Eyewear is pleased to start a new occasional series of reviews by poets, of new poetry collections.
a broken mirror, fallen leaf
Review by Michael Kavanagh
Yvonne Blomer's first collection documents, in quiet, imagistic poems, two years of life on the island of Kyushu, Japan, with the JET programme. For those who don't know, JET is a cultural exchange started in 1987 with the goal of internationalizing Japan through language teaching and cultural programmes. In her collection, we see the Blomer's vision of Japan shift from nostalgia, to a darker world of real experience and alienation. In returning home she finds herself a stranger in her native country.
The book is in four sections, which trace this thematic journey. It opens with 'Four Seasons,' a sequence of poems celebrating the familiar 'cherry blossoms' picture of Japan. Here, Blomer is in full poetic mode, with traditional observations of nature in haiku:
A thousand tiny moons
above this tickle of river.
But perhaps it is not so simple. The river is not just a river, but also a broken mirror, producing a distorted image of the sky. The images of nature are peppered with modern observations, like 'the flashing lights / ... at the Pachinko parlour'. The collection is not all haiku, but many of the poems have that tone, with quiet, zen-like images.
The next section is titled 'Gaijin Da', which means alien, according to the glossary at the back of the book. Here, the poems are rooted more in the day-to-day of life, going to a bathhouse, taking tours of Japanese cities. These poems have a more psychological element, the speaker jarred by their experiences, or feeling unfamiliar. For Blomer, this problem of alienation is ultimately one of language, as she sums up in one of my favourite poems, 'There's No Word for Husband':
I never learned the word for husband, instead lowered my head
to the custom of distance – ano hito – that person, kono – this
dance has a long beginning where man and woman press
words into each other's ears, hands together, bodies held
back, a kind of withholding of self. Time
Allows for the shaping of language – I left
able to carry conversations.
held in the folds of language, in the root
of what we bear and master between us.
Here Blomer re-enacts how, during her early days of living in Japan, she introduced her husband with a peculiar distance, using awkward phrases like, 'this is my person,' not knowing how to express the real word in Japanese. Towards the end of the poem, she discovers that this linguistic distance has exposed a fundamental mystery in her relationship with her husband. Language functions like a broken mirror, not only distorting the world, but offering a fresh perspective on it.
'Small Japan', the third section, is Blomer's 'Songs of Experience'. The poems in this section have a note of sexual identity to them. Here, Geisha wear Kimonos like tapestries of an emotional past, while grown men reflect on their daughter's coming of age. The language in this section is more edgy, and explores the darker side of Japan's culture. Take these lines from Shinjuku:
A man with daughters
fucks girls with fathers his age.
Flirts with the school-girl-look-alikes
on the way to fetching his daughter.
Blomer is attending to a seedier Japan here. Small Japan is a cry for the small child above, it is also a pejorative name for a country which has been reduced from the nostalgic vision of the first section.
The collection ends with a section called 'On the path, home.' This section is the synthesis of the themes introduced before. Here Blomer works to reconcile her nostalgic Japan with her present-day Japan. At the same time, the poet struggles with how this Japan fits into her experience of returning home to Canada, the emotions of leaving a place where deep experiences have been had, back to where her past is rooted.
The title poem (and the final poem in the collection), 'a broken mirror, fallen leaf' is a good example of how this synthesis works, describing the poet's emotional landscape on returning to Canada:
It begins with a vastness:
C a n a d a
forgotten limbs of bonsai
A kindness akin to labour
pain this slow unpacking
this returning that is not quite
not quite what it is or
promises to be
Alphabetical: a i u e o
Chirp and call hiccoughtrip
native language on gone-ethnic tongue
Everything is familiar to the speaker, but nothing seems quite right. Blomer connects Canada with 'forgotten limbs of bonsai', producing the idea that your past identity, or memory of your previous life is like a phantom limb. It is achingly real but you can't touch it, nor recall it perfectly. Blomer's casting of this idea onto a bonsai tree adds another dimension to this powerful image: the bonsai, which is both an anachronistic fantasy of idyllic Japan and at the same time a living craft involving obsessive pruning, is a condensed image of how we identify with the past. In this poem, as in 'There's No Word for Husband', the strongest image is that of language distorting, and enlightening the world, the 'hiccoughtrip' of 'native language on gone-ethnic tongue'.
I enjoyed reading this book. First, for its documentary style. It is so visual, playing with juxtaposed images that it feels at times like a film in verse. At her best, like in the title poem, Blomer experiments with language itself, for example with made-up words like hiccoughtrip. I was left wanting more of this, as we only get a glimpse of this voice in small doses, particularly near the end. This is a poetry of particularities, and of place. It has no grand philosophies, but rather treats a single subject in detail, exploring its nuance.
But, for all of its rootedness and detail, at times the book seems to be lacking in variation of tone. The 'haiku' mode is well established, and all the poems have a sense of tranquil-yet-fresh-observation and space about them. While this works, it does drag at times.
Another interesting aspect is Blomer's use of Japanese words. Most poems are sprinkled with a term or two of italicized Japanese. These do add documentary detail to the poems, adding a sense of place, and texture, and furthering the poets theme of the alienating influence of language. A glossary at the back of the book allows you to look up meanings, many of which are rather interesting. Looking up the words as you read feels a bit like opening the doors of an advent calendar to reveal a colourful picture. More could have been made of the language play here. Often the Japanese words are not explored in the poems, sometimes seeming dropped in at random. After a few poems, it gets distracting looking them up as you read. I tended to give up 'live-lookups' in favour of dipping into the glossary afterwards.
One of the great Canadian cliches is that there is no national Canadian identity, the story goes that Canada is a multi-cultural country where no one identity dominates. This model is usually contrasted with the American melting pot. It's an old debate, one that lost interest for me a long time ago. It only takes a few years in a country like Britain, also with a strong national character, to realize it is really a multitude of personal identities.
A personal identity which we endlessly make and remake, seems far more nuanced, subtle, and reflects my own experience. I think in this sense, Blomer has given us a fresh look at Canadian identity, and national identity in general, by rooting identity where it belongs, not in the country, but in the emotions, and making it complex, not simple.
The idea of national identity which with its uniform picture of human experience, far from giving us a sense of ourselves, actually alienates us from our unique selves. Blomer's poetry, which, through suggestive, nuanced language, stands for the individual's unique experience of a nation.
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