Migration is often mediated through water: boats thrashed by waves, planes hurtling above the sea. In literature, the act of migration--that is, breaking off original relationships and creating new ones––is often portrayed as a rebirth: la mer is la mère. The self becomes new by moving through liquid. That migration can traverse national borders or the line between one person and another. In an untitled prologue to Unexpected Vanilla (trans. from Korean by So J. Lee), Lee Hyemi writes:
There is always an exchange of fluids
at the critical moment when a relationship deepens.
Holding the fish jar in which alphabets swim
I step into the world of the second person. [italics in original]
This fluidity saturates Unexpected Vanilla and another recent poetry release from Tilted Axis Press, Ito Hiromi’s dual collection Killing Kanoko / Wild Grass on the Riverbank (whose translations from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles were first separately published in the US in 2009 and 2014). Liquid images are echoed by liquid forms; Lee and Ito’s work drips down some pages in lines while filling up others with text.
Selections from Killing Kanoko read like zuihitsu, the Japanese form that floats between essay and poetry, often more staccato and stream-of-consciousness than the lyric essay. It is a meditation rather than an argument. The Japanese courtier Sei Shōnagon pioneered the form with The Pillow Book, a series of lists and musings on the quotidian completed in the year 1002. Today the American poet Kimiko Hahn maintains the zuihitsu tradition in English. ‘I like to think of the zuihitsu as a fungus—not plant or animal, but a species unto itself,’ Hahn said in an interview with BOMB Magazine. It is marked, she said, by ‘a kind of randomness that is not really random, but a feeling of randomness; a pointed subjectivity that we don’t normally associate with the essay.’
In the Tilted Axis publications, zuihitsu’s distance from the essay or even the prose poem is underlined by the typesetting; strings of words run continuously across more than 25 lines, with the first line on the margin and subsequent ones indented. By following the printing conventions of poetry (while other English-language zuihitsu tends to follow prose formatting), Tilted Axis emphasises zuihitsu’s unique ‘fungus’ quality. One example is Killing Kanoko’s ‘On Ç’:
My mother. My mother’s older sister. My mother’s younger sisters. My grandmother. The sound remains among the women on my mother’s side. My grandmother who died at eighty, my mother’s older sister at sixty, my mother’s younger sisters at fifty. The sound is the rasping of their conversations on my ears as they sat and conversed while I, the youngest, sat among them. They said it often. It felt like it was rasping, but the fact I could feel it at all meant I could distinguish it from other sounds.
The poem’s surface subject––a sound rendered foreign on the page by the C’s cedilla––is a meditation on speech and matrilineal inheritance, how secrets are whispered by generations of women who have preserved the art of pronouncing a particular phoneme. The speaker is seen, small, among her elders, simultaneously an outsider and an insider to her relatives’ language. Ito departs from this diaristic mode to consider the Ç itself:
The sound of choking back breath in your throat also had a meaning: “to stand up.” The softly voiced nasal sound had a meaning: “to want to touch.” The sound of lips quivering like the buzz of an insect had a meaning: “goldenrod.” The sound of teeth rubbing together: “nerves.” The sound of breath leaking through a half-opened mouth: “night,” “gods,” “darkness.”
As the speaker deconstructs Ç’s meanings, the structure of the writing also loosens, shifting from fully formed sentences to incomplete ones. The repetition of the word ‘sound’ echoes the speaker’s efforts to say ‘Ç.’ Definitions shift from the empowered and embodied (‘to stand up,’ ‘to want to touch’) to the inactive and abstract (‘gods,’ ‘darkness’). Even the word ‘nerves’ does not remain stable in meaning: in the context of grinding teeth, it connotes stress and pain, but in another context––say, facing the night or the gods––nerve might be a useful weapon. The varied and shifting meanings of ‘Ç’ are like the stories and genetic material passed from grandmothers to mothers to daughters: sometimes a gift, sometimes a burden, sometimes both.
Lee lays out the themes of Unexpected Vanilla in her opening prose poem in stanzas, ‘Summer, When Loquats Light Up’: physicality and sexuality, the human and the inhuman, fluid and fruit.
Let’s walk with our fingers laced when the loquats arrive. Wet trees permeating between
each finger. When we become jumbled branches with all the yellow we have, our touching palms become the world’s ripped interior. A tree begins when you break the berry and wet some other flesh. That’s why people who’ve put their palm lines together travel inside the same dream.
These lines serve as an antechamber for the collection, which dwells in the speaker’s perceptions of nature, relationships, and herself. Ties between people, like ‘trees permeating between each finger,’ are both as supple and fragile as plant life. The people in these relationships become flora themselves, ‘jumbled branches with all the yellow we have.’ The image of people holding hands as travellers ‘inside the same dream’ acts as an invitation to the reader to enter Lee’s dream. Like the loquat, that dream holds the promise of both sweetness and tartness; lovers walk with ‘touching palms’ in a world that is ‘ripped.’
Humans become plants and plants become human in both Lee and Ito’s worlds. Nature is an active participant, rather than mere setting or object. Lee’s ‘Erasable Seeds’ is a single-block prose poem about a speaker whose body is taken over by fruit:
Tonight I’ve curled up with a grape in my mouth. With black liquids overflowing from a dream, the gap sheds its tender skin and sinks deep into the earth. Even as the seeds I swallowed without chewing have suffused my bones, transplanting my blood vessels with tiny roots. A plant’s quilt, weaving roots long and thin. When I understand trees and cradle my bones, my skin disappears and my body melts in many directions.
The speaker’s body is replaced by the plant’s, with ‘White tree bark protruding from a scraped knee.’ These plants and the relationships between them, with their branching roots and cycles of death and growth, serve as metaphors for humans and human relationships. Like people, plants communicate and live in symbiotic or parasitic states with others. In Ito’s ‘On the riverbank,’ part of the novella-in-verse Wild Grass on the Riverbank,
the rushes let out a sigh and started acting as if they realised what they had done, meanwhile, they stuck out their tongues and licked out blood from their leaves, the kudzu vines crawled up the slopes of the embankment, they grew as far as the path on top of the embankment, they groped about as random, they touched us too, sometimes they could not completely control their lust and let out a stifled little laugh
Ito’s plants bleed, lick, and grope, while experiencing human feelings and intentions in sighs, ‘lust,’ and acts of realising ‘what they’ve done.’ The humans in the poem are subject to the will of the rushes and kudzu vines, a reversal of American and Japanese narratives in which humans invent technology in order to control nature and its surprises. Later, in ‘Abandonment,’ Ito writes: ‘Let’s grind your dried-up umbilical cords into dust and throw them away.’ Humans and human relationships are destroyed and dispersed back into nature, an appropriate image for a novella based on a real news story about children left to fend for themselves amid parental neglect.
Wild Grass on the Riverbank marked a change in Ito’s writing catalysed by her move to the arid wasteland of California, Angles writes in a translator’s statement: ‘Her already prodigious output of essays increased, and she began writing novellas. When asked about this shift, she typically mentioned it was because she was tired of the strictures of poetry and because she felt prose was better suited to exploring her new experiences as an immigrant.’ Writing in a new genre is like learning in a new language, with different mental associations and musical rhythms. This difficulty with language is expressed in the text through words transliterated from English to Japanese (a father cursing ‘Damu itto, damu itto’ in ‘We live in the wasteland’). Through the unorthodox spelling, the foreignness of damn it is maintained even for the anglophone reader. The novella, comprising poems narrated by a child, presents a funhouse universe in which an immigrant wonders why the place she’s come to can’t adapt to her, rather than the reverse––as is often expected or enforced. ‘Why do we come places where no one understands us?’ the child asks in ‘Mother leads us on board.’ Confronting this gap between what is understood and misunderstood opens questions of the value of language itself. Ito writes about the child carrying a leech-like creature on her back and trying to communicate with it in ‘I am’:
the meanings of all the words I say just slide over the slippery surface of the intention of what I am trying to convey, or perhaps they are absorbed directly into the intention, I don't know what to say, but the leech-child’s desire to know conveys itself to me, and I respond with language, I don't know if this is good or not, but all I have is language, the only way I have to respond is language, all I have is language, I respond with language, I respond
Meanings, like the leech, are ‘slippery’ and perhaps also malicious. Anaphora (‘I respond’) emphasises the neverending and tiring nature of communication, an effort undertaken because ‘all I have is language.’ The poem addresses the larger project of poetry and the utility of a writer’s work if it can never fully communicate what the writer wants. Elsewhere in the novella, the child watches her mother, a poet who is a stand-in for Ito, at poetry events in which unintelligible phrases are exchanged between the poet and her audience.
Story is one way Ito seeks to bridge that gap of meaning. Wild Grass on the Riverbank, Angles writes, is a rare example of longform narrative poetry in Japanese: ‘Whereas English-language poetry has a rich tradition of long, narrative poems by canonical authors, very few modern Japanese poets have attempted narrative poetry on such a large scale.’ Wild Grass is set up by the final poem in Killing Kanoko, a desperate monologue from the point of view of a girl abused by her father. Even while trafficking in fantastical images––a talking demon, a buried baby that stays alive by drinking through a straw for three years––‘I am Anjuhimeko’ infuses itself with reality by commenting on the framework of narrative itself:
In stories, it seems to me the person they refer to as father usually wasn’t around or was absence itself, no matter what story I happened to hear, the person called father would be dead in the house or out somewhere traveling or listening to whatever the stepmother was telling him to do, but in my house, there is someone called father, and he is intent on killing me
Phrases such as ‘the person they refer to as father’ and ‘the person called father’ underline the fact that people are cast into predetermined roles perpetuated through tales. This bleak statement on the inevitable crumminess of human relations primes the reader to meet the vibrant plant characters of Wild Grass, whose names have been translated to maintain a surface appearance to human ones. The child, after following the mother to America and being subjected to living with her dead, smelly lovers, returns to Japan and meets the empowered grasses of the riverbank. The grasses feed on corpses left on the bank, reincorporating them into the land, a final repatriation.
April Yee is a writer and translator published in Newsweek, Electric Literature, and Lunch Ticket. She lives in London and tweets @aprilyee.