The famous Tokyo detective looked as if he'd taken a shower
in his linen suit and then slept in it.
He mopped his shiny forehead with a handkerchief.
"Pascal was right," he said, his tenor slightly nasal.
"Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to
another form of madness. What's more," he added, the cat
eyeing the canary, "contradiction is not a sign of falsity,
nor is the want of contradiction a sign of truth—Pascal again."
He took out his fountain pen. I saw my chance.
Mr. Moto, I asked, should I believe all those stories
I've heard about you? "Please do not," he murmured. "I do not."
He was writing something on a cocktail napkin.
"In fact," he said, his pen continuing to move, "my real name is
Laszlo Lowenstein. I was born in Hungary. I drove myself crazy
as an actor in Zurich and Berlin, and now that I live in Hollywood
I have bad dreams. Last night one of them told me
I'll end up buried alive in a tale by Edgar Allen Poe."
He coughed politely, capped his pen, and getting to his feet
handed me the little piece of paper. "An ancient Japanese
poetic form." he said. Even as I stared at it
the little cairn of characters, each a tiny, exotic bird cage
with its doors open, blurred, melted, and reformed as if rising
to the surface of a well, where these words trembled
but stayed clear enough to read: As evening nears, how clearly
a dog's bark carries over the water.
– By Jonathan Aaron
from The Best American Poetry 1998
When I came across this poem, I fell in love with it – because it seemed quirky, even a bit mad in a good way; because everything it said was delightfully unexpected; and because of the beautiful description of the 'ancient Japanese poetic form' ('the little cairn of characters' etc.) followed by such an exemplary haiku. (I even wish I'd written just that bit.)
Then, in Googling to find out more, I discovered that – as some of you, dear readers, will surely already know – Mr. Moto is a fictional character featured in books by John P. Marquand and movies based on them starring the unforgettable Peter Lorre.
I have no idea why Aaron chose to make a poem about Mr Moto, and I don't know how accurate his portrayal is, in terms of being true to the original creation — though it is apparent that he has taken the character further, influenced by the movies, conflating him with his actor. (Wikipedia informs me that Peter Lorre was born in Hungary and his real name was the one given in the poem.) I expect that the conversation and the business about the haiku were imagined by Aaron.
I found out all that, only after choosing this piece to share with you. Obviously the poem works beautifully even when one is ignorant of its source or background details.
I didn't know anything about the poet either. There are few of his poems to be found online, and his Amazon entry suggests that in a long career he has produced only three books, quite far apart, the first shared with Anthony Hecht. However, what I have been able to find shows that the seamless mix of realism with flights of imagination is not limited to this poem alone. I have to say, it's an approach which enchants me! You will find some examples at Poem Hunter.
I also came across a scathing review in The Unofficial New Yorker Poetry Supplement, from someone who is not in the least enchanted by Aaron's work – just in case you'd like to check out an opposing view.
Information about the man is equally sparse, but sufficient to indicate a distinguished career. Even Wikipedia is brief, but does tell us he was born in 1941, wrote a fourth book not listed at Amazon (so presumably out of print), that he is a native of Massachusetts, where he still lives, is a college professor, and has received many honours for his writing.
The Wikipedia article also includes this lovely quote, from an unattributed review made available via Creative Commons:
“Dreaming is after all a kind of thinking,” Jonathan Aaron writes in this new volume, his third in almost 25 years, and it’s hard to imagine a more succinct statement of his poetic method. Aaron has always used the peculiar instability of poems to his advantage: he builds tension from a poem’s ability to slip on no more than a phrase from the real to the symbolic, from the hypothetical to the unalterable.
The New Yorker has a 2008 interview with him, in which he discusses his process and influences.
I prefer reading ebooks, but his books don't come in that form. I might have to buy the paperbacks. I do want to read more of his work, and that seems to be the only way. (I might also try a Mr. Moto novel; some are available in Kindle. And the movies are on YouTube!)
Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors