Tokyo in the Underbrush

By Dan Ryan


If I had read the instructions more clearly, these photographs would have gotten me into the photography program at the Yale University School of Art. But, like an idiot, I submitted this portfolio in print form rather than on 35mm slides as was required. Anyway, long story short: I didn’t get into Yale, though I did come close. Damned instructions.

Anyway, what you are about to read and view are poems and photographs I created while living in Tokyo in 1987 and 1988. The words were not specifically written for the images, but I paired each piece of text with each photo as a kind of experiment which I thought ended up working. You will note that all the photos are of Japanese drunks and homeless people. I was not on a social crusade, as I might be today. I was merely out to document an aspect of Japanese society which I could not believe existed. And it still exists, as my wife and I discovered during our trip to Tokyo in 2008. There are still tons of dispossessed in Ueno Park, for example.

The words and images are presented pretty much the same as they were 22 years ago. I have formatted the poems to flow more like straight prose, as they seem to read pretty well that way and it saves me some space here on the interwebs. And please keep in mind that while I make no apologies for the quality of the poetry (I am actually still quite pleased with some of it), these words were written by a man less than half the age of his current 47 years.

So there it is. Please take your time and enjoy. (And please note that each photo is paired with the text beneath it, and the location and date for each photo is directly beneath the image.)

—Dan Ryan, Brisbane, CA, January, 2011


Last evening, I saw the first “crazy-dude-shouting-at-the–top-of-his-voice-to-no-one” that I’ve seen in Japan. It was while I was walking through Roppongi. I have only been here for a week and some days. If it had been New York, this guy probably would have been my average cabbie. Or a Druze militiaman. The Japanese businessman I was walking near laughed at the guy, who was indeed shouting like Renfield with a razor. I smiled, wishing I new enough Japanese to grin and say “Yeah, we have crazy people in America too.” The moment was funny.

I saw my first Japanese bagman the next day. He had chest-length hair uniformly around his head. I could not see his eyes. He sported a dirty coat and some trendily-labeled shopping bags full of trash, or what I thought was trash. His long, glistening hair was eminently noticeable in the early work-day commuting crowd.

The sight of these two men shattered my view of Japan as the ultimate socially restrained society, one which keeps all members within prescribed societal behavior parameters. I never thought I’d see a bagperson in, Japan. Even the most finely woven silk has a frayed edge somewhere.

Maybe being a bagman is a form of rebellion. Or an honorable profession.

Humor of the ‘surd

When you stare straight ahead, people love you.

They use that stare as a guide rope to the smooth underside of a city.

Then they talk to the loops of themselves,

whipping about their hair to combine,

crashing, at the bus stop.

And they can fill their cold capsules with beer.

Large beer capsules,

to claim they are no longer the child who loved Star Wars.

People who seem to breathe when they should not.

They exhale and breathe more,

and soon the mixture is not air,

One can see through it, yet it blocks the pores like a bad handshake.

Some say there are valleys

because mountains trip and fall.

Or, proportionately, there are potholes.

A bruised and side-tracked equinox

My body is hot,

though my brain won’t feel it.

Hot nerve flashes scale

like firemen up my neck

gathering to swim where

my jellied thoughts collect.

I trip the crust of the curb.

A fine Goodyear necklace forms the halo for the ghosts of my hands, I dream.

In the way my toes wriggle,

there is the hint of the prehensile,

of the old way of walking.

I think of all those grimy seasons,

the sun singing “I am the Queen of Anonymity” to me.

Hard luck pressed to bad.

The cowboys are weeping tonight

between some snowflakes

and the blue Ulster fog.

These manholes are the

holes in the lute of Earth.

My heat, xenophobes killing xenomorphs.

There is a tangible future;

I know others will be born.

And for them, heaven should be renamed.

Varmint Burgundy

Cool metal.

Bent metal aluminum siding. Shiny, warped, and reflecting the street beacon in the shape of a 6.

Metal warped with head impressions; perhaps the heads were Cambodian. The Cambodians of Rio,

where I have lived for many years. They learned from Pol Pot

to take small bites, as people do on T.V.

So come those crushed in my crackers,

denting my house, those green in the salad of the Earth I pray to some monochrome muddy

that I do not go to the moon and marry.

When one feels low, go where the low go

At times, I must lean against the refrigerator and think.

That is all, and whether boiling bleach makes chlorine gas, I wonder.

I have too many bugs, too much video tape. And a mass in my mean body that takes A protectorate form.

For once, this grunt of a wicked rainbow Makes you laugh.

What else; the clock and what it represents do not impress me.

Just as time is rubber, so are intentions. The way today’s rain falls sounds As if the earth was frying.

And it makes some think the lives we make

are fit sculpture for some men’s room. Weeks of wood can not build this,

or centuries of fire burn it.

So I disagree, but not so hot, or feeble,

to faze a sternly casual method. I should leave them, perhaps you, to

“When something wants to eat something, What does it do?”

An eye drifting from the TV to the wallpaper told me about this.

And more, of your earth-son domus and shamed elastic and

Changing the channel with a brick.

Venison Love

You call me dear. Is this because you love me?

Or, have I misspelled it? Do you view me

just really as meat? A 6-point prize to be hunted?




Dressed up and………eaten?


“Organic lifelessness refracts light”

to an old man coughing lovely luminous vapor trails in the park

He tells this to a pretty woman, who,

in the process of describing trousers as

“pyants,” does not listen to him.

He coughs up the nervous laugh of the aged,

dumps his head upon his duffle

and sleeps.

Distantly, there ring slide guitar chords

made using a finger inserted in a hip-flask bottle.

They sing.

Terrible Clichés

If there were cocaine in the Bisquick,

Do you think we’d live better lives?


Let us be intelligent about this;

Let’s pretend we’ve read the Principia.

Sometimes, you, well, maybe not,


you know,

I feel like


I’ll run my fingers through my hair and wish it was yours.

Yet you wonder if the sun will be brilliant tonight. You wonder if your gun is loaded.

And you wonder if the cat’s water dish is full.

I haven’t read much since college; yet,

I’ve read enough prostitute cards in smog-coffin Tokyo phone booths to know

Love’s harbinger, Lust,

is alive and welcome

if you’ve an 80-minute coffee break.

But, there are certain things you care nothing about. There are certain things I object to.

Why are they the same things?

Tomorrow, if my love hits you between the eyes, don’t say

`Love hit me between the eyes,’

it’s a terrible cliché.

Quietly sinking with the Japanese sun (written in Kamiya Bar, Asakusa)

Some electrolytic brandy, and the brain’s synapses change and devolt,

like a battery, sparking of its own chemical volition. We change this way, and

We squeak.

Remember, John Wayne proclaimed

some liquids unfit for the young.

Here, an older crowd;

Here, a louder loud.

Boot tips,

and teeth grinding the edge of some brandy glass. When poured, brandy has

its own inertia.

This is a fact.

This is a physical law.

Yet, why need the real be basis for delusions? Or impressions?

Like ball-point lines.

Or bad polaroids,

fading in the street, matching road shade, road texture. Yet, sitting in this pit

any room you climb up into seems infinite, no matter its size.

Here, cigarettes burn down, strand by strand, their flames scorching lengths of RNA.

I could be other places,

to be warm and alone; perhaps the street.

I am cold, reading utopian literature, in a long, cylindrical chamber A cold chamber, heating slowly.

I think it is the barrel of a gun.

Once more, I sip brandy.

The grade-z cast of thousands



they are not wasted in empty wheatfields.

Out there.

It’s where the bearded winds sing the slalom music,

the careening scherzo of life.

Upon such music: a spirit.

The Melancholy Marabou Stork.

He airlifts sadness so sweet,

it leaves sugar burns with the tongue.

From the tongue it takes words,

leaving them scattered at the toes

to dry with other empty wheat husks.

With each monolog a husk pyre forms, until the night.

Then, a match applied

warms the cool, hard soul ‘til next morning.

On an Alabama road in the dead of 10 a.m.

The sun bakes the wetness

in my eyes into a sugary dome

I saw Julia Child put upon a dessert once.

It is a natural contact lens I peel off with a paring knife when I am not dodging meteors.

I look at the backs of my hands; they contain charred fleshy nexuses,

like I was Christ-vampire-incarnate crucified with spikes of sunlight.

At the tip of my tongue, some velcro,

which I use to strip the petals from a bluebonnet.

It is the free slope of the morning; the point from which the day’s time curves

down Einstein’s extended index.

The point from which discreet time quanta will add up

to the point of the next morning on a hill several miles from here.


In a county named after a dog, where each blade of grass is registered in the county seat,

as the officials have precious little else to do.

The Unpublished Poets of Tokyo

The unpublished poets bend in the breeze;

reeds in a pond.

Ducks eat them.

Bigger things eat the ducks. The poets mildew

in the canyons of Tokyo,

where crows bleached in soot whitewash dying brambles.

Is brambles the correct word?

The unpublished poets take

the dictionaries from beneath their oily heads, street pillows,

and page….xenophobia, autodidact, ah, here….yes.

The poets eat the bones of their procrustean kin.

Others, too, have stopped by.

Poets toothpick their pens, flicking bones, and write

sloppy words

to Japan’s shoeleather orchestra.

It is no symphony; it’s a water ballet.

The unpublished poets tread water all day.

Alleys are homes to our greatest unknowns

My flesh is parched and broken

from the cigarette

I put out in my palm.

It was curious to’ve done such a thing, I know; but for agony, alleys are best.

To scream in, to sit in,

and chew the bubble-gum bits before gangrene sets in.

This, then, is concrete, polished with dust.

A banquet of oil and rubber beneath my shoes. Fitting food for my king of the feast,

who can afford to die slowly as cancer’s camp ground yet cannot afford an ashtray.

A creamy socket of lymph stares at me like an eyeball in the bishop’s stigmata.

20 meters from the curb.

There, walk-and-pass women walk and pass,

themselves nude in the eyes of the men

with the rabbit-skull cuff links

There, sun.

Rising, spreading Sunday’s hungover glow.

From school, I remember the plane preposition test as a jet passes above, flying from that cloud to another.

Planes jot the sky’s water vapor island.

Day #8576.


I wonder if I can step on every crack when I walk downtown home.

A strange, provocative solution

If more people lived in the street, there would be fewer street people; because an increased number of persons inhabiting the street would create a climate in which street residence would be more acceptable, by virtue of its prevalence.

Therefore, there would be less of a stigma attached to being a street person. Gradually, it would become acceptable; gradually, there would be fewer ‘street people’ in the negative, social commentary sense because living in the street would be no more objectionable than living in the suburbs.

People will always be a melange of jerks, geniuses and slick pederasts; but if more of us live in the street, we can, by virtue of making an unacceptable situation acceptable, solve a great social malaise.

The discreet rainbow lady

Teeth, and

beige silk, molded

into fine oriental dentures.

Such things are worn by women who snore.

She’s one;

my Bencliffia.

A saltpeter heiress.

Controller, mixer of disconcerted realities

She’ll say

“The beginning and end product’re cheap;

it’s their transition that’s expensive.”

Silver eyed; onyx irised. She moves

the way liquid in a shaking bottle sounds.

“They are a noise, They are one life,” She says, as she moves. She says and she moves a lot.

Almost never in unison, though.


Edgar Allen Poe is dead

and I don’t have the energy

to danse like the bones of Christ along the power lines at dawn. Not like I used to.

No one could plant a bullet, as I have, only to see roots of red attack

squirrels as the plant matured.

Seems Mars is for rent. I’m going.

I’d like a room with a view for once. All that….red soil.

No need to cover the wounds of the dead.

So, there are no cheaper imitations of plastic, are there? Let it speak for itself.

I can’t; I have splinters on my tongue

from talking to trees too long.

This breeze is good.

So good.

It penetrates every molecule, for there is no blood to block it.

Wino Christmas

We can chew on the bread of a Yakuza wife

and become parodies

of our own physiognomy.

Like prisoners at Corsica we may spend our leisure converting rural tools for urban wilderness.

Perhaps you’ve found

waters of coveted rivers refreshing. Such liquids make us ill.

We prefer whiskey, for a spinal block.

We are the phantoms of language who spurn the dance

of the affected poseurs in subway clothing ads.

To wit, we are greasy freedom in tune with the beagle years.

We spew walrus, and we use you and that makes us feel ok.

Blade Runner Tuesday

The sweet fibers of the beer that ails me.

The mask of the face that kills me.

At war with god, the tequila oak leaves kiss me.

Biting a macaroon, the tight fangs who know I goad next week’s hounds smile

in the weeds with the intelligence of those who don’t comprehend stupidity.

I grip the hands of the sanskrit poets who wrote me.

To ask god for greatness is to blame another for failure. The woof of the flame, it taunts me.

I smile there, through the library of the dead.

Mozart’s skull, I…. a brouhaha and a homily.

The cold cotton pits that jail me.

I attend the three-fold mass for the gods of the rainy bus-stop.

I wear those cellophane clothes; they never fit me.

On these frequent days, I sip bombast cocktails and elude great ideas.

Greta Garbo

There is a ring on my hand.

It is made of Strontium 90 because I am anti-social.

Most people do not interest me, most contacts do not arouse me.

But, for you, the ring is tragic; it dissolves my hands, the ones I once did, and still long to, touch you with.

It is a price, the glow,

that is too high for me to stop paying now.



Walk amongst the people.

Make no sound as you walk.

Walk light, step bright and ghostly kiss the passers-by.

Here. Hear the sounds of their step.

Pound their hearts with the aura of your love. Watch the waves of ochre sound.

They love and

They need you and

They don’t know you exist.

You walk through them.

Your blood cells and theirs shake hands.

You kiss every forehead.

You own ever fiber of their suits and their jewelry. You own every crowd.

You are a harvester of chaste souls, of buttery blood vessles.

You are what you need them to think you to be.

You are something I see without you seeing me.

Urban poem

Rudy went to

the gas station bought three gallons went home

lit a match

and burned.

# # #

Dan Ryan earned BA in Journalism from Lehigh University in 1987, but has only gotten serious about getting creative work published this year. He has at various times been a private investigator, a market research journalist, and a public school teacher. Most recently he served as an editor for the Japan disaster-relief book project 2:46: Aftershocks.  Also this year he has written news and short features for Giant Robot Magazine , and written “photo-poetry-journalism” and music pieces for Scholars & Rogues. Dan has had an abiding love of Japan since living in Tokyo for two years in the late ‘80s. He currently lives in Brisbane, California with his wife and two cats. His text and picture stories can be found at Dan Ryan’s SmallStories, where you will find an addendum to “Tokyo in the Underbrush”.

One Response to “Tokyo in the Underbrush”

  1. Andy says:

    beautiful photography.

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