Tuesday, December 16, 2008



Shadow Mountain by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
(Four Way Books, New York, 2008)

Shadow Mountain, Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s debut collection, is Kimiko Hahn’s winning selection for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. An epic book of family roots, personal reflections, Japanese American history, and classical Japanese folktales, Shadow Mountain displays a stunning range of poetic forms: a terzanelle, a sonnet, free verse, and prose poems. Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s textured poems glow variously with rich profusions of fine detail, as in “Japanese Ceramics:”
. . . depths of the worn and cracked enamel of this old porcelain
tub, baked with the craft of some ceramicist’s skilled chemistry
with moisture and oven temperatures, compounds of the earth
in the glazing constituents of kaolin, quartz, and feldspar . . .

The poems cover an entrancing array of subjects, including a delicate still-life portrait in “Butterwort,” where Kageyama-Ramakrishan mixes lyric glimpses of beauty with subtle grotesqueries:
Your name lacks eloquence.
Maybe that’s why
you, half-human flower,
lure that bee: even the wasp smells
your perfume-like fungus.

On the subject of toxic defoliation during the Vietnam war, part of “Herbicides over Nha Trang and Quang Tri Province, 1964” consists solely of a list of the herbicide names, one word per line: “Dinoxol / Trinoxol, / Bromacil, / Diquat, / Tandex, / Monuron, / Diuron, / Dalapun,” each corresponding to colors listed in the previous stanza, creating a sharp, staccato effect in syncopation with the last line, “A Plane. / C-123 called / Patches.”

Not all the poems are meditations on historical moments of war and travail. At times whimsically traversing contemporary and ancient mythological time, “The Moon and Kaguya” recasts an old Japanese folktale about an immortal lunar woman (Kaguya) in the voice of a twenty year-old, 1989:

you dressed like a yellowtail tuna.
(Kaguya, there isn’t such a thing.)
. . .
Go away moon -- get out of my poem.

Lyrical moments, elegant as the earlier butterwort, also follow in this poem:
A wise wind
blows my voice
into the dying apricots.

. . .

We pull back our hair
like dried mushroom stems
take scissors, cut it off
until there’s nothing left
but a stump of azaleas.

In the sparse and exquisite “Dying,” her questions about one’s future demise are uttered into the quiet stillness of solitary details:
. . . What will I look like --
A white pumpkin? A ginger pickle?

Where will I be --
in the light of a spider chandelier?

Will I recognize the usual voices?
What will contain me? The air,

clouds, possibly the moon?
Will my bones turn blue underground,

or will there be men and women
picking them out of ashes?
. . .

The title poem and longest sequence in the collection, “Shadow Mountain,” concerns the poet’s visit to Manzanar in Owens Valley, California, where her father, uncle, and grandmother were interned during World War II. The sequence includes mention of the Manzanar Riot of December 5th, 1942; an orphanage for Japanese American children called the “Children’s Village;” and photographs of Manzanar taken by Ansel Adams—including a photograph of the poet’s grandmother standing outside the Desert Chapel—which were reproduced in pamphlets, then later banned and burned. It is in this poem, which resides at the heart of the collection, we learn “kage” means shadow “yama” is mountain: Kageyama.
. . . the air was angry, the shadows
followed us, the spirits inside the camp weren’t resting . . .

The recurring motif of a photograph suggests issues of silence and historical amnesia: “Find the photograph— / the apple tree, frail / and pale with age, / the faces of disguised rage.” The poet’s visit to Manzanar (“apple orchard” in Spanish) disinters the past while reconstructing memory through her own words, projecting remembrance onto a stark desert landscape. In effect, Kageyama-Ramakrishnan bears witness to the detainment by listening to her relatives’ stories while vividly imagining their experiences in the camp, although she is also acutely aware that historical memory is susceptible to revision and omission. A terzanelle in this poetic sequence portrays the elusive quality of historical transmission, using the form’s natural line repetitions to create a recurrent sense of nightmarish claustrophobia:
This is a poem with missing details
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane.

The multiple responses in “One Question, Several Answers” contrast the beauty of a natural setting with social identity, ostracism, and confinement -- incarceration -- in the prison camp:
Where did your father live?
                  House on Federal, City of Angels.

Where did your father live?
                  Horse stall at a racetrack.

Where did your father live?
                  Near the aqueduct, in a man-made desert.

Where did your father live?
                  By a pear tree.
                  With pears, ripe pears from that tree.

Where did your father live?
                  Block 25.

Indeed, there are not always easy answers to historical questions. In “Reasons without Answers: Visiting the Ruins of a Japanese Internment Camp in Northern California,” the physical beauty of the barren landscape, as it appears in Ansel Adams’ photographs, is juxtaposed to unseen words trapped in silence and time, in turn sealed inside her loved ones: “My uncle tells me, Never say what you know.”
The words remain inside the guard house,
parents drive here to take photographs,
their children wonder, they can’t tell them why.

It is in these gaps, fissures, and silences, further obscured by the burning of historical documents, that Kageyama-Ramakrishnan pursues the impulse to bear witness to history, both personal and collective, by recording what she knows in the form of poems embodying love, rage, and agency. The final poem appearing in the collection, “Origins of an Impulse,” expresses precisely these sentiments:
. . . It happened
after my mother gave me a typewriter, sky
and light blue, some ink ribbon. I wrote
how much I loved her. . . . .

. . . It happened
when I saw my mother’s face in my face,
when I saw her face in my niece’s face.
It happened with love, the impulse to write.

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004). She lives and teaches on the West Coast, where she is a novice harpist.

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