Daniel Bratton reviews women: poetry: migration edited by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, ed. women: poetry: migration [an anthology]. Palmyra, New York: theenk Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-9883891-6-8

 

Daniel Bratton

 

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s women: poetry: migration [an anthology] effectively represents and validates the eco-cosmopolitanism that Ursula Heise postulated ten years ago in her ecocritical manifesto Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global.  Referencing the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Heise argued that deterritorialisation, ‘the detachment of social and cultural practices from their ties to place’ (51), shifts the imaginative core of environmentalist thinking ‘from a sense of place to a less territorial and more systematic sense of planet’ (56). Eco-cosmopolitanism, then, ‘is an attempt to envision individuals and groups as part of planetary “imagined communities” of both human and non-human kinds’ (61).

Such concerns are evident in the ‘essays’ – that is, statements of poetics – that Joritz-Nakagawa solicited from all fifty contributors to the anthology (including herself and translators). As well, as editor, Joritz-Nakagawa introduces the collection with her own declared intentions:

After having lived in Japan for quite some years (almost half my life) though born in the U.S., as a poet who uses a different language for her poetry than for most of her daily life, as somebody who feels both part of the local mainstream and not part of the mainstream, over time I came to become intensely curious about other women poets moreso than men due to feeling outside the mainstream as a woman (in a male-dominated society/world), not just as a person who grew up elsewhere and has a foreign passport and whose primary daily language is her second versus first language. How does a woman’s knowledge of more than one language and culture affect her and her poetry? was something I wanted to investigate further by finding and reading poetry by other women for whom this is the case. What kind of eclecticism, richness or complexity might occur for those of us whose lives and work encompasses more than one culture? (x)

Joritz-Nakagawa, whose previous work, notably distant landscapes (2015) and diurnal (2016), has exhibited ecopoetic concerns, has now determined to take the reader directly into the realm of eco-cosmopolitanism through the work of non-mainstream female poets mining corresponding cross-cultural veins.[i] This is a poetic world removed in time and place from the bioregional ‘home grounds’ of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (or Sansei Yamao and Nagasawa Tetsuo in Japanese environmental poetry). Apropos, Joritz-Nakagawa comments upon ‘the unfortunate emphasis on regionalism which even affects many poetry anthologies’ (xi), though this should not necessarily be taken as an inherent criticism of the above poets or their poetics.[ii]

As well, as a poet anthologising migrant women’s work, the editor reminds us that she also thinks of language itself as foreign. Here she quotes the Japanese poet Kora Rumiko, who observed in an interview that, even as a child, she felt ‘that language was not mine, that I existed outside the language that surrounded me, like a foreigner …’ (xii). The aforementioned ‘essays’ by the contributing poets express similar concerns. Jody Pou remarks, ‘If there is a theme in my work, I would have to say it is the questioning of language and how we use it. I like to deconstruct historical subjects, simultaneously deconstructing language itself through the use of these multiple languages, citations, samplings of music, etc. I use one language to undo the other or make it clearer, depending on the need. I like to deconsecrate punctuation as well at times’ (146). Hazel Smith, transplanted from Leeds to Sydney, writes of her ‘post-language’ approach, her technical experiments including ‘notating words in musical rhythms, linguistic coloratura, discontinuous prose poetry, incursions into surrealism, interrogations and elaborations of metaphor, multi-voiced polylogues, and “internet cuts and pastes” that take the form of literary remixing’ (104).

M. NourbeSe Philip, living in the ‘space-time of the City of Toronto’, describes her poetics as engaging ‘with the issues that have emerged from my entanglement with issues of Language and its fellow traveller, Silence’ (172). Vietnamese-born poet Mông-Lan, in line with Charles Olson, Cid Corman, and Ted Enslin, and more recently the Armenian-American poet Arpine Konyalian Grenier (who should have been in this collection), ‘consider[s] spaces between words as breaths, much as a composer would, using white space as moments, a measure to mark meaning and breath’ (207):

‘Particulars’

 

how strange to feel your strength

as soon as i touched you

 

name the nouns

fingers on wood fingers on strings

the hallowed chord of a guitar

 

toe on grass  nail on toe

the Achilles tendon

at the crossroads of my own knowing

 

one writes

the particulars

to mean the whole

 

i’ve outgrown the red skies

las noches oscuras de Buenos Aires

 

sin fin

 

outgrown the need

to be miserable

(203)

Nathanaël, in her poem ‘Augustment (translation without language)’, cites Spinoza’s argument that it is a ‘universal failing in people that they communicate their thoughts to others’, contending that the ‘silence that is called for authenticates what might be said. It recognizes as something more than the mere futility of speaking … the danger of giving one’s voice so off-handedly to language’ (215).

Another shared dimension of these anthologized poems is observed by Donna Stonecipher in the essay following her contributions,

In my poems I am interested in exploring travel and how it touches on ethics, privilege, and aesthetics. I’ve long been intrigued by what I call ‘voluntary exiles,’ people who without economic or political imperative choose to live in a country in which they were not born and/or are not citizens. The trivium of love, job, fellowship does not apply to these seekers. What are they looking for? Why do they willingly give up the support system of family, citizenship, native tongue, a known culture, for the unknown? (77)

In contrast to the imposed exile of displaced migrant poets, these voluntary exiles, whose work is arguably predominant in this anthology, have their own set of eco-cosmopolitan anxieties and hang-ups.

Éireann Lorsung, who was born in Minneapolis and has lived in rural France, the English Midlands, and rural Belgium, observes,

My migration has been shot through with fear though I am a bureaucratically ‘easy’ migrantI’m white, have a lot of education, come from the US, speak several languages, chose to leave, and am trained in a vocation (teaching) that is often in demand. The longer I live where I have no permanent right to remain the more intensely I’m aware of the ways in which I don’t belong and the stronger my underlying anxiety about being found out and punished for my difference. … This isn’t rational, but it has been formative. One result is that I associate home more and more with a feeling of safety, and safety more and more with an abolition of borders, prisons, and surveillance.

In places where I don’t belong I have tried to make rooms of various sizes (some internal) that resist my underlying dread of the official—customs officer, police, inspector—and my sadness about my ways of life—unmarried, childless, without a permanent or constant source of income—often precipitates a demand for explanation. (82).

At the same time, benefits of such rootlessness accrue. Ivy Alvarez sees herself as ‘fortunate to have lived in many countries and traversed several cultures: Filipino, Australian, British, Celtic, European, and now, New Zealand. Moving around means I uproot myself every time, so that it feels like I start from scratch, a state that gives me the advantage of the outsider, one who looks in, is never comfortable, always questions, observes, records’ (108). Lisa Samuels (born in the United States, lived in Sweden, Israel/Palestine, Yemen, Malaysia and Spain, and now situated in Aotearoa/New Zealand), after ‘[her] turn to the efficacy of productive action in the world’, understands ‘unknowing as positive and empowered’ (167).

Still, that this anthology is determinedly eco-cosmopolitan in poetics and orientation does not preclude some of the contributors exhibiting strong attachments to specific places, though such evocations are often undercut by an uneasy sense of deracination. Take, for example, a poem by Carrie Etter (whose biography – ‘born in Illinois, educated in southern California, and now living in Bath, England’ – places her somewhat outside the editor’s stated multilingual concerns):

‘Future Interlude’

 

Where are you? Normal, Illinois

 

What do you see? Cornfield upon cornfield splayed, flattened by tornados

 

What do you see? Stunted stalks, palest soil under a heavy sun

 

What do you see? Soybeans submerged in water

 

What do you see? Tomorrow

 

What do you seek? Our great-grandfathers’ ghosts: we’d have a word

(46)

Although more conventional than most of the poems in the anthology – where experimentation, often under the influence of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, dominates[iii] – Etter’s contributions from The Weather in Normal, as contemporary evocations of place, pointedly take into account the effects of climate change, the new ‘normal’ in Illinois.

No, you can’t go home again. Jane Lewty, a native of Leeds, recounts in her ‘essay’ how the different genres of 1990s electronic dance music ‘(for example rave and UK hard house among many others) built a sense of community … where the North of England dominated the South in a defiant mode of expression’ (121). This music ‘opened up a large-scale world that we could connect with—the techno giants of Detroit, Chicago, NYC’; however, Lewty contends that ‘[o]nly from other places can I look on/back to Yorkshire with a measure of detachment and write a voice that reverberates through the sounds of the 1990s and within the topography of a place that can never be fully regenerated, either for the individual or the collective’ (121).  (She also reflects upon her visits as a teenager to Sylvia Plath’s grave at Heptonstall, and Plath’s migration to the moors of Yorkshire, ‘[a] landscape beautiful, dramatic, and punishing; and within it the American poet who was placed there incongruously, it seemed.’)

Rachael Tzvia Back, in translating the poetry of Lea Goldberg (1911–1970) from Hebrew, suggests that Goldberg’s poetry ‘continued to express the two-fold sensibility and longings of an immigrant. This sensibility often resulted in a sense of being suspended between two places and, finally, of belonging nowhere at all. Goldberg articulated this reality as “the heartache of two homelands”’ (156).

However, Ursula Heise (and now Jane Joritz-Nakagawa) does not focus on such heartache in propounding eco-cosmopolitanism. Instead, Heise sees these conditions, to quote Bruce Robbins, as making real ‘the possibilities of an environmentalism without borders’.[iv] Mông-Lan, who left Saigon on the last day of the evacuation during the War in Vietnam, studied at Stanford and the University of Arizona, lived 5-6 years in Tokyo, returned to Vietnam on a Fulbright Grant, lived in Bangkok, and spent many years in Argentina, and who now divides her time between the States and Argentina, travelling to Asia and Europe, includes the following in her poetics statement:

Where I’ve lived, what I’ve seen, and the cultural ramifications of all this is important to my work and subject matter: history, Vietnam, Asia in general, South America, particularly Buenos Aires, the tango dance, and love, not only of the physical variety. … Further, socio-political concerns are of great importance: the people and how they live, wars and their aftermath. Being a refugee from a long war, from a country that has had a history of wars, I have always been concerned about the political impact of anything and everything. Feminist concerns are of vital importance, writing from the point of view of women, women’s rights and politics. Ecopoetics, writing about the earth, taking care of the earth, singing of the earth, the beauty, vast skies, indeed, love poems to the earth, are vitally important. (206)

Here we are reminded of Heise’s argument that ‘[r]ather than focusing on the recuperation of a sense of place, environmentalism needs to foster an understanding of how a wide variety of both natural and cultural places and processes are connected and shape each other around the world, and how human impact affects and changes this connectedness’ (21). Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s women: poetry: migration promotes such an understanding in a glorious celebration of eco-cosmopolitanism.

 

References

Bratton, Daniel. ‘Daniel Bratton reviews Diurnal by Jane Joritiz-Nakagawa‘. Plumwood Mountain, vol. 3, no. 2 (Aug. 2016).

Heise, Ursula K. 2008. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford UP.

Sullivan, Susan Laura. ‘Susan Laura Sullivan reviews Distant Landscapes by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa‘. Plumwood Mountain, vol. 3, no. 1 (Feb. 2016).


[i] Susan Laura Sullivan has written of distant landscapes, ‘The poem “<echo poetics>” appears as a form of prologue. … The title augurs a continuous rumination on the mirroring of the field of eco-poetics. Desire, danger and the shortcomings of seeking harmony with perceived separate ecologies, especially but not exclusive to the non-human, are pivotal to the verses that follow.’ See ‘Daniel Bratton reviews Diurnal by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa‘ for a discussion of ecopoetic concerns in this book of poems.

[ii] Heise, however, is explicitly critical of both Berry and Snyder, noting that ‘[e]nvironmental justice advocates have often taken issue with the underlying assumptions of race, class, and gender that tend to be taken for granted in the environmental ethics of white, male, middle-class writers, including Berry and [Scott Russell] Sanders’ (31), and arguing that Snyder’s underlying assumption seems to be ‘that cultural identities will be shaped and reshaped by whatever place one chooses to live in, rather than that cultural migrations will in any fundamental way unsettle the terms of local habitation—perhaps all the way to the notion of the “bioregion” itself’ (44).

[iii] In her introduction, Joritz-Nakagawa writes, ‘I began work on this anthology in the summer of 2015 by contacting female poets whose work could be called innovative / experimental / avant-garde / adventurous and who were or would be (at the time of submitting their work) living in a country other than that of her birth (as I wished to exclude repatriates)’ (x).

[iv] Robbins is quoted on the back cover of Sense of Place and Sense of Planet.

 

Daniel Bratton is a lecturer in English at Renison University College, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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