after a long (an entire adulthood) correspondence of mostly mundane stuff between us – sure, each of us moved back and forth between countries and had things happen, but nothing that does not happen to everyone. And suddenly, almost like a postscript, he added something rather serious, even stating that he “did not want to make a big deal out of it” – which I completely understand – but still I had to stop and catch my breath and suddenly reflect on… the deceptive, wicked nature of time. Even if time is just a manmade construct and has no inherent evil whatsoever. All that is truly deceptive about it is our human caprice and wont to waste time, playing games – or rather waste feelings, being petty and not doing what our heart really desires in life. Time and our perception of it imbues us with false confidence, with fear, with nostalgic sentimentality.

I am sitting in my car hanging out in a parking lot, reflecting on the way time has passed since meeting this Japanese language camp friend – we met each other in 1991, which still feels a lot like yesterday except that it was almost 25 years ago. This is how even the unsentimental start to feel the pull of nostalgia.

I wish nostalgia had a body so that I could push it out of the window! To smash what cannot be!” –Odysseus Elytis -Οδυσσέας Ελύτης

It starts to weigh them down when they can talk about how a quarter-century has passed and it felt a lot like the blink of an eye. I may not be overly sentimental myself, but this is how I have lost myself in poetry. The words I feel have been captured somewhere else. It’s a Ryuichi Tamura-田村隆一 kind of morning.

My Imperialism
by Ryuichi Tamura

I sink into bed
on the first Monday after Pentecost
and bless myself
since I’m not a Christian

Yet my ears still wander the sky
my eyes keep hunting for underground water
and my hands hold a small book
describing the grotesqueness of modern white society

when looked down at from the nonwhite world
in my fingers there’s a thin cigarette-
I wish it were hallucinogenic
though I’m tired of indiscriminate ecstasy

Through a window in the northern hemisphere
the light moves slowly past morning to afternoon
before I can place the red flare, it’s gone:
darkness

Was it this morning that my acupuncturist came?
a graduate student in Marxist economics, he says he changed
to medicine to help humanity, the animal of animals, drag itself peacefully to its deathbed
forty years of Scotch whisky’s roasted my liver and put me
into the hands of a Marxist economist
I want to ask him about Imperialism, A Study
what Hobson saw in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century
may yet push me out of bed
even if you wanted to praise imperialism
there aren’t enough kings and natives left
the overproduced slaves had to become white

Only the nails grow
the nails of the dead grow too
so, like cats, we must constantly
sharpen ours to stay alive
Only The Nails Grow-not a bad epitaph
when K died his wife buried him in Fuji Cemetery
and had To One Woman carved on his gravestone
true, it was the title of one of his books
but the way she tried to have him only
to herself almost made me cry
even N, who founded the modernist magazine Luna
while Japan prepared to invade China
got sentimental after he went on his pension;
F, depressed
S, manic, builds house after house
A has abdominal imperialism: his stomach’s colonized his legs
M’s deaf, he can endure the loudest sounds;
some people have only their shadows grow
others become smaller than they really are
our old manifesto had it wrong: we only looked upward
if we’d really wanted to write poems
we should have crawled on the ground on all fours-
when William Irish, who wrote Phantom Lady, died
the only mourners were stock brokers
Mozart’s wife was not at his funeral

My feet grow warmer as I read
Kotoku Shusui’s Imperialism, Monster of the Twentieth Century, written back in 1901
when he was young N wrote “I say strange things”
was it the monster that pumped tears from his older eyes?

Poems are commodities without exchange value
but we’re forced to invade new territory
by crises of poetic overproduction

We must enslave the natives with our poems
all the ignorant savages under sixty
plagued by a surplus of clothes and food-
when you’re past sixty
you’re neither a commodity
nor human

But it is so much more than just Tamura lamenting the sentimentality of old age. It is also the nostalgia – looking back at people, events – what has deeply affected and wounded us, things we carry for years, imprinted on us even when the person or event is long ago and the deep impression we have belies the brevity of these memorable encounters.

“With the incomparable feeling of rising and of being like a banner
Twenty seconds worth twenty-five years” (from “To Marina” by Kenneth Koch)

That sudden sense that one second you were an awkward and completely artistically inept kid fumbling imprecisely with the Japanese art form katazome. And the next you are shaking your head, remembering the details of that time so clearly, wondering, “Could that really have been twenty-five years ago?” (The twenty-five year mark comes up a few times in Kenneth Koch’s masterpiece, “To Marina” – possibly my favorite poem of all time.)

“We walk through the park in the sun. It is the end.
You phone me. I send you a telegram. It
Is the end. I keep
Thinking about you, grieving about you. It is the end. I write
Poems about you, to you. They
Are no longer simple. No longer
Are you there to see every day or
Every other or every third or fourth warm day
And now it has been twenty-five years
But those feelings kept orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in my and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.”

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