Four Poems

By Mutsuo Takahashi

Navigation by Night

The boat is the symbol of desire—
Fleets of Achaean ruffians off to conquer Troy,
The Argo off to steal the Golden Fleece,
Rogue ships searching for the New World
During my youth, the nightly navigations
Of the bow between my thighs was no exception
Now I am moored to the pier—my small boat rows
Secretly at night toward poems on my desk
As my only guide, I rely upon the unreliable ars poetica
Learned during days adrift on a licentious sea

The Loser’s Excuse
An alternative account of the Odyssey

Why is he the one always in the right? Why must we be the scoundrels?
It was he who stole strapping lads from all over and set them to sail for twenty years
But who in the meantime brought peace and security to this land?
Isn’t it to our credit that we congregated in his manor and raised such a racket?
For over a decade no one occupied the throne, the surrounding countries attacked
The king’s father grew old, his son was useless, so our assault was just a matter of time
Who knew if our lord was dead or alive? Of course, we’d choose a new one in his place—
Shouldn’t he have safely escorted home all the young men he had taken away
Rather than censure us for squandering his fortune with food and drink?
For ten years, his clever wife deceived us, not until she finished weaving a burial shroud
For her father-in-law, she said, but what she wove during the day, she unraveled at night
Meaning that what she wove during those years was, in fact, our funeral shrouds
After twenty years, he returned disguised as a beggar, showed himself to son and servant
And as the archery contest ended, he tricked us, shot us all, slaying us to the last man
If justice exists, I pray your wife and the Lord of Hades will judge us fairly—
Mumbling these things to ourselves, our blood-soaked souls gather and shuffle
Downward into the fog spilling from the underworld’s open maw

The Labyrinth

Dug out of the ground, bright beneath the midsummer sun, exposed,
Is the labyrinth. As we enter, we scatter like children in the afternoon,
Taking with us not even a speck of shadow, nothing but our own two feet
The reason we wander, as our bare heads and sheltered armpits drip with sweat,
Lost along the bright paths through the mysteries each one of us has brought
Is so that we may learn there is no darkness or ambiguity here—all is bright and just-so
For that is the true nature of mystery. Once we learn this truth, afterwards,
Everywhere our feet carry us, all roads we tread, will become labyrinths
Even the roads in our own countries leading us to our homes, even the alleyways,
Even our houses, even the likenesses that stare back at us from our own mirrors


On this trip, I’ve slept a lot. Of course,
I’ve slept in the hotel at night with windows open
As a gentle breeze played across my sweat-covered brow
Also in the bus during the day, and in the shade of ruins
It’s like my first trip fifty years ago, all over again
What has changed? The sleeper isn’t a young man of thirty
But an old man in his eighties, living his last years
Watching over him isn’t Eros, god of love, but
Thanatos, god of death, wearing Eros’ guise
As I doze off over and over again, I realize
The god of death is much kinder than the god of love
And much more youthful too

Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles