Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Addressing a Dead Body: From Dedication to Tele-Community

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Addressing a Dead Body: From Dedication to Tele-Community

Article excerpt

Shore 1:

What does it mean to dedicate a poem to a dead body? What compels a poet to compose a poem for a corpse? A dead body's presence is haunting. Its being-there does not produce "knowledge" but a distance, both material and imaginary, which exposes us to the limit of knowledge and simultaneously to the experience of finitude. Weaving this sense of mortality into the drifting flow of language, our poet presents relationality to the dead as the promise of an open community still to come.

A dead body lies between life and death, at the undeterminable threshold, the constant risk of becoming our "it." Every representation of this body falls short. There is only a helpless utterance, trembling, lamenting the inadequacy of representation. Our poet inscribes this lament, the sound of impossible desire of mourning, in his song of dedication. No matter how the poet tries, the dead body does not reply to his words; the body maintains a monumental silence. But the poet keeps speaking to the dead body nonetheless, for this speaking to the absolute other is the essence of poetry. If the poet's uncanny communication can be thought to produce some knowledge, it may be the very impossibility of knowledge existing between the poet and the addressee, the experience of the unknowable that poetry communicates. At the same time, this poetic "communication" should be neither a fabrication of spiritualism nor a cliched discourse of religious experience. Rather, poetry is a learning how to expose ourselves to the paradoxical language, more precisely, the murmuring, of a dead body. While a corpse evokes our fear, empathy, and eventually compassion, it eludes our conceptual understanding. Our poet does not translate the dead body into something comprehensible. His poem respects a distance from the dead body, which in turn makes accessible to listeners the silence or the impossibility of communication. The poet shares his knowledge of the unknowable with "us," placing us on the shore, a haunted site of infinite mourning.


The poem in question is from the Man'yoshu (c. 795), the oldest compilation of Japanese poems, and the poet is Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. Despite the popularity of his poems, we know very few things about Hitomaro. It is believed that this long poem, or song 'choka', No. 358, which contains forty-five lines, was composed by the poet in the early to mid-eighth century. The head note to the poem reads: "A poem composed by Kakinomoto no Asomi Hitomaro on seeing a dead man among the stones of Samine Island in Sanuki; with tanka (short poems)" (Cranston 232). The poem begins with a tribute to the local divinity in the region where Hitomaro is travelling, and gradually eases into the epic body: Hitomaro and his fellow travellers go through a tempest, and as the elevated description of the environment becomes more and more localized, the eye of the poet finally arrives at a dead body washed up on the shore. I quote the entire poem:

Splendid with gemweed,

Yes, rich is the land of Sanuki,

A land of good stock--

Is it for this I gaze but do not weary?

A land of godhead--

Is it for this it bides deep in awe?

Together with heaven,

With earth, long as the sun and moon,

It will endure and prosper,

This land whose face, the legend has come down,

Is the visage of a god.

Having come this far, once more

We launched our ship

And rowed from Naka harbor out to sea:

Then the tidewind blew

Down from the Dwelling of Clouds;

When I looked far out

Great surging waves towered up,

And looking to the beach,

I saw the white waves seething on the shore.

In dread of the wild,

Whale-hunting sea, we struggled

With the oars of our

Hurtling ship until they bend with strain.

Everywhere about

Were islands, but of their multitude

In the end it was

The sweet-named isle of Samine

Upon whose rocky strand

We built our shelter and then looked about:

There on the beach

Loud with the ceaseless, pounding surf,

Sprawled with the sand

For your pillow of fine barken cloth,

On that rough bed

You had laid yourself; and if I knew

Where to find your home,

I would go to bear this word;

Or if your wife but knew,

Surely she would come to seek you out;

But all unknowing

Even of the jewel-spear road to take,

Timidly anxious,

Even now she must be waiting, yearning,

The dear wife that you loved so well. …

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