Wing-Beaten Air

Breath of God

Yaguchi's new memoir, The Wing-Beaten Air, is reviewed by John Fisher.

Yorifumi Yaguchi. The Wing-Beaten Air: My Life and My Writings.
Intercourse, PA: Good Books. [2008]. 214 pp.

Yorifumi Yaguchi answers to multiple callings: pastor, pacifist, professor, poet and, for many readers, global Anabaptist. His latest book, through its interactive prose ("My Life") and poetry ("My Writing"), integrates all these personae in an exotic fusion of bilingual idiom, culture crossing and religious insight. In an American bookshop The Wing-Beaten Air might be shelved as a Special Item. Indeed it is.

In the prose portion of his book Yaguchi tells of his idyllic Buddhist childhood, harsh coming of age in postwar Shinto-nationalist Japan, Mennonite Christian conversion, teaching career, house-church "seminars," bereavement and remarriage, global travel, antiwar activism, and sustained development of his poetic gift. Thus he progressed from being a provincial "total loser" to established academician, Christian pastor and composer of widely published Japanese/English poems.

While studying religion and literature in North America, Yaguchi came to know a considerable number of eminent American poets and several varieties of Mennonites on their home ground. Besides his intimate sketches of writers and teachers, the crisp depictions of a wide range of church folk exhibit a knack for objective and telling detail about indigenous gatherings, such as world conference at Kitchener, Ontario, an Eastern Pennsylvania farmstead, and an Old Order Amish Sunday service in Indiana. To an attentive Oriental visitor, Mennonite thought and practice may seem exotic too.

As for the poetry, Yaguchi has thereby fashioned a thematic and stylistic ambience for the whole book. These texts—including some hitherto unpublished ones—number less than a third of those in Wilbur Birky's comprehensive edition of three years ago. While that arrangement is by topical categories, the forty-four poems that Yaguchi has selected serve to interpret, from his present-day perspective, the meaning of the events in his temporal narrative.

Thematically, Yaguchi's poetry registers frequent concern with the incongruity between military force and the nonviolent behavior of Jesus, whether present in the civil religious establishments of the United States or Japan—a concern proportionately more prominent in Wing-Beaten Air than in the more broadly distributed topics in the Birky collection. "Gentle" is one of Yaguchi's value words, and pacifism is for him the essential fruit of Christian faith.

His sharply sardonic anti-war poems, such as "We Shout" or "The President and the Prime Minister," are indeed morally challenging. Yet we also find a more intimate, meditative mode in poems like "Fellow Soldier" and "Jesus Did Not Come Down." The latter, reserved for the Epilogue of the book, moves in unrhymed, end-stopped stanzas (yet with the first line of each deliberately run-on) straight through the crucifixion drama to the moment when Jesus, taunted by the crowd to have God save his earthly life, chose, paradoxically, not to "come down." Yaguchi comments, "He is the word of God. And we can sense the breath of God on his life and in his words."

The more closely read, the more this book stirs the spirit. Perusing and then parsing its juxtaposed passages of life and words, we begin to feel them breathe. For instance, the words "the wing-beaten air" are embedded in the long retrospective poem "Ninja" about the child Yaguchi's fascinated dabbling in the occult charms and spells of 16th-century samurai servants. These words, so succinctly registering the sensation of lift-off into flight, the poet associates with Buddhist mysticism. Although a clear distinction is maintained between gods and God, throughout the book the image cluster of breath/breathe, air, and wind refers to both Buddhism and Christianity.

Again, in a more specific meditative poem first published at Goshen College, we find "Althea" entranced by the flowers she has artfully arranged. "There is no West here / Nor Orient in this room anymore," the speaker tells her, and concludes: "listen in the flower to the wind / Blowing in a mountain far away from us." A similar image informs "Triton Blower," written about Yaguchi's revered grandfather, a Buddhist priest.

In the Epilogue, at the close of eight chapters of sustained reflection upon his lifelong spiritually holistic quest, this richly endowed Christian poet prays "that God will continue to breathe on my life and my work, even though I know what a defective instrument of his will I am." There follows his gentle, poised farewell:

What I have been trying to catch
In the net of words
Is something like a wind
Coming from another world and
Freely flying
Almost unreachable.

About the Author

John J. Fisher

John J. Fisher, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, has published essays on the poetry of Julia Spicher Kasdorf and on peace poems by Mennonites. In Goshen, he is active in Seniors for Peace and in planning the JustPeace seminars.