Yuki Higashino on Gozo Yoshimasu

In his recently published book on poetics, with the deceptively simple title What Is Poetry (Kodansha, 2021), Gozo Yoshimasu muses on the way he has been writing since the 1960s and the way he reads works by others. When discussing Paul Celan, he says, “This ‘inability to finish a sentence’ and the ‘shortness of breath’ generate painful ‘inadequacy,’ and that is where one begins to hear the indescribable ‘residual voice’ of those ‘voices’ that were ‘not allowed to fully speak.’” When looking at the handwritten manuscripts in Yoshimasu’s exhibition “Voix,” one became acutely aware of his struggle with inadequacies similar to those he detects in Celan and other poets he identifies with.

These “manuscripts” were ostensibly drafts of Yoshimasu’s most recent long poem, also titled Voix (Shichosha, 2021). The term manuscript is already inadequate, as these works contain not only writing but drawing, collage, and intricate calligraphy; maybe they should just be called works on paper. In any case, there were thirty-two such sheets in the show. Some hung on the walls, while others rested on freestanding Plexiglas boards on pedestals, back-to-back with other sheets and fixed with magnets. All were dated 2019, and all were the same size (about eighteen by fourteen inches). They were numbered and arranged in a sequence that corresponded to the progression of the poem in its published version. Each sheet was dominated by the poet’s handwriting. Some letters were small, dense, and meticulous, and others were large and free-flowing. Some lines were obscured by pieces of tracing paper with new texts written on them. There were countless revisions, erasures, and additions, and copious yellow highlights. Some of the writings were further obscured by abstract drawings in ink or pencil.

These sheets are ambiguous artifacts. One could not help wondering how the marks on them, at once pictorial and linguistic, relate to the carefully arranged words published in the book. They are nominally the “same” poem, but these are not mere drafts. Their relationship to the published poem is akin to that between the demo and the final studio recording of a tune by a musician, with the former replete with rawer energy.

Presented in a gallery, these works also problematize the act of reading. While the audience for this exhibition would have been fluent in Japanese, Yoshimasu’s work can be, and has been, exhibited in contexts where barely anyone knows the language. In such situations, they would convey visual information whose intended meaning is thoroughly opaque, comparable to the asemic writing found in Henri Michaux’s mescaline drawings or the neo-primitivist calligraphy of Aoyama San’u. This instability of signification also emphasizes the inherent indeterminacy of Japanese script. The border that separates writing from drawing is always shifting in Japanese texts, especially when these are handwritten. Yoshimasu’s writing accentuates this simultaneity of visual and semantic and creates a space where they are fully porous. Furthermore, Yoshimasu has performed his poems abroad, letting the audience experience his reading as a purely acoustic phenomenon, further blurring the border between meaning and sensation.

Amid constant interruptions, hesitations, and sometimes violent erasures, one could almost sense the letters panting, frustrated by their inability to come together as fully formed sentences or resolved pictures. After a while, it became clear that the “inadequacy” Yoshimasu refers to in his poetics is not only that of poetry, but of the failure of language at large to convey physical sensations, of visual art to convey verbal thoughts, and of Japanese to convey meaning outside Japan. He does not attempt to resolve these inadequacies. Instead, they are suspended in perpetual tension in artifacts that are not quite texts and not quite pictures. This refusal of resolution animates the surfaces of these works, making them kinetic while they simultaneously and somewhat uncomfortably occupy spaces in both literature and art.

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