Originally published in 1984 by Katydid books, Dead Languages is a dual language edition, selected and translated by Christopher Drake who also provides a translator's introduction, at the end of the English section of the book there's explanatory notes which include extracts from conversations that Drake had with Tamura Ryuichi in 1983, and also some pieces taken from various essays written by Tamura. In the notes for an early poem, 'Etching', Tamura explains that the poem is taken from his 1956 collection 'Four Thousand Days and Nights' (Yonsen no hi to yoru), and on deciding to write in prose he says 'traditional 'poetic' rhythms were too sentimental. They couldn't absorb emotion and force it to another level. All they could do was leak feeling out. Prose let me write about my selves, instead of myself'. This objectifying element figures largely in the poems, and the poems here show Tamura as a poet influenced by modernism, but also that he is beginning to maybe take his poetry a stage further. As Christopher Drake mentions that Tamura suggested that it will be at least another two hundred years before a Japanese poet writes in rhythms not dominated by Classical Chinese and Western pressures. Christopher Drake's biographical notes provide a portrait of the poet and the events in his life that influenced his poetry.
Born in 1923 in Otsuka, a suburb of Tokyo, his parents worked in his grandfather's restaurant. Like most of the poets of Tamura's generation, the war was intrinsic to their poetry, Tamura avoided the draft in 1941 by enrolling in Meiji University, but by 1943 his draft-deferment expired and he chose to serve in the navy. In 1944 he failed the naval pilot exam as he was too tall to fit in the cockpit of a zero fighter, he began basic training in Kagoshima, then going onto Shiga in 1945. Many of those around him were called up, and the experience of being close to death left an indelible mark. After the war, the Arechi group reformed in 1947 although missing some members, and some returned from the war wounded, but by the early 1950's they had begun producing anthologies, some of the poems in Dead Languages are taken from these. Tamura's prose poetry not only speaks of himself in an objective way, but also views time and place in this way, and the use of a slight surrealism adds another dimension. The metaphoric poem 'In the Waiting Room', where waiting at the dentist the narrator flicks through magazines filled with a mixture of images, 'corpses scattered around wrecked planes', with 'a beautiful naked blonde', his name is called, when the dentist is finished 'I find myself once more within time' back in the waiting room he smokes a cigarette noting 'there is no time here', and in a conclusion of sorts, he observes; 'To possess time, to be possessed by time', comparing the feeling of time being taken out of control of one's hands whilst at the dentists, with that of disappearing time in actual life, is a perfect metaphor that also comprises the ennui of the modern age. The spiritual vacuum of the post war world is also depicted in many of the poems, vividly in 'Green Conceptual Body' the emotional detachment from the physical world, which give forms a shell like quality, brittle and transparent, reducing sound to silence, mixing identities, this poem is really intriguing being both a claustrophobic and a liberating read, a world of graveyard diggers licking ice cream, haunted by dreams and nightmares, and the dislocation of appearance and action is shown in at the start of the poem, 'Dogs run inside dogs' and 'birds fly inside birds nailed to the sky', which also alludes to another layer of existence within, immune to the outer world, functioning without contact with the external, and the 'nailed to the sky' hints at some further feelings of captivity.
A number of the poems included are taken from the volumes of poetry Tamura composed from his travels, five of the poems here are from his trip to Nepal in 1975. Tamura visited England and Scotland in 1979 and included here is 'Scottish Water Mill', also the poem 'September First' in a nod towards Auden's poem, Tamura actually visited Auden in New York in 1971. This selection ends in 1984, but Tamura lived on until 1998. For another overview on Tamura Ryuichi and to read some of his poems visit his page at Poetry International.