Poet and Tokaido Road librettist Nancy Gaffield reflects on her recent visit to Japan…
Objects and spaces bear trace evidence that tell their own stories. How does a poet negotiate the borders between fact and fiction, history and the imagination? These questions have occupied me since I first began writing Tokaido Road in 2008. At that time, the objects were the individual prints of Hiroshige Utagawa titled “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido” or Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi). The space was Japan—the Japan I experienced between the years 1979-84, and on subsequent visits, but also Japan as a historical space, a place of myth and legend. Though I did not know the term yet, it was a work based in psychogeography, where the effects of the geographical environment collide with the imagination of the individual poet. The ‘stories’ in the poems are based on historical material, research and observation, but they are also imagined accounts that cross the boundaries of time and place, building a bridge between worlds.
Brocken spectre is the term for the phenomenon of the shadow of an observer cast against mist or cloud. Clearing and concealment—a paradoxical and ancient struggle according to Heidegger. This phenomenon, like Japan itself, has always bedazzled me. Ghost-must, strange-henge, crow knows. Tokaido Road has had a remarkably long life for a little book of poems. Through it, I have met so many remarkable people from whom I have learned so much. In all those involved with the opera, it continues to live and breathe. I will never again be able to think of the Hiro of my poems without hearing Jeremy Huw Williams singing Nicola’s haunting musical rendering of the line: “How shall we remember them?” There is an acoustic of landscape, just as there is in music. Or Tomoko Komura’s interpretation of “Travellers on the Tokaido meander between centuries. Fuji doesn’t change”, as she gestures for the background to change from the modern-day photograph to the print of Kawasaki, and she begins to ferry Hiro across the river into his past and to Kikuyo, Mariko.
From the very beginning, the work was as much about journey as it was about art. And in every work, there is the seed of something new. Each project has a way of segueing into the next. The journey will continue in new forms, new locations. On my last visit to Japan, I kept seeing small frogs—the Japanese word for frog is ‘kaeru’, which also means to return. Somehow there will be a return—a little frog told me so.