Book review: The Thorn Puller by Hiromi Ito, English Translation by Jeffrey Angles

Image: Event cover, Removing the Thorns of Human Suffering with Hiromi Ito & Jeffrey Angles, Co-Presented by the University of Pittsburgh Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures and MONKEY x Stone Bridge Press.


What on earth is this?! I kept asking myself whilst reading Hiromi Ito‘s The Thorn Puller (Japanese title: Shin Sugamo Togenuki Jizo Engi) in English, translated by Ito’s long term collaborator Jeffrey Angles (Stone Bridge Press, 2022). This was the same reaction I had when I first heard Ito and Angles’ bilingual readings of Ito’s poems one night in Canberra. Sounding more like an impromptu and experimental jam session than a poetry reading, the pair introduced me to poetry as a collaborative performance with a potential for a transcendental communing through voice, breathe and rhythm.

That was nearly five years ago as part of the Poetry on the Move festival, an initiative by International Poetry Studies Institute at the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research of the University of Canberra, with an aptly named theme that year of Boundary Crossings. Ito’s work seems to cross many boundaries: although the publisher, Stone Bridge Press, bills The Thorn Puller as a novel, Ito herself calls it a long poem. She mixes prose with verse, dialogue with monologue, fantasy with facts, past with present, and changes point-of-view, even in the middle of a sentence; yet there is always emotional clarity, and the stories she tells resonate, are poignant, with intelligence, and often very funny.

Seemingly autobiographical, The Thorn Puller could be read as a series of poetic essays or an episodic tragicomedy about how the narrator deals with challenges of her comings and goings: flying back and forth between the United States and Japan to look after her ageing and ailing Japanese parents in Kumamoto, an English husband, twenty-eight years her senior, living in California, and her three children, all living in different places, and all troubled in their different ways. She remembers her childhood visiting a temple with her mother and grandmother to pray to Togenuki Jizo, a protecting Bodhisattva, who pulls out thorns from our lives, and heals us from our sufferings. To alleviate her struggles, she revisits this temple with her friend, later with her husband, and sometimes in her own mind.

On another level, by seamlessly including passages from others into her writing ― poems, novels, chronicles, folklore, religious scriptures, song lyrics, performances, quotes, lectures, letters and even manga ― her private ordeals become universal. At the end of each chapter, there is an author’s note, with names and works she has ‘borrowed voices’ from. These voices are often from well-known Japanese poets and authors like Kenji Miyazawa, Osamu Dazai, Soseki Natsume, and Chuya Nakahara, or from a classic chronicle like the Kojiki (An Account of Ancient Matters) whilst others are Western ― Euripides, Franz Kafka, Arthur Rimbaud and even Doctor Seuss. Many of her eclectic ‘borrowed voices’ are non-literary: her friends, a late poet’s widow, pop singers, comedians and more.

I am reminded that Ito’s practice may be best understood as collaborative, and her poetry experienced as voices, in much the same way she and Angles performed in Canberra. I am also reminded that Ito is called a ‘shaman of poetry,’ because words of others flow through her, and as such, The Thorn Puller could be called a book of voices.

In fact, through Ito, the shaman, the narrator’s voicing of her struggles is voicing my own. I migrated to Australia from Japan more than forty years ago, and the increasing frequency of my comings and goings between Sydney and Tokyo; my relationships with the ageing and dying of those who share love with me; and the inability to share some of my deep-rooted ways of seeking solace, such as paying respects to the Togenuki Jizo, seen as superstitious by my Australian friends, are all in The Thorn Puller. Ito has channelled my voice, my futile struggles, named them, as painful or even embarrassing as they may seem, acknowledged, and allowed my emotions to have their say, out loud, with and without profanity, to be chanted like a sutra with voices of many others. Through a series of what feel like transcendental incantations, Ito has pulled out a few thorns from my life and reminded me of the absurdity and hilarity of my vanity, her vanity, our universal vanity in the face of death.

The penultimate chapter, entitled, “Good and Bad Ways of Dying, A Poet Stares Death in the Face”, is an account of the narrator’s conversation about death and dying with her friend and poet, who for the sake of the book is called Tasogare-san. Tasogare means twilight, and san is a Japanese suffix of showing respect. Like the narrator’s husband, Tasogare san is twenty-eight years older than her, sick with diabetes and severe Parkinson’s disease.

The narrator describes Tasogare-san’s work, “She had made a career of listening to the voices of the dead and incorporating in them into her work . . .  In her poetry, the living and dead intermingled, you might think someone is alive but they’re dead, and people who ought to be dead are alive― meanwhile, everyone eats, sleeps, defecates, has children, falls ill, and the seasons go by.” The narrator interviews Tasogare-san, who in turn imparts enlightened insights, sometimes by reading her poems.

When we read the author’s notes at the end of this chapter, we come to know that Tasogare-san is based on writer and environmental activist, the late Michiko Ishimure, who co-authored a book of conversations Shi o Omou (Thinking Death, published by Heibon-sha, 2007) with Ito. Ishimure is best known for her writings exposing the Minamata disease, a mercury poisoning caused by industrial pollution, often by combining reportage and fictional literature, at a time when the Japanese authorities had yet to acknowledge it as an environmental disaster. At this point, the reader understands, with the narrator, the deeper meaning of a passage encountered in a much earlier chapter, “Fishing with Cormorants, Ito Hears of the Merits of Coming and Going”, which included words from the Noh play The Cormorant Fisher (Japanese title Ukai, attributed to Enami no Sayemon, circa 1400):

Truly, this is the merit of coming and going

Use it as the ability to help others

Use it as the ability to help others

Midway through the final chapter, entitled, “Ito Grows Ill, A Bird Transforms into a Blossom, and the Giant Trees Stay Unchanged,” misfortune befalls the narrator’s pets, and she realises that when she went on a pilgrimage to see the Togenuki Jizo, she forgot to pray for the releasing of her pets’ thorns. She makes a connection in her mind and decides to thank her pets for sacrificing their well-being as substitutes in return for her family’s well-being. This absurd connection of beliefs reminded me once again of my culturally ingrained, ineradicable patterns of thought, no matter how much I understand that superstitions can place unwelcome and unnecessary fears and limitations on my life.

Yet after reading The Thorn Puller, I came away with a sense that all belief systems in all cultures, including the superstitious, the philosophical, the religious; monotheists, polytheists, rationalists, atheists, and those without any faith alike, all contain sufferings and salvations within those same paradigms. Our small daily gestures, like giving voice to our emotions, going for walks in nature, using our breath and voice to chant a sutra, pray or to read and write poetry, and using what we have learned from our sufferings to help others, all seem to help us in return.

Several days after finishing my first reading of The Thorn Puller, I am still wondering what on earth it is. In writing this review, I’ve attempted to make sense of something that seems to not want to be made sense of or to be pigeonholed by a review. Perhaps that is because Ito successfully delivers in this world, something which is out of this world.

– Mayu Kanamori, 22 January 2023

*The image used in this review is borrowed from an online book reading event:

Removing the Thorns of Human Suffering with Hiromi Ito & Jeffrey Angles

Mon, Feb 27, 2023 7:00 AM AEDT (Sydney, Melbourne) / 09:00 AM JST (Tokyo, Osaka)

Co-Presented by the University of Pittsburgh Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures and MONKEY x Stone Bridge Press.

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