Death Poem is dedicated to the many gay men, all around the world, who take their lives each year .. because they cannot cope with not being accepted for who and what they are…..
DEATH POEM: the story of Keiji and Ichiro.
PART ONE: ICHIRO’S JOURNEY TO TOKYO.
Ichiro had just boarded the Nozomi train from Osaka to Tokyo, a trip that would take approximately two and a half hours. Ichiro lived with his parents in Ashiya, a residential and industrial suburb of Osaka. He would meet his long-time friend Keiji at Narita Airport the next day, and together they would embark upon the adventure of their lives: a two-week journey to Norway – the land of salmon and fjords. Neither Ichiro nor Keiji had been to Europe before, and Ichiro had never even been outside of Japan. Ichiro could hardly wait to see his friend again. Keiji and his family lived in Yokohama, but Keiji could not leave for the airport before early tomorrow morning.
Ichiro was fortunate compared to Keiji. Keiji’s family (especially his father) considered him to be somewhat of a ‘disgrace’ and his father had more-or-less disowned him. Not only had Keiji chosen to study fashion design over a more practical and (in his father’s eyes “honourable”) profession like shipping, or even biotechnology (like his older brother), but after overhearing gossip about his son being “gay” Keiji’s father (Sadao) and his mother (Akemi) decided to confront their son straight out. This was quite unusual (especially in their family) as embarrassing issues were simply not discussed. The problem was that Keiji’s father (in the management team of a company with several important government contracts) was one of three persons in the leadership group being investigated under corruption charges. It was hell at work, and it seemed as if the internal search for a ‘scapegoat’ was getting more intense all the while. One of Sadao’s colleagues from work had commented to another at the job that he had seen Sadao’s son Keiji in Shinjuki ni-chome (Tokyo’s popular gay district). Aside from being an added threat to the already difficult situation at work, this rumour (which had quickly spread like wildfire throughout the executive offices) was also a personal insult for Sadao: he had not only “failed” at his job .. but also in raising his son. Sadao was so full of anger and consternation that he broke with his traditional rather stoic fatherly demeanour and confronted his son directly. Although Keiji dreaded the psychological abuse he knew would come from his father in the form of silence, avoidance of eye-contact and shortness of communication, he could not lie to his parents – as that would be the ultimate sin. So he confessed not only to being gay, but also admitted that his relationship with Ichiro, his close friend of many years (and who was much liked – especially by Ichiro’s mother) was more than a mere “good friendship” between two young men.
On his 22nd birthday, and after eight months of “sitting in the doghouse” Keiji decided to leave his family home and Yokohama. He and Ichiro had decided to move into an apartment in Tokyo together – enabling them to create and live a gay lifestyle together without the scrutiny and judgment of their families and neighbours. Ichiro, 21 years of age, had never been to Tokyo before but had always dreamed of one day living in the bustling city of hopes and dreams. Ichiro’s parents had known that he was gay for years, but had always hoped that it was just a “stage” in his life and that he would eventually marry and grace them with grandchildren. They knew from experience that to pressure Ichiro in any great way would only encourage him to do the opposite of what they wanted.
Ichiro was worried about Keiji. Keiji had been suffering from depression the past half-year, and he had told Ichiro that his symptoms had periodically ranged from agoraphobia (fear of leaving one’s safety zone) to obsessive-compulsive behaviour and panic/angst attacks. The worse the relationship between Keiji and his father became, the more Keiji was convinced that he would soon die: either of an accident or other disaster .. or from an act of violence. Sometimes Keiji would make appointments only to break them just a quarter of an hour before he was supposed to show up. When his panic attacks were at their worst, Keiji had to breathe into a paper bag to regain control.
Together, Ichiro and Keiji had agreed that Keiji must get out of Yokohama and away from the negative situation that his failing relationship with his father had created. For Keiji it was a question of sanity and survival, as well as self-respect. He felt “dirty” in his father’s presence, and constantly took showers and washed his hands in order to feel and be seen as “clean” .. but nothing helped. Things remained the same. No arguments .. no physical violence .. just silent shame that was re-warmed over and over, again and again, day after day, moment after moment. It was unbearable.
As the train pulled out of the station Ichiro leaned back into his seat, relieved that no one else was sitting next to or directly across from him. He reached into his knapsack and pulled out a novella that he had ordered over the Internet (and which he had covered with cloth in order to hide the original book cover). It was a homo-erotic gay fantasy about a group of gay friends in Europe, including their gay lifestyles, their adventures and their love affairs. The novella was written in English and French, which made it all the more exciting for Ichiro, as he had studied European literature at school and had also studied both English and French. It seemed like the perfect story to read before their journey to Norway as the novella took place in Oslo as well as other cities in Europe and the USA. Even though Ichiro had received the book in the post a week and a half ago, he had decided to wait until this train trip to Tokyo before reading it. He had actually ordered two copies, one of which he had sent to Keiji as a gift of inspiration for their journey and their new life as an “out” gay couple. If nothing else it would give Keiji something to read on the long plane ride to the airport in Oslo.
Ichiro opened the book and nestled into the world of fantasy. After reading for about forty-five minutes, Ichiro closed the short book and looked up at the man in his mid-twenties who was seated across from him. Ichiro knew that someone had gotten on the train and taken a seat across from him about twenty minutes earlier, but he was so engrossed in his reading that he hadn’t bothered to look up and see whom it was. The man was attractive and well-dressed; he looked like he must live in Tokyo. The slightly older man smiled, nodded to Ichiro and commented: “It must be a good book! You have been quite involved in your reading, and I could not help but notice that at times your face looked quite flushed – almost as if you were embarrassed – and at others you seemed to be snickering to yourself; and even looked a bit sad at moments.” Ichiro felt embarrassed at the attention, and by the stranger’s astuteness.
“Are you a writer .. or a psychiatrist?” he asked – half-joking, but also half-serious.
“Neither,” replied the man in amusement. “My name is Chokichi. I am an aspiring television actor. I have only had a few small roles so far, but things are looking up. I spend a lot of time studying facial and body expressions. They go right into my theatrical repertoire for future use. And you – are you studying in Tokyo?”
“Me, no! I am moving to Tokyo soon, but first I am off on a trip .. abroad”, said Ichiro in a manner characterised by boasting young men. Ichiro did not normally speak so freely with strangers, but he felt a slight affinity with this man. Nonetheless he thought it wise to watch his tongue.
“I see; how exciting! Are you by chance going to the USA? I was just there a year ago – in Los Angeles and New York City for two months.”
This caught Ichiro’s attention. “No, I do hope to travel to the USA one day. We are .. I mean, I am going to Norway – with my best friend – for a few weeks. It will be my first time in Europe. I am very excited.”
Just then they noticed that they were approaching Tokyo, and most people began scrambling to assemble their baggage before disembarking but Ichiro and Chokichi just remained calmly in their seats. Neither was in any rush. When the last of the passengers were about to walk out of the train car, Ichiro and Chokichi both gathered up their bags and stepped off the train onto the platform. They shook hands, and Chokichi gave Ichiro his card saying: “If you and your friend need help finding work or an apartment, you might want to give me a telephone call. Here is my number. I have a lot of friends and contacts here in Tokyo. By the way, have a wonderful journey and please bring a little European culture back with you when you return to Japan. Most only bring back photographs …”
And they both laughed and went their separate ways. Chokichi to the nearest taxi stand, and Ichiro in search of an inexpensive hotel room not too far from the airport since he would meet Keiji there at 10 a.m. the next day.
PART TWO: ICHIRO AND KEIJI EMBARK UPON AN ADVENTURE.
Ichiro did not expect gay life in Oslo to be like it was portrayed in the sex novella. He barely believed the authenticity of the scenes portrayed in France and the USA. After all, who could really believe that policemen in New York City had sex in their uniforms, or that an electrical power outage in the Le Marais district of Paris could result in such free sexual behaviour? He certainly could not imagine such things happening in Osaka or Yokohama … or even in Tokyo. But then again, Ichiro had seen a television report on Gay Pride Day in several cities where some gays were dressed up as policemen, and he knew that several policemen in large cities in the USA and Europe now were openly gay. The homo-erotic stories of these “crazy” European and American gays were exciting to him – both sexually, and also in terms of the sense of freedom and personal identity portrayed. As he sat alone in his small hotel room Ichiro’s thoughts turned to his friend Keiji. He wondered how his farewell with his family had been; if Keiji would soon begin to feel better now that he had made the decision to leave Yokohama … and he wondered how it would be for them finally to be able to be together without pretending that they were just good friends. And then he thought about Keiji’s swimmer physique, his soft eyes, his perfectly-formed long fingers … and wondered if their relationship would grow or be challenged by the possibility of sexual openness and opportunity. They had never discussed having a monogamous relationship and Ichiro did not know if Keiji had sex with other men than him. He never told Keiji about his own escapades with strangers. Would they end up like the characters in the novella ‘Entre Nous’ – wanton, jealous and creating one scandal after another? The idea both frightened and excited Ichiro. He knew from the Internet and from television that morals connected with scandals and shame were changing radically in many countries in the West, and even in large cities in Japan. Young people all over the world were becoming part of the “free generation”, leaving the official old values of the previous generations to crumble in the dust. Recently Ichiro had even seen naked women reading the news and presenting weather forecasts on Japanese mobile TV.
Ichiro had trouble sleeping with all the excitement of tomorrow’s plane trip, of meeting Keiji … and all the thoughts and questions going through his mind.
He arrived at Narita Airport early, and ate a leisurely breakfast while reading the morning paper. The paper contained a disturbing article about sickly HIV-positive persons on Papua New Guinea who were buried while still alive … some screaming out to their relatives as the dirt was shovelled onto their not-yet-dead “corpses”. Ichiro knew of one person who had had HIV in Osaka. He had committed suicide by hanging shortly after his condition was confirmed. The “disgrace” to his family was too great a burden for him to carry. Ichiro thought to himself: ‘The world can often seem quite a cruel and cold place … beyond the realms of human justice and empathy.’ Just then Keiji called out his name and waved to him: “Ichiro! Ohayo! Good morning my friend!”
Keiji looked good. He was wearing a red shirt, white trousers and a black jacket. He looked as if he had spent the last week at a sun-tanning studio. “How healthy you look!” exclaimed Ichiro.
“Konnichiwa (hello)! Thanks – you too,” replied Keiji. “But do not be deceived … it is all clothes and make-up. Inside myself I feel like shit.”
“Well you could have fooled me … but I have always liked the way you look,” cooed Ichiro while pressing his palm firmly into Ichiro’s firm abdomen as he released himself from their salutatory embrace. “Now what is this about ‘make-up’?’” he asked, stepping back a couple of inches to observe more closely.
“Oh, just some cosmetic cover-up cream I borrowed from a girlfriend to help hide the bags under my eyes from not sleeping. The past week with my parents and relatives has been extremely stressful. So much suppressed emotion – and then there is my father who is still treating me formally, as if I were a stranger to him. I tried to talk with him one last time yesterday – that is why I could not be here before today – but it was no use. He cannot accept my being gay; and nothing will ever change that. ‘We are just not compatible’ he says. Imagine saying that to your own flesh-and-blood; to your own son!” Keiji had tears in his eyes, which he quickly rubbed away saying: “Damn it! There goes my make-up job…” Then they both laughed, and Ichiro bought himself another coffee … and Keiji bought himself breakfast.
Their flight to Oslo entailed a transfer in Paris. Unfortunately they would not have enough time to explore the city, and just as well that they did not try to either: they got lost several times in the Charles De Gaulle airport terminal. Heaven knows if they had made it around Paris and back to the airport in time – even with almost three and a-half hours layover before the connecting flight to Oslo.
While wandering through the tax-free luxury stores at the airport in Paris, Ichiro asked Keiji if he had read the novella he had sent him. Keiji blushed and said: “Yes … it was very hot. I had a difficult time keeping it hidden from my mother and my all-too-curious brother. The novella afforded me an opportunity to get ‘lost’ in some other (more pleasant) thoughts … ”
“Perhaps THAT is why you have not been sleeping, Keiji,” quipped Ichiro while putting his arm around his friend’s shoulder. Keiji laughed and commented back: “Not the primary reason, but it did help to take my mind off of other things for a couple of evenings. By the way, I hope you realize that that was just gay fiction … and that that stuff just doesn’t really happen in actual life … But an exciting fantasy all the same.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” replied Ichiro. “However, I am not so certain that all of the situations in the novella are so very far from gay reality in some big cities. Gays in large Western cities are much more free and open in their lifestyles than we are in Osaka and Yokohama, but I do sometimes hear stories about some crazy things going on in Tokyo. However, I do not expect to fall in love or lust with anyone other than you on this journey to Norway, Keiji. Think! We do not have to ‘sneak around’ anymore in order to be together.”
They both looked at each other, smiled and Keiji held Ichiro’s hand briefly. Almost instantly, Keiji then looked around to see if anyone had seen their momentary intimacy. Not only did everyone seem indifferent and self-occupied, but Keiji even noticed a “gay couple” not far from them – the one giving his friend a kiss on the cheek as they slowly walked in the direction Keiji and Ichiro had just come from, pulling their luggage behind them. Keiji looked at Ichiro, gave him a peck on the cheek and said: “No, Ichiro … you may be right. I am no longer in my father’s house.”
Ichiro was surprised at this sudden display of public affection … but inside himself he was glowing with pride and excitement for things to come.
Once on the airplane en route to Oslo, Keiji pulled a sealed envelope out of his knapsack before putting the bag in the overhead carry-on luggage compartment. When he sat down beside Ichiro, Ichiro asked: “What’s that?”
“I am not sure,” replied Keiji. “My father handed this to me as I left the family home, and asked me not to open it before I had landed in Norway. My curiosity is unbearable, so I thought I would open it now. Perhaps it is an apology, or some sorely-needed loving words from father to son.”
Ichiro smiled and squeezed Keiji’s hand saying: “I am certain of that, Keiji. You are the most lovable and honourable man I know.”
Keiji quickly tore open the envelope and began reading the paper inside. His expression quickly changed from expectant happiness to horror and sadness. His eye ducts overflowed with tears as he shook his head and mumbled: “You x9@**+ … how could you do this to me?!! And who the hell do you think you are: Yukio Mishima?!!”
Ichiro – moved by his friend’s reaction, and quite concerned about what Keiji’s father had written – pleaded with Keiji to show him the letter. Keiji let the letter drop from his trembling hands, and Ichiro immediately scooped the letter up and began to read it. It was a traditional death poem (jisei) – announcing his father’s impending death. True to form, the poem was full of metaphors and images (autumnal references, sakura (cherry blossoms), setting suns, impending nightfall and softly falling snow on distant mountaintops). The word death or suicide was not written specifically, but the meaning was not to be misunderstood.
The most dramatic aspect of the poem was its form: Keiji’s father had elected to write the poem in the style of waka – five units consisting of five – seven – five – seven – seven syllables. Ichiro gasped and uttered: “This is a seppuku jisei – he has committed ritual suicide!”
Keiji’s swollen eyes, clenched fists and flushed cheeks expressed both sorrow and anger. “He might just as well have thrust the sword through my own heart – the effect would have been the same … or perhaps easier for me. Now I have to live with the shame I would not own – he has found a way to get me to feel the shame and disgrace he has tried to enforce upon me.”
Ichiro could not comprehend that Keiji’s father had written a seppuku jisei. Not only was it very old-fashioned, but it was generally only used by persons of extreme importance. He therefore understood Keiji’s remark: ‘And who the hell do you think you are: Yukio Mishima?!’ He had perhaps understood it better had Sadao chosen one of the more popular forms of suicide today, employed by the overworked and those who failed at their jobs. But seppuku was extreme.
Keiji continued: “If only I had not been seen in Shinjuki ni-chome that day … perhaps then … No, he is an arrogant, sick, selfish son-of-a-bitch – blaming me for his problems at work. And my poor mother … I can only imagine what she is going through …. “
Ichiro embraced his friend and asked a stewardess to please bring them some water, explaining that his friend had just received some very sad news.
When the stewardess had returned with the water Ichiro thanked her, and clasped Keiji’s hands insisting: “When we arrive in Oslo, you must call home immediately. Perhaps this is just a dramatic gesture; a warning. It may not be too late to stop him …”
Ichiro tried repeatedly to convince Keiji to call home as soon as they arrived in Oslo; and was prepared to cancel the trip and return on the first flight back to Tokyo. But Keiji pulled away, saying: “Never! Besides my father never bluffs. It is too late, and the worse thing I can do is to take contact now. The family’s shame is now doubled … and so is mine: not only have I caused this tragedy, but I have survived my father at my family’s expense. Let us not discuss this again, Ichiro. It is too painful. My family now consists of you and me.” And with that, Keiji folded the poem into a paper crane and tucked it into his wallet. He slept the rest of the way to Gardemoen Airport in Oslo.
Keiji awoke suddenly to Ichiro’s nudging and gentle voice: “Wake up Keiji. We are about to land in Oslo. We are in Norway!”
PART THREE: DISCOVERING NORWAY.
Both young men were exhausted – physically and emotionally – when they arrived at their hotel in the centre of Oslo. It was the thirteenth of May, and it was raining outside. While Keiji made his way to the hotel room bathroom, Ichiro moved the two twin beds together – making a full-sized bed – and closed the curtains. He was already half-undressed when Keiji stumbled out of the bathroom and literally fell into bed. Ichiro kissed him lightly on the forehead and then on the lips and whispered: “We both need some sleep – let me help you out of your clothes.” Keiji did not resist, and soon they were both sound asleep – with Ichiro’s lean body spooning that of Keiji. It was almost seven o’clock in the evening when Ichiro awoke. Keiji was already awake, sitting in his underpants at the small desk on the window side of the hotel room … with his back facing the bed.
“Have you been awake for a long time?” asked Ichiro from the bed, while rubbing his eyes.
“Only for about an hour,” replied Keiji. “I was full of thought and decided to get up and write a little in my diary. I was just about to take a shower … care to join me?”
“Wouldn’t you rather fool around here in bed a little first?” suggested Ichiro while kicking back the sheets to expose his aroused manhood showing through his briefs.
Keiji turned half-way towards Ichiro and smiled, saying: “I would like nothing more … but later. Right now I mostly want to take a long hot shower, and then to go down to the restaurant downstairs and try some typical Norwegian food.”
“I am also hungry. Go ahead … I will follow after you.”
After Keiji had closed the door to the bathroom, Ichiro stood up and stretched and pulled back the drapes – delighted to see that the rain had stopped. On his way to the bathroom he heard Keiji brushing his teeth and shaving. As Ichiro was about to walk past the desk he saw that Keiji had not closed his diary. He was very tempted to take a little peek at what Keiji had just written. He did, in fact, begin to read the first sentence on the latest diary entry page, but quickly pulled himself away realizing that it would be an imposition on his friend’s privacy that was well beyond the boundaries of their close friendship.
Ichiro felt a bit guilty as he opened the bathroom door … although they usually shared most of their thoughts with each other, Ichiro could feel an underlying uneasiness between them regarding Keiji’s private thoughts about dealing with depression. At moments Ichiro felt as if even an all too lingering glance felt like a transgression to Keiji. At the same time, he was relieved to see that Keiji was at least trying to express his thoughts in his diary, and was (therefore) not in a state of denial. He knew that Keiji had been diagnosed as “manic-depressive” (bipolar) and was familiar with his mood swings. He totally understood – especially now after the “mind trip” his father had put over on him – the effects of the traditional old-school of “shame and silence”. It was a murderous form of control which had destroyed many who could not accept the confines of social and familial expectations. They both knew of many young gay men who led double lives; who were married with young children and who still had their secret lives – which entailed sex with either other women … or men. No one made such a big deal about it as long as appearances were kept up; and as long as it was not put in others’ faces. ‘This was the big problem for many gays today, he thought … the segregation of life expressions and the shame of living a lie contra the fear of creating shame for one’s loved ones by being open.’ “The best thing I can do for Keiji is to just be there for him … exert no great pressure, offer no unasked for advice and to follow his moods as best as I can …” And with that thought in his head he put on his most endearing smile and opened the glass door to the shower, snuggling inside the one-man shower stall with the love of his life. After a bit of kissing, some fondling and washing each other’s backs they dried off and tumbled back into bed – not caring that the heavy drapes in front of the almost see-through white curtains were not drawn – and made love for the first time in weeks. They never made it down to the hotel restaurant, but turned on the television, and watched some American situation comedy re-runs as they devoured the smoked salmon with egg and the shrimp with mayonnaise sandwiches they had had delivered by room service. And that was how they spent their first evening in Oslo – sitting in bed together, eating, laughing, watching TV and drinking Norwegian beer. Ichiro had never felt happier; and Keiji managed to put the deepest reaches of his depression temporarily aside. Even his constant migraine headaches and backache seemed to be diminished for the moment. His emotional chains and shackles permitted him a bit of reprieve … he was on vacation with the love of his life; his newly-established “family”.
They enjoyed an early breakfast the next morning. It was excellent Spring weather, and they were advised by the hotel receptionist to buy the “Oslo Card”, which would enable them to gain free admittance to most of the city’s museums and free public transportation for either one, two or three days. This seemed perfect for them as they had planned to do sightseeing in the capital city and to enjoy the national day (“the seventeenth of May”) before travelling further to the western city of Bergen, where they would take a ship called the “Hurtigruten” up the coast, before flying back to Oslo from Tromsø in northern Norway and returning to their new life in Tokyo.
Ichiro asked the hotel receptionist if there had been any messages from Japan for either of them, but the receptionist said: “Sorry, not that I can see.” Ichiro looked at Keiji in puzzlement – certain that his family must be attempting to contact him. They had not brought cell phones with them on the trip but Ichiro had told his family where they had a hotel reservation in Oslo.
Keiji replied shortly: “Things were so tense when I left that I forgot to write down the name and telephone number of the hotel here in Oslo for my mother. But I just cannot deal with this right now; I feel so torn between anger and sorrow … and there is nothing I can do. So please stop nagging me about calling home. I will make a decision when we arrive in Bergen … Besides, my mother knows the name of the boat we will be taking up the coast. I can ask if she has sent me a telegram or left me a message when we check in.”
Ichiro was shocked at Keiji’s resolve. Keiji could be quite stubborn when he had made up his mind … ‘Like father, like son’ Ichiro thought; but would never dream of saying that to Keiji. It was a real tragedy … both father and son suffering from deep-seated depression; and with such dramatic consequences.
Ichiro must have dragged them to almost forty museums, and art and photography galleries in the course of the three days. Keiji’s favourite places were the Vigeland Park, with its fantastic statues by the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland; and the Holmenkollen Ski Jump; whereas Ichiro was fascinated with the Kon Tiki and maritime museums, and the many exciting photography exhibitions about town. They enjoyed both Norwegian, Turkish and Indian cuisine … and even ate at a McDonald’s restaurant once. On the third evening they went to a Japanese restaurant recommended in the tourist guidebook. Ichiro thought it was ‘okay’, but Keiji … being the demanding cognoscente that he was regarding Japanese food traditions … was not particularly impressed … but enjoyed the experience of seeing and tasting “Japanese” food in a foreign environment.
While they did not see any “gay cruising” or transvestites in Vigeland Park (as described in the fictional homo-erotic novella they had read before leaving Japan for Norway) they did see many ‘gay-looking’ men on the streets, and read about the gay saunas in town. They ventured into the city’s oldest gay bar for a beer, but it was almost empty as they were there too early in the evening … and, besides, it was a weekday. But that did not matter. Ichiro and Keiji enjoyed each other’s company and needed nothing more than the personal freedom to be themselves. This also seemed to be great “therapy” for Keiji, whose headaches and back pain still seemed lessened for the time being.
Their last day in Oslo before the short plane trip to the western coast was spent watching Norwegians and persons who had emigrated from other countries to Norway celebrate “17de mai” (“the seventeenth of May”) which is the national day of independence. The entire downtown area was full of persons in diverse costumes – traditional dress from all parts of Norway – singing, eating hot dogs and ice cream, drinking beer, wine and coffee, carrying flags, and smiling to one another while saying “Gratulerer med dagen!” (“Happy birthday!”). Keiji was particularly amazed at how crowded the streets were, and at how connected everyone seemed – so different from the feeling he had had the days before, when most people seemed to keep mostly to themselves and their own business. This was a huge party!
They both got a little too inebriated from the strong Norwegian beer, and Ichiro got a bit of a stomach ache from eating too many hot dogs, and ice cream and cakes. They returned to their hotel around eight p.m., packed their bags in preparation for an early morning hotel check-out and crawled into bed – happy with their time in Oslo, and very excited about the impending boat trip up the coast – which they had read so much about. They had already taken almost one hundred photos between themselves, and there would certainly be many more before the trip was over.
They arrived in Bergen around noon, and therefore had a few hours to walk around town before finding their way to the boat which would take them northward. Bergen was a charming city, and they were fortunate to be there on a day full of sunlight – as they had heard that it often rains there. They had a delightful dinner at a small fish restaurant on a side street. Keiji had codfish with potatoes and vegetables, and Ichiro had fish soup with bread and salad. On the way to the boat they stopped at a store and bought some Norwegian dried fish, which Keiji had tried in Oslo and had become addicted to. The boat was due to sail at 8:00 p.m.
Once onboard, Keiji inquired as to whether there was a telegram or a message waiting for him from Japan. The smiling woman behind the counter replied: “No, I don’t find anything here for you right now … but check back a bit later, as things are rather chaotic at the moment.”
Keiji retired to their small sleeping accommodations, while Ichiro explored the ship. They had agreed to meet at the ship’s main bar at 10:00 p.m. Ichiro waited for Keiji until 10:35 p.m. and then walked back to their room to see if he was still sleeping, but Keiji was not there. Ichiro got an uncomfortable feeling inside himself … knowing that something was wrong. He searched all over for Keiji but could not find him anywhere. Suddenly he thought of Keiji’s diary, and ran back to the room to find it in Keiji’s knapsack. Frantically leafing through the journal to find the latest entry, he re-read the first sentence that he had begun reading previously:
“The softness of the approaching winter is apparent even in the quiet, cotton-like skies on the Norwegian horizon …”
Ichiro felt the first of many tears racing down his right cheek as he read the following words: “I can neither go back, nor can I stay away … for both choices would mean losing myself. The only real choice I have is to join my honourable father in quietude … and together can we perhaps find peace between us in eternal solitude.”
Ichiro was full of grief, inner rage and confusion – but he did not quite know where … or how to direct it. As he passed by the information desk the young woman smiled and waved, saying: “Please tell your friend that there is an urgent message for him from Japan.” Ichiro looked at her with tears in his eyes and replied: “Thank you … I will.”
He took the diary up to the Captain’s office, and avoided gazing out into the sea as best as he could.
“Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo” modernizes the concept of the biography away from Boswellian “every ladder rung is vital” structure, and straight to “the good and meaningful stuff — that defines who a person is … and why.”
With laser-like precision, Adam Donaldson Powell bores into Albert Russo’s psyche, while in parallel he analyzes the work of a lifetime. But more often than not, there is a process of cross-fertilization, whether it is clearly identified or on the sidelines. He interviews his subject, not always in a linear fashion, scanning the latter’s important stages of life: there is first Central, Eastern – the former Belgian Congo (now, DRCongo), Ruanda-Urundi (now, the two countries of Rwanda and Burundi) and Southern Africa – Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, where the author was raised, completing high school at the Interracial Athénée of Usumbura (now Bujumbura), studying with European, Congolese, Hutu, Tutsi, Asian and American classmates, both in French and in English (he also went to an all-boys’ school in Salisbury, now called Harare). We then find him in the Big Apple at the age of seventeen, attending New York University, after which, he pursues his studies in German at the Collegium Platinum in Heidelberg. The subject is asked very intimate questions about his private life, with which he is faced for the first time. And he reveals facts he never thought could one day be thrust into the open. But still, he complies, candidly. Mr. Powell illustrates with excerpts of the author’s novels, poems and short stories, which are all either clearly or subconsciously related to Albert Russo’s life, as well as photos, letters and book reviews from Albert Russo’s personal archives. Mentioned are his AFRICAN QUATUOR, the collected poems in the CROWDED WORLD OF SOLITUDE, volume two, his collected stories and essays in the CROWDED WORLD OF SOLITUDE, volume one, and finally, his GOSH ZAPINETTE! series, of which David Alexander writes: “… Be warned, Zapinette’s gems of insouciant wit tend to become infectious. This wise-child’s deceptively worldly innocence takes the entire gamut of human endeavor in its compass. Hardly anyone or anything escapes unscathed. Michael Jackson,Vittorio de Sica, Freddy Mercury, Mao Zedong, Bill and Hill, the Pope, Fidel Castro, and even Jesus of Nazareth all come under Zapinette’s delightfully zany fire as she “zaps” from topic to topic in an irrepressible flux. As the century of the double zeros is with us, we have seen the future and the future is sham. As a healthy dose of counter-sham, Zapinette should be on every brain-functional person’s reading list.” After America, the subject moves to Northern Italy where he will reside nine years, then to Brussels. He spends half of his life in Paris, France, before finally settling in Tel Aviv Israel. When asked what his roots are, he replies that he is a humanist born in Africa, with his virtual roots being the languages which he speaks: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, vernacular Swahili, as well as those he can only read: Portuguese and Dutch. He will soon add Hebrew. Those cherished languages are much more than forms of speech, they are his planet, from which he extracts much of the sap of his writing. So, don’t be shy. Get Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo. See order details HERE!
DO WATCH ”The Age of the Pearl”, extracted from my new biography “Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo”
READER COMMENTS … regarding UNDER THE SHIRTTAILS of ALBERT RUSSO:
UNDER THE SHIRTTAILS of ALBERT RUSSO ‘can perhaps be likened to skipping a small rock across a pond – creating ripples and reverberations which both reflect the greater omnipotence of the water and temporarily alter its periphery and identity.’ Such is Adam Donaldson Powell the master weaver behind the literary tapestry that is the life & times with a view into poems, novels and picture gallery of one brilliant international award-winning multilingual poet, novelist, essayist, historian and photographer – Albert Russo – a man with a claim to no country yet a citizen of many soils – in his sensitively scripted yet profoundly penetrating work unveiled as ‘an alternative biography’.
— Jeanette Skirvin
This biography crowns five decades of my father’s very prolific writing. Both my brother Alex and myself are immensely proud of our father’s literary achievement. From his very deep insights on the history of Africa, to the birth and struggles of the Israeli state, his poems and immensely entertaining short stories, humorous novels for teenagers, short stories covering the complexities of human nature, there isn’t one topic that my father hasn’t masterfully addressed in his writings.
— Tatiana Russo
We have the pleasure to see all the beauties of literature, poetry and photography of Albert Russo in Adam Donaldson Powell’s brilliant and memorable book “Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo”. Russo’s profound and well-ordered imagination helps him to create great works of literature. Russo never writes his great poems and novels according to any mechanic rule. He has perfected his writings due to “the existential qualm for which my heritage is responsible: Africa, Judaism and Italy. They exist and coexist in cycles, in a fashion so inchoate that I am never quite sure which will take the upper hand.” Powell, the immortal poet famous for his classic “Three-legged Waltz”, points out that Russo “began life as an outsider; the offspring of refugees to Africa from Nazi and fascist persecution then became an outcast via his self-proclaimed ‘gaytude’.” No doubt, this fact has provided the perfection of tone in all his creative endeavors, and this will certainly entice all readers. The true essence of Russo’s writings and photography is revealed by Powell in this unique book. Adam Donaldson Powell’s latest powerful book “Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo” is a tour de force in biography and literary criticism.
— Dr. Santosh Kumar, Editor, Cyberwit.net
To avoid any doubts or confusion, this book by Adam Donaldson Powell is NOT just a biography of the life of Albert Russo, nor is it a synoptic overview of his massive and prolific collection of works of prose, poetry, and photography. This book is something far more than either of these literary vehicles could ever be. Through literally decades of conversations, correspondence, and collaboration between these two very talented authors/artists, Adam Powell gives us a glimpse into not only the very diverse heritage and globe-trotting life and experiences of Albert Russo, but also a glimpse into his very psyche and incredible intellect. In other words, this book lays bare for the world to see what makes Albert Russo one of the few true renaissance men of our times. Russo’s collection of works bridges gulfs of heritage, culture, philosophy, and more – often with more than a hint of his sometimes quirky and off-beat sense of humor. For anyone who has ever read and enjoyed ANY of Russo’s works, this book is a must-read to fully understand the man behind the true art of his words, ideas, and imagery.
Review of Adam Donaldson Powell’s book “Entre Nous et Eux”, by C. Richard Mathews, USA.
Adam Donaldson Powell’s new collection of works, Entre Nous et Eux, displays his multiple talents and concerns in a series of brilliant and engaging pieces. Powell is an activist, essayist, fiction writer, visual artist, poet, who writes in four languages, though English is the predominant one in this volume and an inability to read French, Norwegian or Spanish will not detract from a reader’s understanding and appreciation of any of the pieces.
The book is divided into four sections: poetry, a novella titled “Entre Nous”, a short story titled “Death Poem” and another, longer novella called “The Stalker”. While the works deal with many themes, the overriding one for this reader was the issue of how societal and political forces affect — often adversely — an individual’s development, sometimes to the point that she or he does not or cannot understand or accept who she/he is. A major factor in this, it is suggested, is the inability of others in her/his family and in greater society to respect and accept a person’s differences (the “other”).
The book begins with Powell’s great strength: his poetry. Interestingly, in the three works of fiction poems appear as well. In both the stand-alone poetry and the fiction, poems allow Powell to focus the reader’s attention immediately on his themes and concerns. The first group of poems involves children in a presumably Western European (Parisian?) context and their shock at how the world interacts with their innocence: a child playing hopscotch confronting a pedophile, a young girl taunted because she has “two mothers”, a young hijab-wearing Muslim girl also subject to jibes, problems for a child of “color”, a presumably Muslim boy’s trauma at the hands of police after talking of ISIS, the treatment of gypsies and their plight and ostracism, the shock of exploding bombs in an unnamed war zone.
Although much of the poetry deals with “social issues” in one sense or the other, there are purely lyrical moments as well, such as the poem “Jeux d’Eau”.
At a number of points the issue of suicide is introduced: the inability of the characters to accept themselves or others’ perceptions of them. Thus, in the first novella, “Entre Nous.”, a friend of one of the main characters dies of an overdose (deliberate?) days after they’ve had sex with each other. And the beautiful short story “Death Poem”, concerning two young Japanese men, involves the presumed suicide of a father over his son’s homosexuality, and the son’s own subsequent suicide himself. As noted above, the use of poetry, and references to poetry, permeate Powell’s fiction writing and in this moving story he introduces us to a specific Japanese form of poetry relevant to the taking of one’s life.
Both novellas involve casts of characters that are followed through some years of their lives. “Entre Nous.” is presented partially in an epistolary form. The story involves the interaction of several gay friends and various sexual escapades in a number of Western cities — Paris, London, New York — that the author is obviously familiar with. As in some of the poetry, especially the collection of interlocking erotic poems “tu sais je vais….t’enculer (love letters)”, the writing about sex is explicitly detailed, a means for the author to “épater la bourgeoisie” in the mode of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet and other French writers. Their cumulative effect is, ultimately, powerful and meaningful. These passages are part of his subtle analysis throughout of various types of love and physical and emotional attraction.
The second, longer novella, “The Stalker”, concerns a young woman and her lover, a transgender man who, at one point discovers that he may be “a lesbian in a man’s body” (294). The overriding theme is one of identity — despite society’s pressures, finding it or creating it and then having the flexibility to change it or allow it to modulate as circumstances and feelings may urge or dictate.
The reader should not miss the great amount of humor and wit, and pure literary pleasure, in Powell’s writing which, as in Proust, may be overlooked if one focuses merely on “the story line” or themes. Be ready for a wonderful turn-of-phrase, or the startling juxtaposition of images. For example, in “Une Lettre d’Une Prostitue…” the letter writer states, “J’aimerais parfois me mettre dans le peau de quelqun d’autre…” Or, “mots doux et traitres a la fois…” (37). Or: “lips part revealing your lizard tongue” (63). Or: “blood-red sugary tension of domestic rape” (55). Or: “the relentless fantasy is more than the sum of reality’s individual parts”. (78)
Especially delightful are the “echoes” one finds between different parts of the works through the use of literary devices similar to Wagner’s leitmotifs. Thus, there is a reference early in “Entre Nous.” to Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe singing “a man chases a girl (until she catches him)” and then much later the reader comes upon a scene of Karol/Mariusz showing his poetry to a closeted priest in which he has written “I delight in chasing straight boys until they catch me” (172).
It should be noted that in both his poetry and fiction Powell’s writing style is clear and precise without being pedestrian or boring. It is a style that is able to draw in and engage the reader quietly and without showiness, leaving one with a sense of pleasure, even when the subjects at hand are very serious ones.
Powell’s book is highly recommended for its many pure literary pleasures but also for its profound insights into aspects of modern life that are often obfuscated or ignored by other writers and media in our contemporary world oversaturated with often meaningless written and visual distractions.
C. Richard Mathews
New York-based art historian, writer and attorney
Recension du recueil ‘Entre Nous et Eux’ de Adam Donaldson Powell,
Le nouveau recueil de Adam Donaldson Powell intitulé Entre Nous et Eux reflète les talents multiples de l’auteur et comprend une série de textes aussi brillants que jubilatoires. Powell, l’activiste, est à la fois écrivain, poète, essayiste, peintre et photographe. En outre, il écrit en anglais, sa langue maternelle, mais également en français, en norvégien et en espagnol. Le lecteur découvrira dans ce volume des textes dans ces quatre langues, ce qui, dans notre monde hyper-connecté est encore une rareté, mais en même temps une grande richesse.
Ce volume est divisé en quatre parties: Poésie, une nouvelle intitulée “Death Poem”, et deux courts romans portant les titres suivants: “Entre Nous” et “The Stalker”.
Alors que ces textes évoquent de nombreux thèmes, le fil conducteur est celui des effets de la société et de la politique sur le développement de l’individu, au point où celui-ci ne comprend plus ou n’accepte tout simplement pas qui il est ou ce qu’il risque de devenir. L’auteur suggère que les autres, c’est-à-dire, sa famille ou la société dans laquelle il évolue, est inapte à respecter, voire à accepter sa différence.
Le livre a pour prémices la poésie de Powell, poésie dans laquelle il excelle. Ses textes de fiction sont eux aussi parsemés de poèmes, plus ou moins longs. Les premiers poèmes traitent de l’enfance ayant pour cadre une capitale européenne, qui pourrait être Paris. Et des conséquences, insidieuses ou cruelles, que le monde alentour peut avoir sur eux. Voyez cette gosse jouant à la marelle et qui s’éloigne précautionneusement d’un pédophile, cette autre que l’on moque parce qu’elle a ‘deux mères’, ou cette jeune musulmane malmenée à cause du hijab qu’elle porte. Que dire aussi de ce garçon basané que la police menotte dès qu’il prononce le mot Daesch, du traitement odieux que subissent les gitans, de leur ostracisme. L’auteur évoque également le choc que produisent les bombes explosant dans des zones de guerre.
Tandis que nombreux sont les poèmes traitant de problèmes de société, ils possèdent tous cette touche lyrique si propre à Powell. ‘Jeux d’Eau’ en est un parfait exemple.
La problématique du suicide apparaît ci et là: certains personnages ont du mal à s’accepter, d’autant plus lorsque leur entourage les rejette.
Ainsi, dans le premier roman, ‘Entre Nous’, l’ami de l’un des protagonistes meurt à la suite d’une overdose (peut-être délibérément), quelques jours après que les deux ont fait l’amour ensemble.
Dans la magnifique nouvelle ‘Death Poem’, qui met en scène deux jeunes hommes japonais, le père de l’un d’eux se suicide, apparemment à cause de l’homosexualité de son fils, lequel à son tour met fin à ses jours. Que ce soit dans ses textes de fiction ou dans sa poésie, Powell évoque le suicide en utilisant des éléments particuliers de la poésie japonaise. Y percevrait-on l’ombre de Mishima ?
Les deux romans mettent en scène des protagonistes sur des tranches de vie. ‘Entre Nous’ est raconté en partie sous forme épistolaire. On y parle d’amis gays, de leur interaction, de leurs expériences sexuelles vécues dans certaines grandes villes occidentales, telles que Paris, Londres ou New York, villes que l’auteur connaît bien. Powell, n’ayant pas froid aux yeux, n’hésite pas à écrire des ‘lettres d’amour’ contenant des mots crus, comme par exemple: “tu sais je vais….t’enculer”. Et cela pour ‘épater la galerie’, à l’instar de Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine – qui, à l’époque écrivaient sous des pseudonymes -, Genet, ainsi que d’autres écrivains français. Mais là, il ne s’agit pas uniquement de subterfuges, ces vers érotiques, voire pornographiques, participent de l’analyse subtile de ce qui constitue l’amour pluriel, qu’il s’agisse de la simple attraction physique et/ou des émotions qui peuvent en découler.
Le second roman, ‘The Stalker’, qui est plus long que l’autre, est l’histoire d’une jeune femme et de son amant, un homme trans-genre, qui se demande s’il peut être “une lesbienne dans le corps d’un homme”. Le thème principal ici est celui de l’identité qui, envers et contre tout, tente de s’affirmer et de trouver un équilibre.
Malgré la gravité des sujets abordés, le lecteur pourra apprécier, tout au long du volume, la veine humoristique et spirituelle de l’auteur, à l’instar d’un Proust qui se ‘moque’ gentiment de certains de ses personnages. Powell joue avec les mots et s’amuse à juxtaposer des images, comme dans ‘La lettre d’une prostituée’, où l’auteur écrit: “J’aimerais parfois me mettre dans la peau de quelqu’un d’autre…”, ou encore, “mots doux et traitres à la fois…”. D’autres exemples me viennent à l’esprit, tels que “lips part revealing your lizard tongue” , ”blood-red sugary tension of domestic rape”, ou encore, ”the relentless fantasy is more than the sum of reality’s individual parts”.
L’on trouve des passages particulièrement jouissifs tout au long de cette oeuvre si singulière, rappelant les leitmotifs de Wagner. L’un des personnages écoute un ancien vinyle de Donald O’Connor et de Marilyn Monroe chantant “a man chases a girl (until she catches him)”. Plus loin, il y a une scène dans laquelle Karol/Mariusz montre l’un de ses poèmes à un prêtre, où il écrit: “I delight in chasing straight boys until they catch me”.
Dans ce livre, qu’il s’agisse de poésie ou de prose, le style est clair, précis, et à la fois engageant, sans jamais être pompeux, même lorsque l’auteur traite de sujets graves.
Cette oeuvre mérite d’être lue pour diverses raisons. D’abord pour la belle phrase, un plaisir purement littéraire, ensuite parce que Powell aborde ici des thèmes de notre société contemporaine qui souvent sont, soit ignorés par d’autres écrivains et les média, soit négligés en raison de la quantité phénoménale de distractions vaines, aussi bien pseudo-littéraires que visuelles, que l’on nous bombarde quotidiennement.
C. Richard Mathews, historien de l’art, écrivain et avocat new yorkais
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