Ian Brinton

Isobar Press: A Canvas of Language

In an article for PN Review in December 2014 Paul Rossiter gave an account of how he came to set up Isobar Press in Japan. Under the title ‘The Weather in Tokyo’ the article gave an account of the tradition of British and American poets living in Japan, a tradition which included of course the long-term resident the American poet Cid Corman, whose second series of Origin was edited and produced in Kyoto and Clayton Eshleman, another major figure of modern American poetry, whose magazine Caterpillar took its title from a meeting with Will Petersen in 1963 on a street corner of the same city. Rossiter’s article had opened with a glance at a history which was to offer a useful context in which to see his own publishing enterprise:

From at least the 1980s on, writers in Tokyo have been supported by a series of small presses, the earliest of which, TELS Press, was a cooperative operating under the aegis of the rather grandly named Tokyo English Literature Society – in fact, an informal writers’ workshop which met once a month in a municipal building in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. 

Interestingly the TELS Press also had a journal founded in 1977 as an A4 mimeographed bimonthly which published poetry and prose by workshop members to be circulated amongst the interested. It went through various changes before culminating in a ‘sleek, well-printed, well-designed quarterly, and then in two blockbuster 250-page, A4-sized annuals in 1998 and 1999’. It also started Printed Matter Press which was to publish six volumes of poetry in the 1990s including Rossiter’s own first book, In Daylight. These books, printed in Japan, were distributed by Saru Press International in Arizona and as if to confirm that sense of acknowledgement to the life and works of Cid Corman In Daylight contained an advertisement for Peerless Mirror: Twenty Tanka from the Manyoshu from Firefly Press which had been published fifteen years before.  

As the Press became dormant (‘almost quiescent’) Rossiter thought that there seemed room for a new press to publish mainstream and modernist writing thus signalling the beginning of Isobar. In an interview with Gregory Dunne for Kyoto Journal in 2015 Rossiter suggested that he had initially had the idea a few years before retiring from university teaching in Tokyo in 2012:

I had felt for some time that there were some good English-language poets in Japan, Andrew Fitzsimons, for example, who were not adequately represented either inside or outside the country. In addition, there were a few books which had been brought out by Printed Matter Press in Tokyo back in the eighties when it was a cooperative venture: Denis Doyle and David Silverstein were two authors from that era whose work I thought was worth bringing back into print. In short, I felt there was room for a well-curated poetry press which would make English-language poetry from Japan more available domestically and also more visible in the Anglophone literary world, where such writing is often seen as peripheral. In one sense, then, Isobar could be seen as a modest attempt to de-centre, to de-metropolitanise, English-language poetry. 

Going on to explain that the name of the Press arose from a basic metaphor referring to a line joining points of equal atmospheric pressure on a weather map Rossiter made clear that there was to be no ‘special stylistic agenda’ apart from being poetry ‘working at equivalently high poetic pressure’. One aim of this new press was to make Japan more visible as a location for contemporary writing and Rossiter intended it to represent the variety and excellence of work being written in English in Japan. 

This continuing connection between the world of Anglo-American poetry and that of Japan can be seen over the years not only by Rossiter becoming a permanent resident of Tokyo from 1981 but also by his keeping a base in the Hampstead area of London from which he continues to run the Press whilst staying in England. As he told Gregory Dunne there is an appealing appropriateness in his London address: 

The building is called the Isokon Building. It’s an iconic modernist block of flats built in 1933-34 in Hampstead, London, by the architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard, who were owners of a modernist furniture-design company called Isokon (short for ‘Isometric Unit Construction’)… On the ground floor of the building there was until 1939 a bar and restaurant where residents and their guests could eat and drink; this was called – yes! – the Isobar. In the mid-1930s refugees from the Bauhaus (Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy) lived in the building; they frequented the Isobar, as did the painters Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian, the sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Henry Moore, the surrealist Roland Penrose, and the art critic and poet Herbert Read, all of whom lived nearby. Herbert Read referred to this community as ‘a nest of gentle artists’. So ‘Isobar’ has for me a nexus of appealing associations: modernism, Japanese/western cross-cultural influences, conviviality, and artistic community.

Rossiter’s close involvement with the world of Japanese poetry is immediately evident from his poem ‘Bashō’ in From the Japanese, the first book published by his new Press in October 2013. This early poem had been written in London in 1969 at a time when Rossiter had no idea that he would ever visit Japan and the two other poems from the first section of that book were composed later the same year during a six-month stay in Tokyo. In his interview Rossiter had spoken of how he chose his own book as the first to appear from the new press ‘because I thought that if, through inexperience, I made a mess of it, I’d rather it was my work I’d messed up than someone else’s. And indeed I did mess up the cover and had to redo it: an expensive mistake. But after that mishap things have gone smoothly enough on the whole’. There are currently over thirty titles in the Isobar collection and the assured quality of production confirms one’s view that this is an enterprise that was taken on not only with serious determination but with an eye to exactness of detail. 

‘Bashō’ had been loosely based on the translation from Matsuo Bashō’s ‘Prose Poem on the Unreal Dwelling’, published by Donald Keene in his 1955 Grove Press publication Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. The reflective and meditative tone of the Japanese poet’s writing is caught by Rossiter with the quiet placing of objects within a hut, words on a page, a recognition of the nature of temporality:

A household shrine, an alcove
for hanging night clothes,
no other clutter from the man
who once lived here – just a plaque
with two words in a flowing hand:


Rossiter’s phrase ‘no other clutter’ seems to anticipate the reflective wisdom that appears throughout one of the other early Isobar publications, What the Sky Arranges by Andrew Fitzsimons. Whereas Bashō’s ‘Unreal Dwelling’ had given a picture of a hut adopted as a living space Fitzsimons’s short poem ‘Ornaments’ presents us with a contemporary view of simplicity. Bashō’s hut is the home for a hermit or passing traveller and ‘there is no need to accumulate household possessions’ and in ‘Ornaments’ Fitzsimons offers us a glimpse of what might constitute bad taste:

too many knick-knacks about the place
too many brushes in the ink-box
too many Buddhas
too many shrubs and plants in a garden
too many rooms in a house
too many words on meeting someone
a ledger all plus and no minus?

What the Sky Arranges is a finely produced short volume of poems with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, an Italian artist who, like Fitzsimons, also lives in Japan and the quiet awareness of the moment is caught in the three lines of ‘Worlds’ as a witty contraction of the much to the little:

Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.

Here the old world is washed by the new as if the lens of the eye is being cleansed by a focussed attention upon a new moment. 

In 2015 Isobar Press published Peter Makin’s collection of poems Neck of the Woods and August Kleinzahler emphasised the singular force of the expressions of grief and loss which drift in and out of the poems ‘as if emerging then receding behind the clouds, usually in the form of glimpsed memory’. Makin’s central work on the poetics of Pound’s Cantos (Allen & Unwin 1985) had focused upon some of the very qualities to be later found in this collection: when he had referred to Pound’s ‘grain of entirely specific matter’ and ‘that old Platonic doctrine of an immaterial soul caught in the net of an accidental body’ it was to reveal how grief resides in the particular. Neck of the Woods gathers all the poems from the period 2000-2015 that Makin wished to preserve and it concludes with a thirty page sequence of poems titled ‘Ato’ the epigraph to which, ‘Stella Irene Correa obit 15.12.97’, alerts us to the mark, print, trace or track that leads us to a deeply moving awareness of transience and shifting time:

O so sweet, o so gentle

and these banks;

suddenly adown the angle
a crow’s shadow, and more slowly
across the path;
and I look again, and see the stump
way up on the scoop of hill
from which I looked down on this path
where she walked, then in snow,

now in this light,
with the crow’s shadow.

In the fourth poem of the sequence loss and the presence of loss is indeed to be ‘surrounded by clutter’: suitcases and clothes belonging to Correa, now to be found hanging along the verandah, block the view with a litter of her intentions which give a palpability to Makin’s loss. However, the poet can see beyond the objects

not quite in sight of the sprays of white
orchids outside the back-room window

The sounds of the line yearn outwards from ‘quite’ to ‘sight’ to ‘white’ and the precision of ‘orchids’ brings the vision closer to the room as we move towards an enclosing sound which is the only aperture through which the living may stare: the ‘window’.

Like Paul Rossiter Peter Makin had spent his early years in England and in the first section of Neck of the Woods we move from Lincolnshire to North Kyoto, from ‘Clean Clearwater sand / out beyond the rubble and shore-wrack’ to 

A small mountain hut
in which to fade
(with peculiar inscriptions
in charcoal).

One of the last poems in ‘Ato’ stills the movement of time with its recognition of a household shrine as a temporary dwelling:

Translucent leaves imprinted on
leaves, so you can’t tell which is leaf
and which is shadow; glowing green.
Shrieking starling, across the void;
silent hawk; returns.
Clouds marching steadily.

There is only the void, which is filled with
these things temporarily. 

In 2016 Isobar Press published the Japanese poet Masaya Saito’s second book of English haiku, Snow Bones and this along with Yoko Danno’s Woman in Blue have formed a part of what Paul Rossiter had very much wanted his press to do in publishing the work of Japanese poets who write in English. 

Snow Bones opens with a dedication to Saito’s parents in the form of an epigraph:

remnants of snow after a thaw; patches of snow seen stretching along ridges, in ruts, or in furrows, etc., after a partial thaw.

The images that then haunt the poet’s delicate insights into certainty and grief are often skeletons which are on the point of melting into air. They are memories across the snowfield of deep footprints and they are gifts cast into a future as the poet recalls his mother’s funeral:

Out of the furnace

the bones still
preserve her shape

An accumulation of what is gone has been placed for safe-keeping and ‘Residue of the deceased sits on a home or temple altar.’ The narrative sequences in Snowbones have the subtitles ‘Urn’ or ‘Urns’ and they conclude with a focus upon the ‘Footprints / across the snowfield’ which were those of his dead father.

But these poems are not lamentations of stasis but delicate records of movement and as the poet prepares to leave that landscape in which much of his past resides he records quite simply

In the snow country
my parents gone

a pendulum swinging

That hanging weight of a clock had been one of the first things Saito had noted as he stepped over the threshold in the opening section of the book and the steady record of time’s movement becomes a gesture towards the future as the son takes down the ‘thatch snowshield’ of the house in which his father still lives and ‘the house breathes’. In a moment that reminds us of Seamus Heaney the poet also looks through the window to see his father hoeing ‘darker and darker’ and the print on the white page of Snow Bones appears like careful footsteps which suggest a type of humility as the poet is left to stand in a ‘cold sunset…without wings.’

Humility bears with it a sense of deep respect felt not only with ‘A visit to a grave’ from the last section but also by:

a candle flame
shielded with my hand

The pendulum will of course stop and the candle will of course burn out but the concluding words to this powerful and personal rendering of sorrow and loss suggest that whereas a beginning may feel like being ‘without wings’ a journeying involves: 

Driving away
in the rear-view mirror

a cold sunset

Snow Bones offers a haunting echo of Bashō’s ‘Knapsack Notebook’ of 1687 in which he had offered a focus upon himself: 

A hundred bones, nine orifices, and something inside. This provisional thing is called “In-the-Wind-Flapping-Priest”. With the slightest hint of wind it gets moved and makes sounds. This something in me started mouthing haikai a long time ago and that has turned out to be the preoccupation of a lifetime.

In 2018 Rossiter’s Press published the deeply moving poems of Tarō Naka translated by Andrew Houwen and Chikako Nihei under the title Music. The poems had been written after Naka had returned to Hakata at the end of the Second World War after Hiroshima to find that his hometown had been devastated. This is a world where ‘in the distance burnt shrivelled trees’ which no longer ‘have ‘any trace of life’. There are only the ‘skeletons of apartments’:

where the smell of the rocky shore drifts
a cavern –
time’s insides

Words, like music, possess an independence from their creator and the last section of the volume presents Naka’s 1966 prose essay ‘Notes for a Poetics’:

The activity of writing is itself, of course, a visible activity. One holds a pen, faces the paper, and in everyday time moves one’s own hand. However, what one’s consciousness works to indicate certainly does not take place in the visible world, but in a separate, unreal one. In this unreal space, through using those unreal ‘things’, words, one acts in order to reach (an indefinable) something. The activity of creating poetry is always an escape to this unreal space.

Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press continues to keep sharply abreast of the times and last year the leading experimental voice of contemporary Japanese poetry, Kiwao Nomura, appeared in a translation by Eric Selland. The Day Laid Bare had originally been written in Japanese in 2011 in the aftermath of the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan and Selland’s remarkable work of translation has allowed the reader of today to understand how ‘Actions take hold of the human and then pass away with frightening speed.’

Ian Brinton’s most recent publications include Islands of Voices, selected poems of Douglas Oliver (Shearsman Books, 2020). His translation of Paul Valéry’s selected poems, with a Preface by Michael Heller, appeared in early 2021 from Muscaliet Press and Paris Scenes, a translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ has just appeared from Two Rivers Press. He reviews for The London Magazine, PN Review, Long Poem Magazine, Golden Handcuffs Review and co-edits the magazine SNOW.

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