ex chaos is a book
to savour: both the poetry and the paintings which accompany and enhance the
text are skilful and seductive. The cumulative effect of the words and
related images transported me swiftly into a sensual world of sights and
sounds that are specific to the Japanese way of imagining and transcribing
their view of the world. The
joint authors James and Lynne Wilkes ease the uninitiated reader in gently
with a helpful preface which tells the Japanese story of creation and gives
us clues to the rationale behind the illustrations; most of the eight poems
having explanatory notes at the end of the book. The pale grey cover, lower
case title and calligraphy beneath the authors’ names and title indicate the
care and attention taken with presentation which is very much in keeping with
the whole concept. Though it’s a shame that the pages are not numbered and
the order of the paintings does not quite tally with the poems they refer to.
However in so short a book, it’s not of vital importance.
The Japanese use metaphor extensively in their paintings of landscape and in
their ceremonies and religious practice. James’s poems and Lynne’s paintings have tapped into a
rich vein, making use of a variety of sources, from translated texts of myth
and poetry, both ancient and modern.
Whereas the poems frequently play with these sources, the paintings
seem to be more firmly rooted in the creation myths and Lynne makes use of
the gestural shapes of kanji characters, employing the colour schemes of the
Buddhist temples of Kyoto and the Shinto shrines of Muyajima and Tokyo. God-like figures seem to rise and
float behind the scenes and the paintings have a meditative function rather
than an explanatory one which is effective and beguiling.
The opening poem ‘Ex chaos’ describes the beginning of creation and the first
word in the opening line: ‘SHHIIIIIIIIIINNN’ is elucidated by the poet in the
following lines: ‘indicates silence, speech’s term for its own absence/the
unspeakable bustle/rising through the limen of language.’ This is the first
instance of a sound-symbolic word; a feature of Japanese poetry which James
Wilkes has taken up in other poems to great effect.
The poem continues: ‘the world is like floating oil, or a jellyfish, / or
black as lily seeds, or lamp black / … No waves form light sound or pond
ripples / No light force push particles to leap - // so how do I know? By
trusting the former sages.’ This
italicised last line reveals the poet’s debt to Basil Hall Chamberlain, the
Victorian translator of the Kojiki, The Records of Ancient Matters, which dates back to 712 CE.
The Japanese creation myth tells us that amongst seven generations of their
gods, brother and sister Izanaki and Izanami leaned down from the Floating
Bridge of heaven and stirred the Lava of Chaos with the Jewel spear of
Heaven. The brine curdled and a drop of it fell from the spear, creating the
first island of Japan.
A drift of
ire of whalesong and rain
the god and
goddess reached down
spear to stir the sea –
to beat water to their curdling thickening, KOWORO unpacking of tightly
ravelled matter, KOWORO the piling of brine meringue in beauty the first
drop from the
‘From the Floating Bridge’]
The sound-symbolic words potsu’, potsun potsun, ZAA ZAA, indicate the light
sound of a single drip, the patter of droplets of rain and heavy rainfall
respectively and has obvious similarities to our own onomatopoeic system.
There’s a wide divergence between the poems in this volume, as James Wilkes
uses not only sections of Chamberlain’s translation of the Kojiki verbatim,
but combines collage, quotation, misquotation (quite an admission!) ancient
and modern Japanese poetry and modern day references to his stay in
Japan. Indeed there is a
humorous and ongoing dialogue to be found in several of the poems between
himself and the strait-laced Chamberlain, who it seems reverted to Latin when
the going got too racy.
‘The First Births’ is of interest in the formal sense, in that it veers
between the mythical and the modern. It refers to the incestuous brother and
sister Izanaki and Izanami who once the land had curdled inhabited the first
island and proceeded to populate it; not without problems it appears. The myth
goes that they erected a pillar dividing Heaven and Earth. Lynne Wilkes’
painting represents the Dividing pillar as a strangely undefined deep orange
head, emerging from a chalky white ground and it signals a sense of the
chaotic gradually succumbing to order. In common with the other paintings
there is a sense of stillness and a numinous quality about it.
‘ So brother and sister – Oh naïve filthiness – alone, adrift, with only an\ erect pillar for
company – these two Gods then MURA MURA augustarum (i.e. privatarum) partiam
augustam coitionem faciunt.(Mura Mura means overcome by desire or anger).
There’s an erotic flavour to this poem, almost certainly distasteful to
Chamberlain; hence the Latin.
It’s a sensitive and poignant description of birth throes and
miscarriage, which is symbolised by a collapsed pot.
was born and I saw in my wet slip something unformed, the pot
the wheel and the rent/clay of my liver-red I could not cradle it - /.
Leech is invoked, whether the potter or the bloodsucking variety is not clear
‘called Leech, in a reed basket,/boneless abortion,/river bed they gave it./It floated hungry
away.’ The poem is ultimately successful in its combination of quotation,
symbolism and modern allusion and for its positioning on the page. The poem ends: ‘I desired him and
took him - / Again swelling again. / Filled and squeezed, / gives birth to
Aha-jima, sea spray, foam flecks, nothing…’
At times, although the language is of the highest quality I was reminded very
strongly of translations of oriental poetry I have read, and whilst there is
great beauty in the formality of the language and indeed originality, these
are poems that on the whole are fashioned and fabricated from their many
sources – as a potter might choose his clays from different places or the
manner in which in Japan a fisherman’s jacket was traditionally patched and
stitched until it became a work of art. As to the paintings, although it is
virtually impossible to give a painting its due when viewed in reproduction,
nonetheless, each of these images are invaluable and integral to the success
of the whole endeavour. Their mysterious bursts of light and clots or curdles
of paint form a visible thread between the poet’s developing themes.
There is so much more that could be said about this book and it’s one I know
I shall return to. Suffice it to say, that I found it an absorbing and
fascinating collection and my lasting impression is of a state of perfect
stillness and quiet, or Shiiiiiiiiiinn – a sense of the eye, the ear and the
mind being in perfect harmony. In our chaotic world, what more can you ask?