Pam Brown reviews Flux and Wild Black Lake by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Flux. New York: BlazeVOX books, 2013. http://www.blazevox.org/. ISBN 978 1 60964 155 9

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Wild Black Lake. Arroyo Grand, CA: Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2014.

theenkBooks@rochester.rr.com

 

Pam Brown

 

In Flux, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa plunges straight in to a dense monologue prompted by the absence of various postcards that are lost, never written, never sent, forgotten, refused by a post office because of profanity, illegibly addressed and even a postcard swept away in a typhoon. The typhoon sets the scene. The location is Japan – where Jane lives. It’s summer – after the “Hello Kitty alarm clock” interrupts sleep and is instantly hurled across the room still shrieking its alarm in Japanese – “mada da ne? OKITE! – still asleep? GET UP!’” … “somehow I manage to unstick myself from the crinkled bed sheets and stumble outside to the nearest sushi restaurant, where, being a vegan of course, I peel from the rice and then hurl the fishy parts until they stick to the restaurant conveyor belt. It’s so hot I assume I’ll be forgiven for this impropriety (and all the others) yet here come two unarmed guards wearing bright pink lipstick tight white skirts gloves and white hats, to carry me back to the oppressively humid street while I scream no, no, please, I am a political refugee from the violent country that dropped atomic bombs on you twice, the land of Rodney King, gang rape and Trayvon Martin”. She imagines prison life as time filled by a combination of reciting the complete works of Basho (though she can remember only one short poem) and listening to Morrissey. At the end of this anxious dream she cannot get up – not even to retrieve a possible missing postcard from the red letterbox. The reader knows the poet is in a predicament and surmises that she is going to try to write her way out of it.

The variety of form that follows the prose opening is breathtaking. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa once quoted Charles Bernstein saying “that a difference between experimental and traditional poetry could be that, in the latter case, one sets out to write about something, while in the former one writes and then discovers what the something is”.[1] Here she is applying the former. This book is disordered and its huge flood of imagery, ingenious observation, thought and feeling can seem, at times, overpowering but it is also always mindful.

Pages of tercets begin

walking my imaginary

dog pretending to make

dinner i avoid looking at

 

sad buildings because

the world has suddenly turned

quite somber

 and the resonance becomes a fragility and depression that is not completely turned from the world

orange butterfly

the terrifying self

continually windblown

 that develops reflectively in the next sequence –

A person’s resilience can be measured by the power to forget.

Full of screams and crying. Yours was. The park was a mass

of conflated jumping with intersections.

 The expatriate poet is clearly aware of her “foreignness” and that occasionally lends the tone a conscious detachment –

to not know what is foreign

a common state is far

people tend to appear absent

due to rearranging the words

if only the world

could be missing

Plumwood Mountain asks reviewers to consider ecology as a context. In Flux there is no separation between mind/poem/world or society/body/biota – the poems’ flow is inclusive throughout –

before the election / i tried

consuming

far less / if the world, instead of

being sometimes mere

beauty, spiritlessly /

triumphed / and (i was) moved,

but in the wrong direction / relation

of caterpillars to capsules and

capillaries / not cap

guns / of heroes / and

atrophy (of)

and as the levels of intensity of the poet’s self-aware, messy situation alter there is relief in a series of season-poems written in couplets. <spring> – “It’s time to start something new / like a headache that lasts for months”. <summer> – “Because the summer is delicate / we can deconstruct it easily”. <autumn> – “ … falling leaves are another cover / for financial collapse”. <winter> – “A painting depicting a winter scene / may be better than the real thing”.

Then the scene and tenor switch or lurch into a longer discordant, hyperreal passage where the style is reminiscent of the Korean feminist poet Kim Hyesoon’s writing –

synthetic hair to whom scenery adheres

monster rerun i encoded my baby wow your sunburn is bright

try my wavy surfboard special one time offer two timer my

jonny baby after the toilet tissue of memory oh is exploded for

vacuum listen up teriyaki nobody knows the way to mars so

we go to kyoto and buy a tiny dour torch

for bulbous bassinet but let’s not play favourites oh

wrinkly ones i was just a fetus fetish garbled paint on wall

and your name is winkly miffy missy happy victim

USB midget babies fit in your pocket

This kind of totally readable glossolalia continues pacing the “breakdown” as it reaches a peak and takes on poverty, inequality and money and its relationship with power over nature, leading the reader eventually, though briefly, to think of Fukushima –

…              i may be radioactive iodine.  what

remains after the tidal wave    go ask father

 

nature.  somebody stole my vertebrae.  your

browsing is history.  we are

scientists after all.   i worry where my eyes will go

 

next & would like to move my hand across that

continent but stop myself

Further into this sequence the origin of the nuclear problem is mentioned – “… i’d like to touch marie / curie’s notebooks without gloves …”.

There is a kind of purge that occurs towards the end of the book in a series of accounts of sexual encounters, some of which are extreme, violent, nightmarish and ugly – the destructive things that women experience. The dystopia of the poem reaches an apogee –

She began to lose track of time, of places, of people.

Earthquakes seemed to mimic her

moods and tidal waves washed away her thoughts.

 

Different kinds of radiation lead to different illnesses she read.

She began speaking a language no one else spoke.

 

At that time of course it was called the gay cancer. He had

warned her that he was

bisexual, after they had sex.

 

She had always hoped to be a drag queen, but ….

The poem begins to wind down – “The truth is I am allergic to everything red / and blue, and worry anti-depressants will ruin the sun’s / melancholia” – and it culminates in a slower, sad and beautiful set of tercets that seem to gather the debris after the storm –

in my rucksack hidden

in the self conscious air

where money may be time

 

white dust torn fields

meaning shrinks sublime

in the empty seat

 

at the drive in movie

the film I can’t see continues

my poem is complete to the extent I am not

and a little later  this extraordinary book ends –

once a lake

a simple knot for

a fluttering day

is creased

Unusually for Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, her chapbook-length poem, Wild Black Lake, is written in left-justified quatrains. As Flux demonstrates, in most of her books she uses various line lengths and a mix of styles that allow the poetry an unevenness. This one was written after Flux. It’s quieter, formally arranged and tidy.

Sometimes, the way we live – “in rooms we exchange air for air” – in artificially conditioned rooms makes us want to surrender, just give up – “[I wondered what / it would be like / to sink into that wide black ocean / and never emerge]” – but through careful perception this poem shifts from a general anomie-at-large into a reflective personal desuetude – “i become stone / enclosed by narration / hoping to melt / stem by stem”. There’s no doubt that things are awry – “an excerpt cluster / carp motionless in a pond / torn red paper lanterns / scorched flowerbeds” – but Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s precise imagery and knowing understatement provides an antidote to the defective.

Jane leaves interpretation open to the reader. I never know whether this lake – “weird black lake / territorial mimesis / exterior milieu / dialectic protection” – is actual or metaphoric but it doesn’t matter. The poem can be imagined as set literally lakeside, perhaps at a forested retreat and, although cognizant of crisis, it connects the reader to a protective space or anodyne state of being. She makes meaning via graceful minimalism in the face of a decayed world altered by human activity – “elegant bird / under automobile tires / replying eagerly / a sun sinks”. But there is no natural solution here – “smoothing of space / millions of morals / womb for words / see enclosed brochure”.

 

Pam Brown is a practised professional amateur. She has published many books of poetry – most recently, Home by Dark (Shearsman 2013) – and has been an editor for various magazines. She is currently editing a selection of ten poetry booklets for Vagabond Press – the “deciBels” series.

 


[1] Jane Joritz-Nakagawa with Pam Brown, The Conversant (May 2014), http://theconversant.org/?p=6653

1 reply

  1. this is an insightful review of subtle, accomplished poetry

    Like

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