Ukiyo-E: Pictures of the Floating World - Poetry by Leslie Nutting (Xorys)

Thirteen poems from Japanese wood-cut prints

Moronobu Woman Standing Beside a Cherry Tree The woman is secondary to the tree. The existence is secondary to the line, the small marks on the paper that separate being from non-being. This is a statement about grace, an abstraction of the season, which is formed out of the idea of small blossoms on the barely indicated twigs. The pain of the flowers is not wanted by the ink, the honeyed exile of the pollinated nest. The woman is bent and stays so as only a thought about an object can. Her back is broken. Everything is yellow. This is the coloured fingers' search for beauty in the darkness of the Spring.
Absences You surround me with absence so that I dream of you and dream of a larger absence, a vast impresence that populates the singing air I drown in. You have no wisdom any more, you have nothing to say. You have become a physical object of overwhelming size. The parts of your body possess me. The night is your black hair that is untied and strangles me in its caresses like a fountain of seaweed. The mountains are your knees that loom in the sky and close me in the vise of their cunning. I climb you. The fog is your perfume, that I cannot touch and fall in like an idiot. I would enclose you in a bed, a box, a trivia of kisses but you have grown too large, your bones litter the continent. And I grope for the inheritance of your belly in this theatre where the sun hangs on the lip of your navel.
Harunobo The Oiran Hinatsuru This is a picture of your death. In the picture you are not dead. You are standing in the snow. The two young girls who are with you have made an ice-sculpture of a dog, and one of them is painting its eye. You are standing on the right, beside my signature, in front of a clump of bushes. It is very cold. There is no blood in the picture to disturbs its surfaces. If the white line of your neck were broken by the blood it would be dark on the skin as the ink that makes these images, darker, vermilion-black. And if I send for you now in my dreams, you are nothing but worms upon a skull. I have no illusions, see, about your honour, your departure.
Harunobo's Innovations Technique. He was a master of technique. He invented new ways of lying, not content with the old. He saw you could subtract an image down into its parts, stain each a different colour and weave them back in a brocade of ink into an illusion of completion. But the key was subtraction, the workshop littered with the single tints abstracted out of things, pink birds, white faces. He incorporated lines of poetry into his works, placing the figures to accommodate the written text. Language is most unreal, and he paints it black, curves it into the block. Shaping his air with words that his throat never reaches, that his fingers cannot touch.
Koryusai Dream Pictures In the dream pictures the woman occupies the bottom of the frame, her dream is suspended above her. For this reason her dream must be tangible. She cannot dream of love but of a lover, a willow tree, a bridge. She cannot dream of freedom but of wealth, the rich dress of a princess, the wings of birds. The edges of the dream are sharp as knives, where it hangs in its cloud. The artist is even-handed, divided about that line's imagination, whether the woman creates or is created, whether the colours in the window are the shadow that she throws or the death that she is drawn to.
Shunsho The Actor Danjuro V The actor at two removes: he is pictured in his role, and each, the picture and the role, is a frame that he is turned in, a joke he makes. The picture is geometric, his gait interpreted as a sequence of squares. The anger he portrays is a structure of colours, an emblem. In one gesture he dies on the page, leaving his face as signature, the twist of his jaw. He fades into an alternate reality, the things he caused, all the small glances in the theatre of the war.
Shunga The lovers balance on the bed, they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. This is the farce. The position changes but he is always inserted into her, the urge stopped in the idea of penetration. This is not a metaphor, there are no seas here, no nets of fire, no swimming shoals of kisses. This is a universe of things, where each hair stands on end. Lust is a concept that prowls in the furniture, each pulse a thrust, suspended from a mirror. These actors do not dream. The line creates them, and in the line they roar.
Utamaro Powdering the Neck I sing of the snowy landscape of your neck (the nape of the neck is a turning point, it is a fulcrum and invisible to the possessor -- hence is considered beautiful). My words fall in a dark rain by your head, they scar the walls. I place a mirror in the portrait so as to show your face as well, but she becomes someone different, regarding you from her oval frame. The picture is a triangle -- your back, my words, the white face in reflection that stares up from its tilting pool of time.
Sharaku Bando Mitsugoro II as Ishii Genzo Though he is ugly the picture is still beautiful -- this is the lie of art (or is it the truth of art, that the grotesque is transmuted by the brush, the mind that eats its strangeness?) He draws the sword and grimaces, and the sword drips from his fingers like a beam of light, and his hair shines like a rainbow, like a pool of oil. Everything is more discreet than reality, articulate in its surfaces. The welter of longing reduced to a pattern. -- Is this what is left, or only a substitute, a prison of order for the hunchback with the blade who comes for us grunting his own history?
Toyoharu Uki-E (perspective prints) This is a foreign way of seeing things. The symbols no longer exist in the plane of the picture but recede. What is implied is that at the horizon everything vanishes. The image is no longer a statement but a space, into which the artist disappears. Depicted are alien cities, invisible realities, to which the Dutch who broached the coast return. They sowed their geometry and crawl back to sea, shrinking down the bars of this irrefutable cone.
Toyohiro His work is burdened with numbers: the four accomplishments, the four amusements, the three cities, the six great poets, the twelve hours -- as though by cataloguing things he could defuse them, fix them to their relative desires. While he worked the government was panicking, sensing the shifting tides of lethal trade. He placated it with images, quelled it with painted rooms. His courtesans are delicate, ideal. Frozen in circles of learning, they contrive to please. But time is not removed. His grace is twisted by knowledge and all his surfaces incline to the null intruding sky.
Hokusai The Ono Waterfall on the Kiso Road This is perhaps the highest point of art, this work of a 70 year old apprentice in a dying monocracy. Nothing is real anymore. The figures have become subservient to the landscape, and the landscape itself is imaginary, therefore there is neither death nor life, but both are possible, and would occur in a small corner of the frame. The travellers cross the bridge, and stop to admire the waterfall, and the bridge crosses from foreground to nowhere, an optical illusion. The whole world is impossible. Nothing inhabits it but the eye, and the eye dwells on its splendour, learning to live with lies.
Hiroshige Wild Duck Things change. Illusion replaces illusion. This is the floating world. Photography is imported to record the mistakes of nature, forcing the eye to new confessions. The Shogunate falls. The River Inspector dies of cholera. Accident, in history, is supreme. In his work colour replaces line as the primary element. He seeks for some truth in tone, that narrative has foundered on, and in his words on the water for the drift of the current not its dream: 'The wind blows on the lake And cold grips us and perfection When the last bird speaks.'

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