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Jouissance: The Poetic Achievement of Fay Aoyagi

Jack Galmitz

That we live in a post-industrial, post-modernist age is long settled. That ours is an age of the advancement and transformation of information and its retrieval is uncontested. It was Jean Francois Lyotard who first coined the term post-modernism and his position was that any knowledge that could be adapted to translation into quantities of information and computerization would survive, and that knowledge that could not be so channeled, knowledge for its own sake, would be abandoned. He noted:

We may thus expect a thorough exteriorisation of knowledge with respect to the "knower," at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so. The relationships of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce and consume – that is, the form of value. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its "use-value." ( The Post-Modern Condition, Manchester University Press, 1984).

Poetry, certainly since the end of didacticism, has been a socially marginalized activity, existing for the most part in institutions. Mainstream poets have garnered some attention in the modern age, but certainly not as conveyers of information, of knowledge as understood by Lyotard. Haiku, as a poetic form, has been even more alienated from a broad readership than its mainstream equivalents. Poetry, including haiku, has for a long time relinquished exchange value.

Faced with the proliferation of knowledge in post-modernism and the subjugation of the subject as a mere nodal point through which pass the signs and codes of the social order and its priorities, poetry has taken, at minimum, two paths. The first is to appropriate the information of the computer age (called "flarf," where modern poets stitch together poems from the fragments of narratives found on the internet along with their own words), and what the critic Jennifer Ashton calls the "new imperatives to construct poems that appear to resist artifice, whether in the form of a commitment to sincerity, a lack of irony, a childlike innocence or wonder, artlessness, etc." (Sincerity and the Second Person: Lyric after Language Poetry, Interval(le)s II.2-III.1 (Fall 2008/Winter 2009).

Unwrapping a package containing Fay Aoyagi's latest book, Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks, I found myself beset by a bundle of signifiers. The cover painting/drawing by Chiyo Miyashita was done in soft pastel colors and intentionally reproduced the effect of childlike composition; it lacked dimension, its houses were placed on a curve rather than a flat surface to suggest the shape of the earth, the houses themselves-their windows- appeared to have faces, the sky was green, and the reflections of the houses in yellow water (without ripples or other signs of embodiment) did not always match the "original" houses. I stress that the "innocence" of the cover art is intentional, because Ms. Miyashita studied painting at the university level in Tokyo and is a sophisticated artist.

The title of the book suggested a state of loss, of what could not be grasped (a state of infancy insofar as the world referred to was unreachable, unmanageable), of a world beyond the narrator's reach, perhaps also of what was foreign and could not be appropriated (Fay Aoyagi emigrated to America in 1982 and began writing haiku in English in 1995). Before reading the poems, I suspected that Ms. Aoyagi had adopted the persona of the "eternal girl," the puela aerterna in Jungian parlance. It seemed that Ms. Aoyagi was engaging in the new "innocence," with the aim of preserving the subject (assailed as an existent throughout the post-modern age) as a viable voice in poetics.

I was eager to see if Ms. Aoyagi referred, as she often does, to signifiers of her new country, a kind of "fluffing," an inter-textualizing of the Other. She had demonstrated this tendency in past references in her poems to Dylan, to laundromats, to a banjo, canned soup, RSVP, Independence Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Oscar night, and other American cultural signs.

Opening the book, I was not disappointed: the first poem represents the author's encounter with a mental image of an idea (what we call a word) that holds part of the Real, but not a very satisfactory part of it.

another day without
an adventure

What can be more mundane, tasteless, without savor, than the idea of cauliflower? But, the author knows that when a signifier (cauliflower, in this case) becomes attached to a morsel of reality, something of the Real eludes capture. For "everything that comes into our field of recognition by means of a signifier, something of it must remain imperceptible, unsymbolized. This is the Real." (Lacan, A Beginner's Guide, Lionel Bailly, Oneworld Publications, 2009). Hence, the narrator's dissatisfaction. She is looking for the Real, and this requires "an adventure," and risk taking is one of the qualities associated with the puela aeterna in her search for completion and maturation.

The second poem in the collection gives the book its title and is quintessentially of loss and nameless desire:

low winter moon
just beyond the reach
of my chopsticks

Of course, the poem is not enclosed; there are multiple ways to read it. The low moon resembles a grain of rice or a sushi roll and the author plays with the fact that by perception it appears just beyond the grasp of her chopsticks. The ensemble of words may also refer to what exists just beyond her Japanese utensils, the world of the Other, as she is now in America, a foreign country. However, most compellingly, the low moon is the acoustic mental image of what Freud and then Jacques Lacan called The Thing: it is the object per se of loss, which attracts desire, although it is not itself the object of desire. "For Lacan, the Thing exists outside of language and the Symbolic- it is 'the first thing that separated itself from everything the subject began to name and articulate'" (Ibid).

In her quest for wholeness, Ms. Aoyagi follows the path, the language of the unconscious. We see it in the poems' metaphors, as the unconscious, structured as language, often uses condensation, the joining of other ideas of things to produce a new idea.

who will write
my obituary?
winter persimmon

Or, in this darker identification of the author:

inside of me
a silkworm
spits out the night

In these poems we can see the identification of the "ego," the objectifying of the ego with a withering persimmon (death) and with a silkworm that instead of spitting out silk spits out the night (death/sensuality). They are both powerful, beautiful poems and suggest that it is not merely the ego speaking [but the Subject (the self) as well.] With the first awareness of oneself as an identity, a unity, comes awareness of oneself as an object, too, so that the self is split. And, in a sense, the attributions one makes of this objectified "identity," are factitious; they exist in the Imaginary, the psychic realm where a story begins to unfold of who one is, through the eyes of others and oneself. As

Ms. Aoyagi acknowledges, her past, her childhood was an experience of both beauty and unexpected pain, a split:

thorns of roses
I fold my past
in half

Yet, Fay Aoyagi, a woman warrior of the interior landscape, returns to where she can find the Self (beyond the Imaginary ego):

shroud of moss
I step into the land
of the ancient tales

To a covering that is usually associated with death and with the dark, Fay Aoyagi willingly leaves the "ordinary" behind and travels to the source of self, to the land of mythos, where signs and symbols and narratives will aid her in her quest for authenticity, for the stature of a true Subject (and not an imaginary ego). She goes back and deep into the psychic realms.

In the next section of the book, Ms. Aoyagi continues to allow her unconscious to speak. We find this through her use of signifiers without definite signifieds (the acoustic idea and our thoughts of the meaning of the idea), where a chain of signifiers produces "childlike" comparisons and understandings of the world. Saying this, on the other hand, does not preclude the conscious intention of the author; actually, she is quite conscious of her art; it is, as it were, the persona of innocence that she adopts.

There are a series of poems in this section that use the rhetorical form metalepsis; this figure of speech produces a transgression of the boundaries between distinct worlds and thus suggests awe and wonder (and fear and laughter).

rumble of the metro
a queue of city crabs
inches forward

slow ceiling fan
a town hall meeting
of the pet shop goldfish

handcuffed lobsters
in the water tank
A-bomb Anniversary

The same transposition of realms noted above is related by the author to herself, thereby creating categorical confusion and further influences and modalities of the unconscious:

summer's end
I trade by wings
for fins

The aporia of identity, the transformation of a human being into a bird and then a fish, highlights the Imaginary, simultaneously leaving traces of a Self/Subject beyond the confines of the fictional nature of the ego. It is both. In a world of objects, we are objects, and the Ideal identity is shared with other entities. It is the realm of the unaccountable, the Symbolic, where beings of the mind leave traces of existence in the mud of the Real:

spring mud
I find a comb
left by a nymph

Most tellingly, the beings and objects of the world remind us of our first loss, the loss that initiates the quest for identity: the dyadic relationship to the mother, who is identical to the child in its beginning, who once lost is forever sought by means of following where she herself went to find fulfillment and wholeness and meaning (the name of the Father-the law of the world and its order and power). Here familiar sounds from nature are a path backward to the dyad.

stepping stones
the cicada chorus pushes me
into Mother's house

Fay Aoyagi returns to this theme of the original relationship to the mother in the next section of the book. The ocean, for Carl Jung, was the embodiment of the unconscious, the mother from which consciousness is born, the womb of all being, and the French word for mother, mere, is a homonym for mare, the Latin word for the sea. It is a sea within, powerful, emotional, lively, without direction or security:

inner ocean
where a compass doesn't work
winter rain

In keeping with the childlike relationship of the dyad, Ms. Aoyagi again takes on the persona of the naïve, innocent, and in this case she includes inter-textualization:

tea garden
the Dr. Dolittle in me
whispers to a turtle

Just as Hugh Lofting, the author of Dr. Dolittle, had his character shun human beings and speak in the language of animals-a response of the author to the atrocities he saw in the trenches in WWI-so, Ms. Aoyagi, living in the modern world fraught with horrors, transforms herself into a version of Dr. Dolittle.

She gives us insight into what the horrors are that direct her to the imaginary world of literature in the following poem:

Nagasaki Anniversary
the constellation
we never see from here

The constellation is that mushroom cloud that killed seventy-thousand people immediately and seventy-thousand later due to disease and radiation. It is something not recognized "here" in America (although it is, of course, taught in schools). In the last poem of this section of the book, Fay Aoyagi, for the first time, insinuates herself, albeit in the third person, as in control, as an adult with the will and freedom to choose just how she will live, what she will hold on to and let go of: it is an important moment in the book.

in the pool
she sheds everything
she wants to shed

In the next section of the book, Fay Aoyagi returns to the scenes of childhood, memory and deeply felt yearnings for something lost that is unspecified. There are amongst the poems here some achingly beautiful identifications with the small other (Lacan's le petit autre as well as the Other (Lacan's le grand autre). In the dark, opacity of a perhaps partially frozen lake, she sees a passage to the past: it is like a Rorschach upon which she can project whatever she wishes:

icy rain-
at the bottom of the lake
a door to yesterday

In the beauty of apple blossoms, she finds the desire to aspire to fly, to participate in the Other, all that which is of the order that predates her existence and is exterior to her; it is a place where all things are stored; it is omnipresent.

apple blossoms
the highest bidder
for my wings

Interestingly, Fay Aoyagi herself, in an essay titled Dissection of the Haiku Tradition: Inner Landscape (cited in Modern Haiku 40:2, 2009), discusses being an expatriate and feeling the need to fill a hole in herself: she also discusses being a winged creature:

"Subconsciously, I may need a thing to fill a hole in my soul. I think haiku is helping me to do this. I still want to be a creature with wings rather than a stationary plant. But I do not want to be a mosquito anymore. I would like to avoid being slapped and killed easily. It does not mean I am clinging to life. Because I am involved with haiku, my senses have sharpened. I hope I can sharpen them more by exploring life through haiku."

Here are further examples of poems with a strain of longing for the past, or, something in the past that may hold the answer to the hole in her soul.

my yearning to spend a night inside a tulip magnolia
trailing an inchworm to a childhood summer

And, perhaps, the most beautiful poem in the collection, with its associative relation between shapes and space, the metonymical aspect of dream work and the unconscious discourse

a hierarchy of apples in moonlight

In the following section of the book, Ms. Aoyagi to a pastel-colored day, which reinstitutes the book jacket and its pastel appearance. And, in the poem she deliberately uses a word- password-to refer to the means of entry into the world within things, the means whereby we find passage beyond ourselves into the grand autre.

pastel-colored day
a password
for the budding willow

It is the metonymic of qualities, here softness, delicacy, in discourse that allows us access to fulfill desire, to initiate desire.

Insofar as the unconscious is structured and performs as language, it is synonomy of meaning that attracts love/eros to what is not strictly speaking a part object of a particular drive and function, yet institutes desire. In the poem below, we experience not only a love for the ocean, but a love for whatever is boundless, forever; a love that is never satisfied for an unattainable, uncircumscribed object:

a "forever stamp" on a letter to the ocean

There are moments when Fay Aoyagi sexualizes desire. It is a stage of development of a full human being that cannot be forestalled or forbidden.

The fact that these moments are "slight" points to the fact that love and desire often do not cohabitate and there is rarely, if ever, a rapport.

The ease with which the desire for love and sexual desire become intertwined and the possibilities for misunderstandings to arise are encapsulated in the very genesis of both things. The demands possible in both cases are almost bound to create confusion- the first, because it can only be answered in the fulfillment of the 'extra' of the demand (the effort put into making a really good meal, rather than just one that will quell hunger), and the second because as there is no justifiable need attached to the demand-why should it be answered, except as a proof of love? It is not uncommon that it is the 'giver' of the sexual favor who is in search of love rather than the recipient, and unless there is perfectly matched lust on both sides, there is almost bound to be disappointment. (Lacan: A Beginner's Guide, Ibid, pg. 144-5).


The individual man and the individual woman in a joint sexual act is each pursuing a form of enjoyment that is distinct from and irrelevant to the other's: the object of the man is different from the object of the woman. (Ibid, pg. 151-2).

Here are some examples from Ms. Aoyagi's poems:

Independence Day
I let him touch
a little bit of me

unexpected pregnancy
she spits out
watermelon seeds

a hole in my sweater
I ask him one more time
what he meant

As time passes, Ms. Aoyagi develops, matures into an awareness not only of the importance of existents other than her own, but to the fact that loss is ineluctable, that memory sustains, that "selves" that once were are now recognized as merely masks, personas of the ego, and not the real Subject/Self.

these stones
with a story inside-
autumn deepens

Valentine's Day
how many ghosts
do I keep in the hat box?

I dress as the self
I left somewhere

Further, there is a sense of history developed in the author, one that has already been recognized, but now more aware of the world pre-existing her and its storms and unmentionable horrors. In the following poem, Ms. Aoyagi gives us a vivid, moving image of the atom bomb shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Hiroshima Day-
I lean into the heat
Of the stone wall

It is through the unstated that the power of the stated appears; the understatement detonates the unseen facts.

Finally, for the mere joy of it, my favorite poem of Ms. Aoyagi's:

Ants out of a hole-
When did I stop playing
The red toy piano?

There is a spring kigo here in ants and this may have some bearing on the tiny, unturned sound of a toy piano. On the other hand, there is the line of red ants and the red piano with its line of keys that connects the images to form a whole. Whatever it is, it is the smallness and the wonder of tininess of ants and children and toys that combine to set the poem apart and make of it a petite object of desire.

In the end, Fay Aoyagi manages through her fulfillment as a poet to reach maturation, wholeness, and joy. The fantasies of childhood though they remain as a part of her are no longer the whole of her. Though some things are unattainable, she has reached what Jacques Lacan called jouissance, which is the enjoyment and usage of not attaining a goal, but a form of enjoyment derived from the usage of something in its legitimate (intended) way – the pleasure that comes with the functioning of the physical or psychological apparatus associated with a drive. It is a pleasure that is much more than one that eases a tension. It is completion. She has spoken her Self as Subject. Nothing more needs to be done.


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