Poems for Peace in China

In May 2008 Birky was invited to visit China with Yaguchi on behalf of Mennonite Partners in China. Yaguchi was to read his poems and Birky was to comment on them, as well as make presentations on American literature and the English language. It was hoped that Yaguchi's presence and poems would be a gesture toward peace-making between China and Japan, in light of the hostile feelings that still exist in China toward Japan because of atrocities during World War II. Although their planned itinerary was much curtailed because of the earthquake in Sichuan province, some successful meetings were held, and Birky describes a number of encounters in his journal narrative, "Poems for Peace in China."

In May 2008, Yorifumi Yaguchi and I, as editor of The Poetry of Yorifumi Yaguchi (Good Books, 2006), were invited to appear at a number of Chinese universities hosting Mennonite Partners in China (MPC) teachers and/or Chinese teachers of English—many of whom have studied at either Goshen College or Eastern Mennonite University as part of an exchange begun in the early 80s. We were asked to model peace as evident both in our trans-Pacific collaboration begun twenty years ago in Goshen and then Japan, and also with the poetic of peace that marks much of Yaguchi's work. In spite of the May 12 earthquake, measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale at the epicenter just 55 miles west of Chengdu where we had arrived less than two days before, we kept faith with our 2008 assignment, even though the number of presentations was reduced to approximately twenty and we presented in only Chengdu and Nanchong. The conference on "comparative literature" for both Chinese and MPC teachers of English went on as planned, though one week late. The following account presents something of that "peace-motivated" initiative in the writing and study of poetry.

I normally set the stage for our presentations, with images of our boyhood beginnings across the warring Pacific in the early 40s (from his hiding from B-29s in mountain caves to my experience of the "blackouts" on the U.S. west coast), his later study and lectures in Goshen, my sabbatical at his university in 1977-78, his being honored as a pioneer international Mennonite poet and poet of peace in 2002, our subsequent collaboration on the new collection of his poetry—and in particular his poetic interest in the cause of world peace.

Then Yaguchi read and commented from his poetry, ranging from his mysterious "nature poems" to his wonderful "In My Garden," in which a war-maimed "orchestra" of crickets, grasshoppers and a snail begin a "kind of tuning up" under the harvest moon—the key thematic poem with which the book concludes. Yaguchi's ability to write Japanese characters on the chalkboard—many, though not all recognizable to Chinese—added a special quality. On several occasions, he also touched a more immediate nerve with an earthquake response poem still in process:

When the earth became waves
Our house was shaken, and
We rushed out....

In still another type of session for teachers of English, we focused on "Issues in Translation" that we had faced in editing Yaguchi's poems for publication in English (second language, cultural tradition and poetic convention). But here we also used examples from his "peace poetry." For these sessions, Yaguchi explained how his own poems get into English via "second language" writing or translation. Then I led through the process of editing I used for four or five recent "war theme" poems sent to me for editorial suggestions before publication in Japan—issues of concreteness vs. abstraction, a native language "sense" of things, cultural difference, poetic "convention," etc.

One "peace poem" drawing attention at the conference of teachers grew out of Yaguchi's special interest in the international Christian Peacemaker Team movement. In "Ann in Hebron—2004," he tells of "Sister Ann, a 78 year old American nun" who stands in front of a bulldozer bent on demolishing a Palestinian home, hears the young soldier/driver shout to "get away, " but does not move. And then the final three lines:

Both looked at each other,
And finally the soldier, his face drooping,
Turned his iron horse and drove away.

One presentation that we made, both in a "regular" student class in Nanchong and at the conference in Chengdu, moved to a broader context with the "Poets Against the War" movement in the U.S. According to the protest website of that name, this movement developed from events that followed First Lady Laura Bush's invitation to major poets to come to the White House to honor Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes—and the subsequent outpouring of thousands of protest poems submitted to poet Sam Hamill, who led the boycott of the White House event and invited poets from around the world to offer poems of protest against the war in Iraq.

I gave the students the website link poetsagainstthewar.net as well as related links such as "Pens Not Swords" and "The Canon Against the Cannon." I set this in the context of "protest" literature from the ancient Greeks to World War I and II and Iraq. Several lines from Naomi Ayala's "Within Me" will serve as one website example: "War begins right here on my street. / It begins with me.../ War slips in.../ I have it in my blood." Yaguchi responded with both his own protest poetry and with his relation to U.S. "peace poets" Stafford and Bly—the latter whom I'd heard on a war protest radio talk show on National Public Radio just days before I left for China.

Still another "international" strategy we used for several presentations involved poems from five countries and four continents: Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" with its ironic claim to "favor fire" from among those who say "the world will end in fire" and those who "say in ice." Wilfred Owen's well known "Strange Meeting" from World War I, ending with "I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in this dark;...Let us sleep now." Yaguchi's own "A Shadow—Or Hiroshima," in which he portrays "...this / Shadow, man-shaped / Printed on this stone" still visible on a bridge in Hiroshima. Costa Rican poet Jorge Debravo's powerful "Hiroshima" lament for "the day in which human flesh blasphemed / against being alive and against being flesh." And Chinese poet Bei Dao's "Notes from the City of the Sun," in which he yearns for "Peace / In the Land where... / the old rifle sprouts branches and new shoots / and becomes a cripple's cane."

But for the Chinese teachers at the conference, the most powerful poem appeared to be Yaguchi's "A Military Nurse," in which an aging Japanese nurse, now losing control of her rational powers, relives the long repressed memories of the "Nanjing Massacre," still officially denied by the Japanese government and a continuing source of tension between the two peoples. From her "room 17 of a hospital in the North Ward of Sapporo," she begins to shout, sees "a sea of blood" with "Heads lying all over"...and "Blood scattered all over my white uniform." In the intense yet solemn discussion that followed, one Chinese teacher voiced deep appreciation for such a frank poetic admission—thus opening the door to healing between nations. For those present in this late session of our time in China, it was clearly a moment of poetic recognition, of honesty, and of hope.

About the Author

Wilbur Birky

Wilbur Birky, who worked at Goshen College from 1964-2002, first as Professor of English and later as Director of International Education, has become Yaguchi's major interpreter. They became good friends when the Birkys and the Yaguchis lived as neighbors in Japan during Wilbur's sabbatical leave in 1977. In addition to his two conference papers on Yaguchi, Birky has edited The Poetry of Yorifumi Yaguchi: A Japanese Voice in English (Good Books 2006). The poems published there are preceded by an extensive biographical sketch of Yaguchi, as well as an analysis of recurring themes in his poetry. Yaguchi's autobiography is currently being prepared for publication by Good Books.