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.
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”. 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
and the resonance becomes a fragility and depression that is not completely turned from the world
the terrifying self
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
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
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
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.