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The Maltreatment of Meaning
Can you speak Japanese?
No, I cannot speak
Yes, I can speak
Yes, I can speak but cannot read
Yes, I can speak and read but cannot write
Yes, I can speak and write but cannot understand
I was a good child
You were a good child
We were good children
That is good
I was a bad child
You were a bad child
We were bad children
That is bad
To learn a language you must replace and repeat
I was an ugly child
You were an ugly child
We were ugly children
That is ugly
I am bored
You are bored
We are bored
That is boring
I am hateful
You are hateful
We are hateful
That is hatred
I will eat
You will eat
We will eat
That is a good appetite
I won’t eat
You won’t eat
We won’t eat
That is a bad appetite
I will make meaning
You will make meaning
We will make meaning
That is conveying language
I will use Japanese
You will use Japanese
We will use Japanese
That is Japanese
I want to rip off meaning
You want to rip off meaning
We want to rip off meaning
That is the desire to rip off meaning
I want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
You want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
We want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
That is, language is nothing more than raw material
I will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
You will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
We will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
That is replacing words mechanically and making sentences impossible in real life
Rip off meaning
Sound remains
Even so we search for meaning. The primitive reflection of a newborn sucking a  finger if one sticks one out
It is the primitive reflection of a newborn sucking a finger if I stick one out
It is the primitive reflection of a newborn sucking a finger if you stick one out
It is the primitive reflection of a newborn sucking a finger if we stick one out
It is the primitive reflection of sucking if a newborn’s that sticks out a finger
As for me, meaning
As for you, meaning
As for us, meaning
Is meaning, that is
Do not convey
As for me, do not convey
As for you, do not convey
As for us, do not convey
Do not do it, that is conveyance
Meaning ripped apart and covered in blood is surely miserable, that is happiness
I am happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
You are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
We are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
The blood-covered meaning of that is blood-covered misery, that is happiness
 
 
 
 

Translator's Note: This poem draws inspiration from American artist Bruce Nauman’s 1985 video installation Good Boy, Bad Boy in which two video monitors are placed opposite one another, each showing a sixty minute-long video loop. In them, two actors recite alternating phrases, such as “good boy” and “bad boy,” with an increasing degree of emotion. Itō’s poem, written at a time when she was traveling back and forth between the different linguistic worlds of the United States and Japan, shows her interest in (and resistance to) the signifying process by which people learn language and make meaning. In fact, the poem’s structure is not unlike the grammatical drills that language learners use to master new patterns, yet by the end of the poem, the neat grammatical patterns have broken down. The Japanese title of the poem, Imi no gyakutai (literally “meaning abuse”), leaves it unclear whether meaning is the thing being maltreated or the thing doing the maltreatment.