Hiromi Itō: Coyote

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:59 AM
Translation with commentary by Jeffrey Angles

[On the occasion of the publication of Hiromi Ito’s Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems, her first major collection of poems translated into English, published by Action Books in Notre Dame, Indiana. Ito’s poem, “The Matreatment of Meaning,” was posted on Poems and Poetics on January 7, 2009, with commentary and biographical note.]

My grandmother was a medium
My mother was a magician
My mother’s older sister was a geisha
My mother’s younger sister had tuberculosis
My mother’s other younger sister was barren
All were wonderfully beautiful
The spells mother taught me
All required saké, rice, and salt
We were afraid of snakes, water, and the east

My daughter began speaking baby talk at two months
When the coyote speaks to her
She smiles and always responds
The coyote: A dry plain, plain, plain
My daughter: Plain, plain, plain
The coyote: No lying
My daughter: No lying, no lying, no lying
The coyote: Hungry, hungry
My daughter: Hungry too
Coyote: Hah, hah, hah
My daughter: Haaaaaaaa-ohh
My daughter’s father, my father: I wanted to concentrate just on the coyote I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing other than the coyote
And I wanted to trade places with him


The milk flows from my breast bountifully
To fatten my daughter it flows in overabundance, much too much
My grandmother’s milk also flowed bountifully
With it she fattened her four girls and two boys
My mother’s older sister’s milk also flowed bountifully
With it she fattened her three boys
My mother’s milk also flowed bountifully
With it she fattened just me, and the leftover milk flowed out
My mother’s younger sister’s milk also flowed bountifully
With it she fattened her two boys
My mother’s other younger sister nursed and nursed her adopted child
With her milkless breasts until eventually
The milk began to flow from her body
There is so much rain
Everything and anything gets soaked
Inside a damp frame, grandmother’s beautiful smiling face with no eyebrows or teeth
My mother’s older sister’s beautiful face with no chin, teeth, or hair but with large lips
My mother’s younger sister’s beautiful face with fleshy, hairless lashes and no teeth
My mother’s younger sister’s beautiful face with spots and no teeth
My mother’s beautiful face with sagging cheeks, crow’s feet, and no armpit hair nor teeth
But all of them do have breasts that sag

The women all enjoy fondling the babies in the family
My daughter
Is the only female grandchild
Is the only female niece

The words of the women who fondle the babies in the family
Slowly turn to baby talk before our eyes
The women from age ninety to fifty gather
(The ninety year-old has been dead for a decade)
The women sit together and
Begin to speak in baby talk
Gyaaatei
Gyaaatei
Haaraagyaatei
Harasoogyaatei


My grandmother was a medium
My mother was a magician
My mother’s older sister was a geisha
My mother’s younger sister had tuberculosis
My mother’s other younger sister was barren
My grandfather was a paralytic
My mother’s older brother died young
My mother’s younger brother did not speak at all
My father was related to none of them
My mother’s husband and my husband
Vanished right before
I gave birth to my daughter

Coyote: Gyaatei
My daughter: Gyaatei
Coyote: Haaraagyaatei
My daughter: Haraharagyaatei
Coyote: Gyaagyaagyaatei
My daughter: Haragyaatei

The precipitation and humidity this time of year
My mother chants her magical spells
Cursing the humidity
Saké and rain
Rice and rain
Salt and rain
Ordering the water
To flow to the east
Forgive us, oh honorable snake

Saké and rain
Rice and rain
Salt and rain

NOTE ON "COYOTE": In the 1980s, Itō became fascinated with the poetic traditions of Native Americans which she read in the modern, colloquial translations of Kanaseki Hisao. She was struck by the combination of ancient myth and contemporary language, and soon afterward, she tried her own hand at using contemporary spoken language to write in a semi-mythological mode. This poem is one result of that interest.

Shamanism and magic remained an important part of everyday life in the remote regions of Japan until relatively recently. Itō’s grandmother was a shamaness who claimed to speak to the dead, and Itō’s mother claimed to have magical powers and taught her children her spells. This poem explores the mystical connection between Itō and the various generations of women in her family.

The second paragraph of “Coyote” derives its inspiration from the German performance artist Joseph Beuys. In 1974, he came to New York and immediately installed himself in a gallery, where he remained in a small room with a coyote for three days. Beuys later explained his piece, “I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.” Through forging a spiritual connection with this animal, which Native Americans had believed to be divine, Beuys hoped to come to start the process of making amends for the destruction waged upon the culture and environment of the Native Americans.

The exchange between the coyote and the daughter contains a bastardized quote from the Heart Sutra (Hanya shingyō), a short Buddhist sutra which some sects believe to express the essential concepts of the religion. The sutra concludes with a mantra, which if read in Japanese, states “Gyatei Gyatei Haragyatei Harasogyatei Boji Sowaka” (Gone, gone, to the other shore, gone, reach, accomplish enlightenment). In the poem, the coyote and the daughter do not repeat the excerpt from the Heart Sutra accurately. If anything, it becomes a symbol of a sort of mysterious, mystical exchange between them.

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