Japanese Gurlesque: Molly Bendall on Kazuko Shiraishi

by on Nov.25, 2013

Kazuko Shiraishi Molly Bendall

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The Gurlesque has been blowing its pink and black bubbles in Japan in various ways for the last 40 or 50 years. In particular, I am thinking of the visual artist Yayoi Kusawa, who as early as the 60’s made her polka-dot habitats and gold-spray-painted furniture with flowers and phallus shapes sprouting from it. And, of course, I am thinking of Yoko Ono, who performed her Cut Piece first in 1965.

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Also active in the scene was the poet Kazuko Shiraishi who was publishing her risqué, outlandish poems in Japan in the 60’s and early 70’s. In 1973 she was invited to spend time at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She was championed by Kenneth Rexroth, who translated some of her work (along with others) into English. Her book Seasons of Sacred Lust was published at Rexroth’s urging by New Directions in 1978. The book consists partly of long erotic, jazz-inspired “descents” that at once lament estrangement, chit chat, and pay tribute to an urban night-time hedonism. Among the titles of the lengthier poems: “The Man Root,” “Seasons of the Sacred Sex Maniac,” and the homage “Dedicated to the Late John Coltrane.” Here’s a section of that one in which you can see her improvisatory abandon where spacey, surreal, and smutty morph fluidly:

Coltrane
With your extremely heavy
And short pilgrimage
Full of fleeting eternity
Spirit traveling
You were mainly blowing thoughts
Thoughts are eyes, wind
Cascades of spicy sweat
Streaming down your forehead
Thought is an otter’s scream
The sexual legs of chickens
Killed by your old lady
Boiling in a pot
Women’s pubic hair
Alice or Aisha
Thoughts are the faceless songs
Of pink stars
Squirming in the sky
Of every woman’s womb

On the cover of Seasons of Sacred Lust, Kazuko Shiraishi appears in a patchwork of photos. Posing with satin blouses, fans, flowers, cat-eye makeup, and in one holding a microphone, she’s a provocateur. She often performed her poems with jazz accompaniment and would recite, as she said, in her “Samurai movie voice.” She said that Allen Ginsberg, John Coltrane, and Henry Miller were all inspirations.
But there’s certainly something else, something girly and grotesque and blushingly brutal in her work. Reading her is kind of like getting your cards read at a motorcycle/go-go club by Hello Kitty and Chococat. This is not meant to diminish her work; it’s worth considering her stance, which is willingly naïve at times and lets in a wider range of sensitivity. Here’s a little of “The Man Root”:

Sumiko, I’m sorry
But the penis shooting up day by day
Flourishes in the heart of the cosmos
As rigid as a wrecked bus

Other short lyrics in the book appear with animal titles. She creates these mini-
beast masques, a sort of sexualized anime.

Rhino

That man is a rhinoceros-oyster
He is so big and strong,
But with a heart like a delicate petal.
Don’t be cold to him
Don’t fall in love with him for fun!
If you love him seriously
You will know that
Nothing could be more fearful
Than his love, a love of an oyster-rhino.
If he ever discovers
You are unfaithful, Carmen,
He will take you down the road to death
On his horn,
Instead of kissing you with his gentle eyes.
Don Jose is a rhino-oyster.

Like Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama, Kazuko Shiraishi is still producing in her eighties. Her most recent book My Floating Mother, City came out from New Directions in 2009. The Gurlesque lives on:

I can no longer become six nipples, nor a male with a tail
time is moonlight in front of the graveyard
the Doberman’s syle Debussy music becomes a raging storm
whooaah whooaah
coming into now the joy without even the smell of death
on top of hot raspberry soup becomes a vanilla ice-cream girl
(“April is the Melancholy of a Doberman’s Nipples”)

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Tasha

    Thanks! Was not familiar with such. Love the polka dot environment.