Materials Beyond the Eye: On Jon Thompson's The Book of the Floating World
(Parlor Press, 2004)
[…] the story of ascending smoke which is his story
a story in which he does not exist
a story in which the photographer of the photographer does not exist
a story in which the I that writes these lines
does not exist
a story in which the photo fades with the smoking tree
a story in which the story gets in the way
of the story that cannot be told
- Jon Thompson, “Thresholds”
The Source of the Secret of Immortality
“Thrusting up out of a blanket of clouds / Black and warrior-like,” deathless Mount Fuji presides as a symbol over Jon Thompson's collection of poems, The Book of the Floating World. Though the mountain itself does not appear until late into the collection, we can look upon it as a sign of what this “floating world” might be - a symbol representing the attempt to bridge the space between the temporal (grounded) and eternal (elevated) worlds, an attempt that has been articulated by poets from Tu Fu (“a solitary gull between Heaven and Earth”) to A.R. Ammons (“A mountain risen in me”) to Dan Beachy-Quick (“When the falcon rose the falcon / Rose to focus…”). For Thompson, it is another symbol of the passage of the “Mythical and real / Forever there and not” – the (im)measuring out of a world that has found itself perpetually on the threshold of its own (in)existence.
This is one of the cruxes of the collection – an examination of the situation of tenuousness and entrapment in postwar, occupied Japan, and the situation of how history can arrive in the present as tenuous and entrapped. The acknowledged “point of departure” for these poems are photographs taken by Thompson's father, William J. Thompson, nearly 60 years ago, between 1945-46, in Japan, the majority of which we never see. Not that we necessarily need to see the source photos, for the real “point of departure” is the mind itself, cast in the role of the eye – the photographic eye, the vicarious eye, the depleting eye, and the eye of the “white-hot light” that begins the collection, in the poem “Black Market,” “boiling overhead” – the eye of an occupying Other, a force wherein “hatred and desire / are as durable as stone.”
It is through these various eyes that the collection strives towards one of its aims, to “brilliantly take the world apart.” This aim of fragmentation towards the undoing of disaster and historical trauma, however, has its limits. For the eye – photographic and otherwise – deals in limitable fragments, depersonalizing, as Susan Sontag states, our relation to the world. It is then the indispensable need of the poet and the poem to summon forth the proper materials towards the building up – the building back – of the past. As Mount Fuji exemplifies, to many, national pride formed from within the soul of the individual, the poet's materials, as Thompson shows in The Book of the Floating World, are there to rise within.
To Enter / Through / The Torii / The Floating World
Amid the rush of contemporary life, signaling a way beyond and through it, stands the Torii, the gate to the Shinto shrine: “memento to the living and the dead / it rears up…,” marking the passage between the profane and sacred, the physical and spiritual worlds. The Torii itself is a threshold, a station of liminality:
in passing through it there is purification before death
and a way beyond it (“At the Gate”)
This idea of liminality pervades the collection. The measurement of lines, the phrasal indefinitions (“so little so much;” “neither regard nor disregard;” “the world suddenly without sound / or suddenly full of it;” etc.,) create a mounting sensation of “in-betweenness,” a Buddhist conflation of opposing forces, yet indicating “those things beyond the eye / that define the complexion of each day…” Here, Thompson might be suggesting that it is the eye that devises “either/or's,” that questions indefinite, “floating” spaces, by way of a visual acuity.
This marking of a transitory state is similar to that function in photography, in which the physical and the material are eliminated and replaced with the memorial, the image . This idea becomes an important one throughout the collection: that the engagement with zones of “in-betweenness” is fundamental to our existence – converting the real (people, places, and things) into materials for the purposes of attempting to understand our own constructed, yet dissolving lives, and a “way beyond” the fixity of that preoccupation. Photography enacts its own station of liminality, fixing its subject with an irremediable death-mask. But photography also suspends the photographer, as these poems do the poet, acting as evidence not only of a fractured, floating world, but as evidence of one's own personal history – in this case, that of the Thompson's.
There are many evocations of this fractured, “floating world,” all of which are addressed in / arise from Thompson's poems. There is the time of Genroku Japan, the historical ukiyo, both “floating world” and “world of sadness” – a time of amplified cultural and creative expression that burgeoned alongside the increasing prosperity of the merchant class during the Edo period, during Japan's strict isolationism under the Tokugawan shogunate (1603-1868). It is atop this register of transience and isolation that the second historical evocation rests: the time of postwar, occupied Japan – in the aftermath of the war, in the aftermath of the devastations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the emperor publicly disclaiming his divinity, and the occupation by the United States. “Black Market,” of Tokyo, 1946, is illustrative of this “floating world:”
only thousands of men […]
for something that can’t be found
the disaster evident in the piles of valuables spread on blankets
the man-clusters drift slowly
into new clusters
everyone is looking down
the catastrophe has already
happened this is the post-apocalypse all the odd jumble
of the past the detritus of former lives is struggling
to be reborn […]
A new sense of a “floating world” is created within the overlay of the two conflicting eras of pleasure and “post-apocalypse” – a world temporarily divorced from its past, struggling not only to find its identity, but to construct one from the available “man-clusters” and “detritus.” It seems a time in which there is a “looking / for something that can't be found,” as if identity itself is impossible in such liminal moments – or that identity, so informed by the “floating” state, is suspended in the midst of “looking / for” – a cellular reconstruction. As the first lines of “Absolution” ask, “What can we take from the past / a past that was never anything more than a succession / of marked and unmarked moments…”
This is a sense of “floating” that is also in the use of photography as documentation, and in the use of poems as response to that documentation – that formulating an identity of either the subject or the speaker within that overlay of gazes is either impossible, or else besides the point. Photography is a visual branch of cultural imperialism, an imposition of a form upon a subject:
and people live between what they were
and what they imagine themselves to be
or between what they are
and what they are imagined to be (“Double Exposure”)
It is the transference of values between what people “are imagined to be” and what people “imagine themselves to be” that is uneasy at least and historically destructive at most. That images of the self can inform the identity of the self more than the self can…
How to draw yourself how to shade
the unseen so that something of you will be seen …
the faintly drawn lines in the eyes
which look away
avoiding your gaze & mine
how to read the darkness
These lines, from “Self-Portrait,” are after a self-portrait by William Thompson, a poem in which the voices of both William and Jon Thompson seem to overlay one another. “I never saw you that young / the blueness of your eyes made / theological” is the voice of the Younger speaking to the Elder, as well as the voices of both the Younger and the Elder speaking to themselves. The self is selves, the product not only of other people, but of the ways in which those people see. Moments like these, of a son considering his father's (unrequited, because static) gaze, stand subtly and beautifully in the midst of their respective gazes aimed otherwise outward. That the subjects of postwar Japan are also incapable of returning the consideration, the relationship between the two Thompsons is all the more impacting, and indispensable in lieu of the relational disability between the poet and the world.
The Body, the Resistance
The fulcrum of the book is “Body/Art,” a long poem looking into the practice of irezumi, full-body tattooing. Tattooing, though existing in some form since the Jomon period (10,000 BC – 300 BC), did not come to prominence as a pictorial art in Japan until the Edo period. Irezumi, which had its roots in the campaign coats worn by samurai warriors, become more ornate and colorful; full-body tattoos provided a mirage of defense, while appearing to clothe the individual's nakedness. Irezumi incorporated designs and motifs generated by ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints of the time: images of heroic and historical characters and religious icons, some of which were expressions of nationalism, such as the icon of Mount Fuji.
With this extremity of pictorialism, the body became a site on which to inscribe images, and therefore memories, an attempt at making the world permanent – or of creating a simulacrum of the world – by way of the body.
In the poem, a “tall thin man has disrobed / shedding all pretense of nakedness…”
Still holding the memory
of his body…
he is the book of his body
sacred & profane
textual & physical
a book of heaven
& a book of hell
Not only is the man's body a complex of images, but the man himself is “the book of his body,” the (re)telling of his own physicality, of his own existence. The body – “every / character of every line” – becomes a site of potentiality, where the tattoos form not only a defense against loss, but also an allowance for extrapolation, a continued existence:
After the incisions
his skin will become
and Edo intaglio of living
scarlets & greens –
a thing to be seen uncovered a beautiful
in the midst of fear.
Soon cherry blossoms will bloom
against the mountains and skies
of his body.
A beautiful image, this is a beautiful idea . The redemptive potential of the body, etched with such images, to flower forth beyond the expiring. That we are “in the midst of fear” makes the etching all the more important, and calls to mind the opposite “etching” of event by the atomic bomb – the effects on the body of the thermal, blast, and radiation stages – in which bodies were literally penetrated and dissolved by the photographic “light fall flash” event of the bomb and its explosion. Bodies, in that moment, were inscribed by history, and succumbed to memorialization – physicality converted into idea, image. This brings us back to the first poem in the book, “Black Market,” in which a “white-hot light is boiling overhead:
everyone is becoming less and less
they are fading
not even becoming a negative of themselves
The lack of punctuation enables us to read this as either “not even becoming” AND “a negative of themselves,” or “not even becoming a negative of themselves,” both of which are fertile concepts of impossibility and negation, the burning of silhouettes onto walls and the inability of the individual to possess that image as their own. Again, in Sontag's words, images are
richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality – for turning it into a shadow.
The idea then of “Body/Art” seems to be dealing in the same recourses as Charles Olson's pronouncements in his manifesto, “The Resistance,” that an individual
has, to begin again, one answer, one point of resistance only to such fragmentation, one organized ground… It is his body that is his answer, his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature, repeated in each act of birth, the animal: man; the house he is, this house that moves, breathes, acts, this house where his life is, where he dwells against the enemy, against the beast.
However, where the body can no longer uphold itself as “intact and fought for,” the “intaglio of living” takes up the fight. The last stanza of “Body/Art” is this:
The imagination thus enacts this refusal to be dissolved and faded from history and view, despite the fires which ever-threaten our margins, despite the encroachment of memory loss at the granular level. In “At the Gate,” passing through the Torii, we are given the faith that “the dead are material only lost to us / if we relinquish them.” This idea of “material” seems crucial to Thompson, in its encompassments beyond the dead – once we determine what our materials are – as absolutely primary to our existence, “on behalf of a redeemable world… & the worlds to come.”
Nakama he is material, maker,
There must be something striven for in poems like these, in the engagement between the poet-self and the past – something in attempting to illuminate the time and situation of the photographic images. Yet everywhere there seem to be indications that the thing striven for is unattainable, that the images themselves are neither permanent nor elucidating, but tenuous and injured, that the “solid world is dissolving.” This, of course, is no consolation – and no consolation should be expected. Does there need to be something attained in this poetry, or in poetry in general? Beyond the re-enactment and post-enactment of a dissolving world by way of the imagination and the eye?
The idea of “material only lost to us / if we relinquish them” can be found in another pivotal poem: “From the Ship, a Coastline,” which begins with a line from Wallace Stevens, “That would be waving and that would be crying / Crying and shouting and meaning farewell” (a poem that, itself, professes to “a world without heaven to follow”). What Thompson takes on is the diminishment: “but there could be neither waving nor shouting / even if everything was a way of saying farewell / without saying it farewell farewell farewell…” The poem itself seems to assert what it appears to be declaiming: the impossibility of parting, of leaving – of leaving “the first duty / the old duty” behind, of leaving the “you” behind (“will you do this?”), of coming to terms with the contradictorily delible and indelible nature of the past – all of these things becoming subsumed in the challenge of language,
[…] in the words the inchoate half-legible words
the rasped-out words
a different alphabet for a different world
the words the pencil traced the torn words
words that could not be seen
the torn words fluttering down
words of petition
words I have only words
will you do this?
It is at this point, when the speaker asserts that the “I” has only words, that the culminating address arrives: “will you do this?” That single line is nearly raked over by the litany of words (“death-words balm-words / the words in the eyes pleading / words…”) and yet is a serious call through that litany, in fact the function of it. What is “this” that the speaker is asking to be “done”? Who is the “you”? In the call to “carry on the first duty / the old duty,” the father-son dynamic seems to collapse into a single, weight-bearing individual, one with “words in the eyes pleading” and effusing a “way of crying and shouting / and meaning farewell.”
This sense of “pleading” and effusing seems to suggest the knowing of what can result in a lapse of voices, in and because of, silence: “death / in the emptiness between words (“Imperial Palace”). Words are the materials to stave off death and loss, yet words are made powerful by their adherence through death. The materials we are allotted in order to build semblances, and then lives, saddle us with responsibility, for they also contain within them the power of destruction and dissolution. The body, and words. Yes, I say to Olson, the body is “one point of resistance… against the enemy,” but the body also has the capability of being the enemy, and is constructed of those same impulses (“that place to the ruins that have made us”).
The poems in The Book of the Floating World are poems of increasing complexity. That is to say, for me, reading the book twice, three times, ten times, has layered its subject(s) further and further behind the sighting of the opaque lens, while simultaneously bringing more layers to the surface. Reading is interpreting; poems, like photographs, are material for interpretation. Reading and writing – also as with taking pictures – are interpretive acts of naming. And naming is breaking down:
what it did what was done to it in the name of
names walls of flames sent up their singing
in the name of names cities became
[…] it is not clear what gets
copied when an image is taken of an image (“The Names”)
There is quite a complex of objects, subjects, and concepts breaking down under the indefinition of witness in these poems. Where do we place our faith? In the substance of the poems? In the substance of the image? In the substance of the self?
there is so much darkness
and so much faith the flecks of light fall flash
& fade in witness to them both…
no one knows what is being witnessed
no one knows
the places faith will take them to (“Honganji Temple”)
Our understanding and our knowledge of the world is gravely suspect, as it does come down through so many mediations, forced through so many frames towards an uncertain articulation. I think of Jon and William Thompson as mediations of each other, vicariously first-, second-, and third-hand, and I'm reminded of James Tate's “The Lost Pilot:
[…] I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
That last line, that “misfortune / placed these worlds in us” finds a relation with the epigraph to The Book of the Floating World, quietly articulated by Dogen (1200-1253): “Time goes from present to past.” The past is a manufacture of ourselves, as well as a substance “placed in us,” memories of events and their witnesses becoming the events and witnesses themselves, physical death superceded by myth. (Jon) Thompson is attempting to catch the world in the present, before it dissolves, irrevocably, into myth. What makes this attempt simultaneously tenuous and solid is the fact that he is using multiple instruments of the body, the eye, to the point where those instruments dissolve, failing to articulate with any exactitude the tumultuous and inexact past. The real – our real – materials take up what the body fails. Is it not enough to place our faith in the substance of the imagination itself?
Give witness to those things beyond the eye / that define the complexion of each day / the vast tissue of connections / that decides each act.