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​We Live in Hiromi Itō’s Wasteland

Hiromi Itō's first book to be translated into English, ​<i>Killing Kanoko</i>, takes its title from a poem in which the author, having recently given birth to a daughter, imagines killing the child numerous times.

Photo courtesy Hiromi Itō

Hiromi Itō's first book to be translated into English, ​Killing Kanoko, takes its title from a poem in which the author, having recently given birth to a daughter, imagines killing the child numerous times. The poem is violent and striking for its unusual take on a new mother's relationship with her child. "Congratulations on your destruction," the poem repeats regularly, amid descriptions of contemplating abortion, aching nipples, and hordes of ants. It's a chilling work, one with a complex array of emotions and taboo ideas, altogether delivered in Hiromi Itō's trademark stream-of-consciousness gone hell-bent.

Hiromi Itō is one of the most famous and best-selling poets of modern Japan. Her synthesis of common voices, natural imagery, and uncanny thinking plainly set and reset the bar for a new wave of women's writing in a country where—perhaps even more than others—women have been traditionally held up to a quiet daily decorum.  Hiromi Itō shatters that in nearly every line. Reading her work, one gets the sense that anything can happen: shifts in diction, time, location; absorption of science writing into slang; emotional honesty to the point of sublime terror; dreamscapes mashed into the everyday.

Her second translated work,  Wild Grass on the Riverbank, translated by Jeffrey Angles, was recently published by ​Action Books. The 96-page tract demonstrates the author's shift from verse to a more continuous, genre-bent experience, knitting a full narrative across its many still-fragmented parts. The work follows the travel of a family of many children, their mother, and a father who is both alive and dead, through fields of insane fauna, dystopian wasteland landscape, eerie haunted temporary homes, refrains of song fragments, skin plagues, and breakouts. 

Reminiscent of the plunging-network narratives of Alice Notley's Descent of Alette and Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the book goes into both the multivalent psyches of the human landscape and the ground we walk on, forging between them a trek that is by turns spiritual, spasmodic, romantic, furious, contemplative, and insane.

Here's an excerpt:

Michiyuki

By late summer, everyone on the riverbank was dead

Not just the creatures, but the summer grass, the rusted bicycles, the summer grass

Cars without doors or windows, the warped porn magazines, the summer grass

Empty cans with food stuck inside and empty bottles full of muddy water

Girl's panties and condoms, father's corpse, and so much summer grass

The riverbank only meant to control you

The summer grass touched our bodies

The seeds fell down onto our bodies

On the bank, I noticed a kind of grass that multiplied conspicuously

It was about one meter high and looks like some kind of rice

It had spikes full of seed

It was everywhere

It glimmered white in the dim evening light

Sticky liquid oozed from the spikes full of seed

The dogs got sticky

The dogs smelled terrible

The dogs agonized and rubbed their bodies onto the ground

The man from the riverbank appeared in the evening

Every evening he appeared and sat under an arbor

Completely alone

Older, grimy, shabby, pale as a corpse

When his penis rose up

A smell rose up like the one from the rice-like grass on the bank

The penis in his hand glistened and glistened

The flowers of the kudzu also rose up, I noticed the kudzu flowers rising up here and there, one day, we became tangled in the tendrils of the kudzu plants, I heard something slithering along abruptly, no sooner had I heard this than a tendril trapped my heel, it hit me, and knocked me on my back into a bush, there Sorghum halepense rattled in the wind, the unfamiliar grass from before started shaking, releasing its scent, then the tendril stretched all the further, crawling onto my body, getting into my panties, and creeping into my vagina, I inhaled and exhaled, I exhaled and the tendril slid in, I inhaled and the tendril slid out, I exhaled again and it slid further in, my body was turned this way and that like the leaves of the kudzu, my body opened and closed over and over, and Alexa watched all of this, Alexa was watching, watching and laughing, I became angry, so angry, I got up and shoved Alexa away, she fell down on her back, the tendrils clung to Alexa too, Alexa also turned this way and that, the tendril also went inside her vagina, deep inside, and she started to cry

Everyone was dead

Father

Little brother

Mother and me

Ahh... think I'll, I'll think to myself

Pack it in

And buy a pick-up

Take it down to L.A.

Find a place

To call my own

Maybe that place would be a hot spring

One that heals eczema, dermatitis, neuralgia

Menopausal disorders, diabetes, infectious diseases

A hot spring among hot springs, one that would fix you up right away

A place where you could soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up

A place where you will want to live again and start a brand new day

Little brother cried, hey, I'm itchy, so itchy, I told him not to scratch, but he did it anyway, the place he scratched soon turned into a blister, little brother cried, I didn't scratch it that much, only a little, but even so, the place he scratched turned into a blister, there were blisters all over his body, after they ruptured, they got inflamed and full of pus

Little brother no longer seemed like himself, he was horribly swollen, he rolled all over the house, mouth open, wheezing, crying

And crying

Mother said, I want to take him to a hot spring, I've heard of a hot spring that's good for your skin, why don't we take your dead father and dead dog along too to soak in the water, so we decided to go, we just left everything as it was, we left the leftover food, dirty clothes, and wet towels just as they were, then we carefully laid my wheezing brother on the rear seat, and we stuffed some other things in the car, my little sister, spare clothes, the corpses, the dogs, plastic bags, pillows, food and drink (even some flowerpots), so much stuff, then we took off, I stared at the road from the passenger seat and asked, how do we get there? from the driver's seat, mother answered, it's over that mountain

Mother said, that hot spring

Will fix you up right away,

Soak yourself, open your pores, scrub your body, swell up,

It'll heal your eczema, your blisters,

Your skin infections, your ringworm,

Your dermatitis, your infectious diseases,

Your atopy, your allergies,

Your corpses, your impending death, your having died, and even death in general

A hot spring that will fix you up you right up right away,

A place where you will want to live again and start a brand new day,

Anyway, mother said,

Let's go over that mountain

The back seat was full, no space left for your feet

The car was old and rickety, and there hadn't been much foot room from the start

But still we stuffed it full

With things, with garbage, with food

With people, with dogs, and with corpses

Until there was no space left

It stunk of dogs

It stunk of death

Little brother was wheezing in the back seat

Little sister sometimes cried out as if she'd just remembered something

She said, I left something back at home,

She said, please go back, I forgot something

But we can't go back

Someone asked, if we just keep going

Through the fork in the road,

Won't that be Toroku?,

Won't that be Kurokami?,

Won't that be Kokai?,

The Jōgyōji crossing,

Through Uchi-tsuboi,

Up Setozaka slope,

Shouldn't we go

All the way over there?

She knew the way to the big camphor tree where that samurai-monk was buried

At the samurai-monk's big tree, we turned right at a three-way intersection

We could see the huge treetop of the samurai-monk's big camphor tree

From where we were, it looked so huge

That I bet it'd block out the whole universe if you were standing underneath

There was a path for tractors and pick-ups right there

We turned right at the three-way intersection

There was a small stone bridge, we crossed it

Then came out at another three-way intersection

We went straight

We went straight

We went up the road

We went through tangerine orchards on both sides, and when we came out

We were on mountainous roads

Where it was dark even in the middle of the day

The road meandered through a forest with shining leaves

The road meandered

The road drew close to a cliff

Then moved away

Ahh... I think to myself

Think I'll pack it in, and buy a pick-up, take it down to L.A.

Mother started to sing in a key way too high for her,

Ahh... Think I'll...

A tangle of karasuuri flowers and fruits

Ahh, Think I'll...

A thick bunch of worm-eaten leaves

A scarlet flower was blooming, probably a garden species that escaped somebody's yard

In the shade of the other plants, a large white flower was blooming

A flower pale and white

It couldn't have been a garden species, it was pale because it was in the shade

Another car came

We passed each other

We guessed the car was going home from the hot spring

All fixed up, the driver had fixed his skin trouble and was going home

I tried to get a good look

But the car sped by us in a flash

Much further and we'd be at the seashore

The seashore facing west

Mother said, doesn't look like there is a hot spring, beyond this is the Pure Land

The dog noticed the smell of the sea

It stuck its nose out the window, howling for the sea

Mother said, we should've crossed a large bridge,

I forgot the name, but it's a large bridge,

There were big floods here in the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries,

Lots of earth, sand, and drowned bodies got caught on the bridge,

But the floods downstream were even worse,

We screwed up when we missed the bridge,

The only water we've seen has been those small streams,

Mother said, we've definitely gone the wrong way,

Mother said, we'll never get there if we keep going this way

The dog that was howling for the sea rose up in the back seat

And walked across little brother

Alexa shouted in anger

Mother said, we'd better start all over,

I give up

Little brother cried out in a high voice,

You can't give up,

Is that all you know how to do?

Alexa shouted, shut up

Little sister wept, I told you, I told you

The dog barked

Lots of dogs barked

Alexa shouted, I can't take it anymore, I can't, I can't

She said, no one ever listens to me

She sunk her face into her thighs, curled up, and started to sob

Her voice grew louder, more childish than little brother's

More infantile than little sister's

She cried on and on, on and on

Only sobbing

On and on

On and on

Mother said, we should've turned around,

But if we did, we'd just get more lost,

Let's keep going down the hill to the sea, then go home round the cape

So that's how we got back home

Nothing fixed

Nothing found

Nothing

We failed

It was no good

It was all over

Follow Blake Butler on ​Twitter

Buy Killing Kanoko ​here.