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Voices from the margins.

Walking Backwards

By Shirley Geok-lin Lim

Albuquerque: West End Press, 2010, 84 pp., $1495, paperback

Spirit Birds They Told Me

By Mary Oishi

Albuquerque: West End Press, 2011, 60 pp., $11.95, paperback

West End Press concentrates its publishing efforts on "women and multicultural writers" and the tagline under its logo reads "Publishing Voices from the Margins." These key descriptors from the press's website set up certain expectations for the kinds of poetry collections it might produce: largely free-verse, first-person narrator books revealing truths from lives that are otherwise occluded from mainstream view. The assumption here is that the marginalized individual's life is the truest thing she has to offer, as well as the most imaginatively rich thing she can bring to literature's Great Conversation, as she works to demonstrate that the images that constitute her lived experience are actually imaginable to others (rather than invisible).

Today in the US, the multicultural poet and the woman poet are both expected to come to the altar of publishing bearing the fruits of their lived experiences, with little, if anything, "made up." After all, it's ourselves as ethnically marked and gendered beings who are targeted for inclusion and celebration, since it is our ethnically marked and gendered selves that have been marginalized. This offering-up-a-specific-self is both freeing and limiting--freeing in the sense that we are, in poetry, encouraged to make something deeply meaningful of our own lives, but limiting in that we are not invited to play in fields unbound by our names and circumstances. In these two collections, Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Mary Oishi make the best of the poetic ritual of self-exposure. Although I'm only guessing that the "I" in each of their books actually stands for a version of the poet, herself, the books' narrators are each loyal enough to a single, distinctive voice as to give a sense that they stand for an individual consciousness.

The speaking voice in Shirley Geok-lin Lim's book is most original when describing life as a mother wishing to connect with an older son. In "Six Ages," the poet heralds the entrance of a thirteen-year-old into the home:

   The door bangs, shoes scuff, and the house is full
   of you. For a minute the day unfrowns
   its work, and generations settle down
   to a shuffle.

The phrase "the day unfrowns" shows an exhilarating agility with verbs that Lim displays throughout this collection. But the release from worry that unfrowning suggests gives way to a new kind of puzzlement. What is the child thinking? Although we know where he is--home--we are still unsure about what's going on inside him. The inability to enter another's reality is a form of distance that persists even in proximity, and it's a distance that has driven many a mother to distraction.

In Lim's case, the speaker graciously imbues the teen's mind with mythic mystery, rather than lamenting that he could be frying his brain while plugged into TVs, ipods, etc.

      The humming blue screen
   takes you in for hours, sitting god-wise;
   emerge, another day, removed, cleansed
   of human voice. Within machines
   you wait for whatever is coming with
      your sunrise.

What an elegant, loving portrait, and what an uplifting set of assumptions: that, indeed, a sunrise is coming, and that one can await it "within machines."

Awareness of the cultural layers in relationships, parenting or otherwise, appears in the next poem, "Keeping Your Distance," in which the speaker is mid-breakdown, stressed by the painful context she's trying to live within: "I am learning what Americans do so well--/ Staying out of each other's hair." Claiming she's "learning what Americans do" implies the speaker is not, herself, American. However, the invocation of nationalized identities becomes a clever smoke-and-mirrors trick in Walking Backwards. "Keeping Your Distance" continues by proclaiming, "You are America." After assigning images of hybridity to this American "you," the speaker (who we previously assumed to be non-American) finishes the sentence that begins "You are America" with this observation: "as native here as almost / Anything--like me, like me." The speaker has reversed positions from having to learn America(n) to being America.

These reversals begin early in the book with mention of China and Chinese selfhood, and they suggest that our mercurial souls can simultaneously embrace and reject any identity. "I must have never / Been Chinese" the speaker of the collection's first poem observes. Yet successive poems mention "we Chinese," and the book's title appears in "Passport," which declares, "I am walking backwards into China / Where everyone looks like me." The sense of familiarity is heightened by the end of this poem, in which "Cousins walk beside me, a hundred / Thousand brothers and sisters." Yet the fact that we've had to access this imagined extended family through a "passport" and via the unnatural action of "walking backwards" suggests that true belonging remains elusive.

Fulfillments of several kinds, whether through an unquestionable, stable identity or a sense of "fullness" in body or in relationship, remain elusive throughout the collection. A few poems contain poignant accounts of a childhood endurance of hunger. The adult speaker listening to loved ones sleep in "Home" evokes desires that are not only unfulfilled, but largely unidentified. Speaking of her family, she says:

   They are what I have. I dare not ask
   For more. Human love is what's at home,
   Dazed and on edge.

The refusal to specify want ("I dare not ask"), much less go after what's desired, becomes a kind of emotional sparseness that the speaker identifies within herself throughout the book, set off in counterpoint to the abundance of nature. In "Scavenging on Double Bluff," a listing of rock types found "everywhere on mud fiats" proffers "names enough to fill my pockets," and the shore provides "dandelion leaves, chicory / Wild onions, beach plums, thimbleberries." Although in the presence of abundance, the speaker is very clearly the scavenger--the one seeking nature's riches, rather than the one in possession of it. The endlessness of spiritual and physical desires, contrasted with the boundless wealth apparent in nature (particularly the ocean), is most eloquently expressed in "Past Danger and Drowning," set in Newcastle, Australia (another slip from nation to nation!):

      Shadowed swells raise
   My thirst no matter how much I swallow.
   I can never be a woman like her,
   Forever wet, incipiently
   Violent, even when calmed.

Taking note of the exuberance of nature here, and elsewhere, gives this book some necessary counterweight against complete melancholy, as do a few poems of joy and playfulness (especially "Bless This Bagel" and "Freedom Day"). However, some instances of the speaker's chronicling her own ineffectuality feel, well ... ineffectively repetitive. The first time the speaker is found "not daring" in "Home," the admission is touchingly frank. But when the book's final poem, "Sacrament," broaches the question "If I had flowered, who would I have been?," the absence of an active wrestling to name, or otherwise struggle with, what exactly has gone unfulfilled seems to have become something of a wind-drag on the collection's overall emotional arc.

What lifts the poetry past this heaviness is the absolute stunning elegance and inventiveness of Lim's language. The speaker mentions turning sixty at various points in the book, and in "Changing Gears" the menace of mortality becomes clock-gears that, "like the teeth of the shark / Grind and mesh." Lim applies her talent to make sonic and visual beauty of this menace when the poem's last lines present the speaker "understanding the shine of teeth / Looming above the beloved head of summer." Stylistic gems like "the beloved head of summer" glint so often from the poems of Walking Backwards that the reading of this book becomes like beach-combing, where embedded beauty and wonder reward the attentive traveler.

Whereas Lim employs a primarily private tone, noticing areas of the self that remain enshadowed, the poems in Mary Oishi's Spirit Birds They Told Me are in the business of making their subjects public and clear. By opening the book with a narrative prologue, Oishi implicitly announces core themes the poems will address. "I've been told that poets are bridges," Oishi writes, and here we expect her poetry to be something that restores necessary connections. Oishi goes on to list "huge divides" that need poetic healing/bridging in her life: "estrangement from my birth family and my Japanese heritage," "white supremacist brainwashing," "abuse, neglect, and disrespect," and "paralyzing shame" are all trials she's transformed, through poetry, into affirmation of "the equal worth of all human beings" and a "healthy sense of self" that allows her to be "completely at ease in the knowledge that my same-gender attraction is as innate and value-neutral as my left-handedness and green eyes."

Here, then, we have a poet who is out, loud and proud--as a woman who loves women, and as a Japanese-American daughter and mother whose identity continues to evolve. As a child of a WWII veteran and a Japanese war bride, raised by relatives in rural Pennsylvania, the fracturing and reassembling of a sense of wholeness becomes a continuous quest for the poet. In "Father's Day," plainspoken diction becomes the surface through which a depth of longing can move:

   i heard a man whistle a tune in a parking lot
   my dad whistled so much Whistle was his

   funny how you hate your dad so intensely
   you plot ways to kill him just prior to falling
      into adolescent sleep

   yet--you love your dad so much that a
      decade after his death
   your impulse is to run to a whistling stranger

The conversational tone in "Father's Day" suggests a populist aesthetic at work, and, indeed, several of the collection's poems address the dynamics of issues that ripple out past the lives of individuals and into our collective experience: the vulnerability and abuse of children, "the dangerous game of poverty," and the ethics of racialized inclusion/exclusion. Oishi ascribes a gendered power to the way women can daylight these issues in "women when we rise":

   women when we rise
   secrets cry out from crevices
   sulphured springs transform to sparkling,
   what once was poison now is fuel
   for still more rising when we rise

The urgency of women's rising to speak, and to transform suffering to "fuel," seems to blaze past conventional places where punctuation might otherwise be found, and these lines reflect the minimalist approach to punctuation that Oishi employs throughout the book. This "looseness" in punctuation carries over, in other poems, into a flexibility with line length that permits wordiness where, in a few cases, we might have found compressed language more surprising or gripping.

The poetry's strong narrative drive suggests a performance/storytelling element to the work and, indeed, Oishi is known to give strong live performances and to work professionally in radio. A handful of the poems in this collection don't feel fully realized on the page, in the absence of an impassioned body delivering them before other live bodies, including "harry who cares" and "final stations of the cross." These don't slow the momentum of the collection, however, as we're always only a page-turn away from imaginative agility written into an accessible voice. The funny, thought-provoking "McJesus" displays Oishi's accessibility and nimble imagination well:

   i reached Jesus on His cellphone
   i needed ten minutes of facetime
   but He was between appointments
   you know how it is---God has His busy days

Oishi is at her strongest when she is employing this imaginative play to subvert racist or homophobic "norms" that have crept into the mainstream lexicon. In "don't ask don't tell" she lists topics other than one's sexual preference that she, as an activist, finds offensive: "don't ask don't tell me / of your drone missile strikes" begins the poem, and the next stanza continues "don't ask don't tell me / of your pro-life stance / when you cheer the shock and awe." In "suspect," she lets her language play reveal the ridiculousness of Arizona's SB1070, and other xenophobic legal justifications for racialized persecution by saying, "we're all jews sometimes, all gay and / arizona, you have made us all illegals / with your flimsy mere suspicions."

With a publication record going back to 1976, West End Press continues its distinguished history of publishing vital new work with these rifles. The press' distinguished list of "authors and eiders" (as their website puts it) who have been associated with West End include Meridel Le Sueur, Paula Gunn Allen, and Margaret Randall. Operating out of Albuquerque, New Mexico (which is also the current home of Mary Oishi), West End's poetry list is a wellspring of dynamic works that span the tonal spectrum, from private reflection to public proclamation; here we find the fires that glow beyond the borders of mainstream publishing.

Maria Melendez is author of two collections of poetry from University of Arizona Press, and her essays appear in Ms. magazine, Sojourns, and elsewhere. She lives in Pueblo, Colorado.
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Title Annotation:'Walking Backwards' and 'Spirit Birds They Told Me'
Author:Melendez, Maria
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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