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Sport 38: Winter 2010

Toshio Satoe (1919 —) — Poet

Toshio Satoe (1919 —)

In the winter of 1951 Toshio Satoe was walking on the rocky point just south of Brendan Beach when a movement in the water caught his attention.

Satoe, who had traveled from his home near Osaka to visit the country where his brother had died in the failed prisoner uprising at Featherston in 1943, never spoke of why he happened to be exploring that particular stretch of coastline. The most likely explanation is that the visitor, not completely satisfied by the food served to him at the Majestic Guest House, had gone out with the aim of collecting some of the shellfish and edible seaweed he had observed growing on the nearby rocks.

Satoe had gathered some mussels and was retying his shoelaces when, chancing to look up, he came face to face with the creature he would later describe, in halting English to staff at the Majestic Guest House, as woman-fish.

Afterwards, Satoe was unable to recall how much time passed during the encounter. Nor did he recall the details of his journey back to his accommodation on the Centennial Highway, although the mussels and sea lettuce he had collected were still wrapped in his handkerchief.

Back in his room at the Majestic Guest House, Satoe sought to page 259 calm his sense of agitation by reading a book he had brought with him, a guide to the astronomy of the southern skies. But to his surprise, instead of restoring a sense of normalcy, Satoe found that certain words and phrases seemed to stand out from the rest, almost as if they were trying to propel themselves from the page.

With a sense of urgency but no conscious plan, Satoe began to rewrite the text, preserving the highlighted phrases, instinctively rearranging the fragments across the page while maintaining the spaces between them. The result was a strange and fragmented poetry that seemed to hang from the page like a tattered banner or a portion of the night sky, irregularly scattered with constellations. Satoe named the transfigured work The Eclipses; its method is hinted at in the lines, occurring towards the end of the third section, which read:

                     To erase the skies
         to let the stars go out,
                                       one by one
                  growing the night.

Satoe's The Eclipses did not find its way back to New Zealand, in translation, for another two decades. The work had a more immediate impact in Japan, where Satoe became the reluctant hero of an avant-garde that promoted erasure as a tool in the quest to re-make traditional poetic forms—those forms which, as Satoe himself wrote, 'hold us tightly in their embrace, as if to keep us from falling off the edge of the world'.

from Ichiyo, Steve: Satoe: poet of the tremulous world (Berkely, Calif.: Echo Press, 2003)