Robert Okaji: (A Slight Return)

Okaji Image

Having reviewed poet Robert Okaji’s latest chapbook From Every Moment A Second a couple of months ago, I have had time to sit with it and reread various poems that either made immediate impact or have grown on me, The Resonance of No being a strange combination of both. I say “strange”, as one does not expect a thing that resonates to not continue to do so. But I did not anticipate the depth at which The Resonance of No would reach or continue to reach within. I have wondered why this is. Then I realized that Okaji creates something I have missed all this time… the sound of Okaji.

“That quality we call beauty . . . must always grow from the realities of life.” This statement by Japanese novelist Jun’ichirou Tanizaki in his essay In Praise of Shadows evokes a sense of the aesthetic being rooted in lived experience. Having “experienced” we then categorize, judge and assign value to the “reality” our senses provide. It is on this kind of phenomenology that author Salomé Voegelin builds her book Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. Critiquing traditional and modern historical musical research (musicology) Voegelin believes that traditional musical compositions and contemporary sonic works are investigated through separate and distinct critical languages (and histories), and thus no continuous study of both as a unified field is possible. Having discovered this she then offers a new framework for analysis that can access and investigate works across time and genre, making possible comparative research into a much wider (and more creative) field of study. But in the process of sound creation for example there can arise great discrepancies between what we believe we have heard compared to what we have actually heard. Thus, Voegelin seeks to explore the possibilities of a sound landscape that is “an environment that involves everything that is and that could be” (pp. 13-14).

What is most interesting to me about the book is how Voegelin “converts” sound into text, as exemplified by a quote taken from her blog (entitled “My Room”). She describes how sound enters her room from other rooms, being “invisibly present” in a visual space. These sounds play a part of her constructing meaning and value in her life, like a walk through autumn leaves becomes a “socio-symbolic” relationship for the person, especially if it evokes strong memories of past walks connected to loved ones, sad times, good times, etc. Thus, Voegelin and her apartment/leaf sounds are written in such a manner that is decidedly not the standard academic manner in which such things are done. Thus, in the book Voegelin argues for a more open and flexible academic language to include such writing, what she calls “textual phonography”, writing that produces not a written “recording” of what was strictly heard, but the sound/ideas that happen in the imagination of the listener, a generative interpretation, what the reader imagines or remembers of what Voegelin heard, or what she herself imagines she heard. This idea of textual phonography became particularly relevant to me recently when I visited Vietnam to perform and do some research.

Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám is a Hanoian Confucian Temple that also held the ancient Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. Built by emperor Lý Thánh Tông in 1070 CE, Văn Miếu is a place (or meant to be a place) of serenity and history: its various gardens, courtyards and stele honouring cultural heritage and inspiring all Vietnamese to follow the traditions of respecting teachers, scholars, etc. While walking through the various pavilions and courtyards, my goal was to document the temple’s architectural and aesthetic features to complement similar research I have done in East Asia. But this effort was interrupted by loud pop music blaring into the temple complex from an adjacent store located on the northeast side of Văn Miếu Street. The music, with its cheery electronic beat, filled courtyards and gardens: its presence inescapable and embedded within the temple’s spatial and acoustic ecology. Immersion in this unwanted sound created a very real socio-symbolic presence (i.e. intrusion), a new social relationship within a physical environment meant to be its opposite: quiet, scholarly and ethical. But the pop music also seems to represent in this case a “new” Vietnam that is modernizing, and its intrusion may be a matter of my own desire to see a culture I do not come from adhere to some kind of imagined Orientalist purity not accepted or valued by Vietnamese people themselves. In this case I may be imagining a Vietnam that is contrary to the actual Vietnam. But at least this language includes the “sound” of my thought as music as the sound of pop music in as much as language can “sound” music.

Thus, having reread Okaji’s work again a few minutes ago, I was struck by its own unique textual phonography:

The Resonance of No

Yes, yes, we’ve heard. The dishwasher wastes less
and cleans better. But Kenk­ō believed in the beauty
of leisure, and how better to make nothing
while standing with hands in soapy water, thoughts
skipping from Miles Davis’s languid notes to the spider
ascending to safe shelter under the sill (after I blow
on her to amuse myself), washing my favorite knife
and wondering if I should hone it, not to mention
my skills on the six-string or the potato peeler.
And if I linger at the plates, even the chipped one,
admiring their gleam after hot water rinses away
the soap residue, who could question the quick gulp
of ale or the shuffle of an almost-but-not-quite
dance step-or-stumble while arranging them on the
ribbed rack, back-to-back, in time to Coltrane’s
solo. Then the forgotten food processor’s blade
bites my palm, and I remember that I’ve outgrown
the dark suit, the cut branches still need bundling
and none of the words I’ve conjured and shaped
over decades and miles will extend their comfort
when I stand at my father’s grave this week or next.

Okaji immediately evokes the soundscape with the idea that (1) No is “resonant” and (2) we have heard something before, which coincidentally is how the original sayings attributed to the Buddha Siddartha usually open: thus have I heard, (even using water evokes the inevitable splash of pans and dishes entering the cleansing sink, as the brooding tones of Miles Davis’ trumpet waft through the air). Following this Okaji blows on a spider as he washes a knife (evoking air and water sounds). A banjo, potato peeler, and a chipped dish as well suggest mental soundings, as do gulp (air sound), ale, stumble, and John Coltrane playing his saxophone (a wind instrument; evoking the beginning of Coltrane’s Blue Train for me).

A much more subtle sounding occurs at the end when Okaji acknowledges he will stand at his father’s grave in the immediate future after decades and miles of travel through the world and Life itself. This kind of writing is summed up by the Japanese term furyu. Meaning “wind and water”, the impermanence of things is in part due to the effect of the forces that drive wind and water to shape what they come into contact with, including many erosion patterns that end up being beautiful. Thus, wind and water are creative, as their destruction is not intentionally “destructive”. Rather, in the process of creation, things are uncreated. Thus Okaji says he shapes words, not “creates” words.

The sobering line at the end when Okaji stands at his father’s grave is evocative of the funeral, which films almost inevitably portray as occurring on rainy, windy days to visually sound the emotional resonance of loss. Though I love film, I immediately heard wind and rain sound when I reread this line… and thus realized I had missed Okaji’s textual phonography of the implication of sound, if not sound itself. Okaji’s forte is the word, but I have come to conclude that he is a composer as well, a writer of the hidden melodies of our nature: recordings from the fields of the soul. I may be imagining this power, but then this is the whole point of textual phonography. The Okaji sound is “that which I imagine I hear in Okaji” as he sounds himself. This is yet another aspect of his poetic power, and reveals just how rewarding and vital it is to live with his work rather than merely “read” it. The silent sound of and the sound in Okaji still resonates in Life though it exists in word…it affirms sound, not negates it, it is the resonance of yes.

From Every Moment A Second is now available from Finishing Line Press.

6 thoughts on “Robert Okaji: (A Slight Return)

  1. This is a fantastic testament to the gorgeous, powerful intuition (and straight-up genius) always informing Okaji-Sensei’s craft! I’ve often wondered how much of the magic he shapes — indeed, carves out of what is always already right there in front of us, resonating! — is done so deliberately, and whenever I’ve asked him about his messages and intentions, he’s unfailingly claimed not to know… Ha! I chalk this answer up more to his generosity and humility than to his being an oblivious savant (obviously, he knows what he’s doing, and he knows we know he knows, but he still yields to us and lets have our say!). I think he is more interested, always, in discovering and maybe being a little surprised by what the mighty winds and waters he looses will make of us (and he waits with infinite patience for the process to unfold), than in simply erecting a stagnant structure for us to dully regard. It is in this sense that his words move within and around us, forever shaping us.

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