This creepily erotic post on Linh Dinh’s new blog, The Lower Half, reminded me of when I first heard of Hokusai. It was in the following poem by Paul Carroll, whose elegy “Father,” from his wonderful collection Odes, is a classic. (Click here to view a brief interview with Carroll.) Unfortunately, all of Carroll’s books are out of print. O publishers, where art thou?
ODE ON MY 39th BIRTHDAY
commissioned by a samurai
to execute on temple door
design of autumn leaves
fluttering in the river of the demon, yanked
door right off its hinges, flopped
it flat in dirt, douched
door garish blue with old house brush,
grabbed bantam rooster strutting nearby, dunked
its legs in can of orange paint, shooed
bird across wet wood, exclaiming,
“Leaves flicker amid the eddies!”
Last year sometime I ran across this slide-show essay on Slate, which included this “upper half” work by Hokusai:
Goblins, optician, and blind musician, by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), from Hokusai’s Manga: Sharing the Spirit Frees the Hands, 1834. Image courtesy New York Public Library.
The essayist, Christopher Benfey, had this to say about the artist [the links are mine]:
Hokusai, whose dazzling virtuosity reminds one of Rembrandt or Picasso, hosted a legendary all-night drawing party in Nagoya (now the Toyota headquarters) in the fall of 1812. The amazing result was 364 drawings on all sorts of subjects, eventually published as Hokusai’s Manga, or “freestyle drawings.” Right from the start, Western travelers recognized Hokusai’s unmatched brilliance, but they sometimes worried about Hokusai’s lowlife subject matter. Historian Henry Adams traveled to Japan in 1886 on a collecting trip and was dismayed when his host, snooty Salem-born Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa, told him that only early Buddhist art was worthy of the true connoisseur. “Fenollosa is a tyrant who says we shall not like any work done under the Tokugawa Shoguns,” Adams wrote his friend John Hay. “He is now trying to prevent my having a collection of Hokusai’s books.” Hokusai, as Roger Keyes notes, was the “grandfather of modern Japanese manga, or comics,” and his Manga was the first Japanese book to reach a wide audience in the Western world. In this fantasy drawing, Hokusai seems to be riffing on blindness as a kind of second sight: The blind samisen player stares up at the long-necked goblin while the optician remains oblivious.
Manga! Now there’s the openness I’m looking for….