Art Out of Chaos

ex chaos, James Wilkes and Lynne Wilkes
[36pp, £12.00, Renscombe Press, 48 Pearce Avenue, Poole, Dorset]

ex chaos is a book to savour: both the poetry and the paintings which accompany and enhance the text are skilful and seductive. The cumulative effect of the words and related images transported me swiftly into a sensual world of sights and sounds that are specific to the Japanese way of imagining and transcribing their view of the world.  The joint authors James and Lynne Wilkes ease the uninitiated reader in gently with a helpful preface which tells the Japanese story of creation and gives us clues to the rationale behind the illustrations; most of the eight poems having explanatory notes at the end of the book. The pale grey cover, lower case title and calligraphy beneath the authors’ names and title indicate the care and attention taken with presentation which is very much in keeping with the whole concept. Though it’s a shame that the pages are not numbered and the order of the paintings does not quite tally with the poems they refer to. However in so short a book, it’s not of vital importance. 

The Japanese use metaphor extensively in their paintings of landscape and in their ceremonies and religious practice.  James’s poems and Lynne’s paintings have tapped into a rich vein, making use of a variety of sources, from translated texts of myth and poetry, both ancient and modern.  Whereas the poems frequently play with these sources, the paintings seem to be more firmly rooted in the creation myths and Lynne makes use of the gestural shapes of kanji characters, employing the colour schemes of the Buddhist temples of Kyoto and the Shinto shrines of Muyajima and Tokyo.  God-like figures seem to rise and float behind the scenes and the paintings have a meditative function rather than an explanatory one which is effective and beguiling.

The opening poem ‘Ex chaos’ describes the beginning of creation and the first word in the opening line: ‘SHHIIIIIIIIIINNN’ is elucidated by the poet in the following lines: ‘indicates silence, speech’s term for its own absence/the unspeakable bustle/rising through the limen of language.’ This is the first instance of a sound-symbolic word; a feature of Japanese poetry which James Wilkes has taken up in other poems to great effect.

The poem continues: ‘the world is like floating oil, or a jellyfish, / or black as lily seeds, or lamp black / … No waves form light sound or pond ripples / No light force push particles to leap - // so how do I know?
By trusting the former sages.’ This italicised last line reveals the poet’s debt to Basil Hall Chamberlain, the Victorian translator of the Kojiki, The Records of Ancient Matters, which dates back to 712 CE. 

The Japanese creation myth tells us that amongst seven generations of their gods, brother and sister Izanaki and Izanami leaned down from the Floating Bridge of heaven and stirred the Lava of Chaos with the Jewel spear of Heaven. The brine curdled and a drop of it fell from the spear, creating the first island of Japan.  

     A drift of land
     adrifting on the endless

     subaqueous ire of whalesong and rain
     potsu’      potsun potsun       ZAA ZAA

     the god and goddess reached down
     a jewelled spear to stir the sea –

to beat water to their curdling thickening, KOWORO unpacking of tightly ravelled matter, KOWORO the piling of brine meringue in beauty the first land,

     onogoro-jima, self-curdled island
     drop from the spear-tip adrifting
          [from ‘From the Floating Bridge’]

The sound-symbolic words potsu’, potsun potsun, ZAA ZAA, indicate the light sound of a single drip, the patter of droplets of rain and heavy rainfall respectively and has obvious similarities to our own onomatopoeic system. There’s a wide divergence between the poems in this volume, as James Wilkes uses not only sections of Chamberlain’s translation of the Kojiki verbatim, but combines collage, quotation, misquotation (quite an admission!) ancient and modern Japanese poetry and modern day references to his stay in Japan.  Indeed there is a humorous and ongoing dialogue to be found in several of the poems between himself and the strait-laced Chamberlain, who it seems reverted to Latin when the going got too racy.

‘The First Births’ is of interest in the formal sense, in that it veers between the mythical and the modern. It refers to the incestuous brother and sister Izanaki and Izanami who once the land had curdled inhabited the first island and proceeded to populate it; not without problems it appears. The myth goes that they erected a pillar dividing Heaven and Earth. Lynne Wilkes’ painting represents the Dividing pillar as a strangely undefined deep orange head, emerging from a chalky white ground and it signals a sense of the chaotic gradually succumbing to order. In common with the other paintings there is a sense of stillness and a numinous quality about it.

‘ So brother and sister –
Oh naïve filthiness – alone, adrift, with only an\ erect pillar for company – these two Gods then MURA MURA augustarum (i.e. privatarum) partiam augustam coitionem faciunt.(Mura Mura means overcome by desire or anger).

There’s an erotic flavour to this poem, almost certainly distasteful to Chamberlain; hence the Latin.  It’s a sensitive and poignant description of birth throes and miscarriage, which is symbolised by a collapsed pot. 

      Then it was born and I saw in my wet slip something unformed, the pot
     collapsed on the wheel and the rent/clay of my liver-red I could not cradle it - /. 

Leech is invoked, whether the potter or the bloodsucking variety is not clear to me.
‘called Leech, in a reed basket,/boneless abortion,/river  bed they gave it./It floated hungry away.’ The poem is ultimately successful in its combination of quotation, symbolism and modern allusion and for its positioning on the page.  The poem ends: ‘I desired him and took him - / Again swelling again. / Filled and squeezed, / gives birth to Aha-jima, sea spray, foam flecks, nothing…’ 

At times, although the language is of the highest quality I was reminded very strongly of translations of oriental poetry I have read, and whilst there is great beauty in the formality of the language and indeed originality, these are poems that on the whole are fashioned and fabricated from their many sources – as a potter might choose his clays from different places or the manner in which in Japan a fisherman’s jacket was traditionally patched and stitched until it became a work of art. As to the paintings, although it is virtually impossible to give a painting its due when viewed in reproduction, nonetheless, each of these images are invaluable and integral to the success of the whole endeavour. Their mysterious bursts of light and clots or curdles of paint form a visible thread between the poet’s developing themes.

There is so much more that could be said about this book and it’s one I know I shall return to. Suffice it to say, that I found it an absorbing and fascinating collection and my lasting impression is of a state of perfect stillness and quiet, or Shiiiiiiiiiinn – a sense of the eye, the ear and the mind being in perfect harmony. In our chaotic world, what more can you ask?

     © Genista Lewes 2006