08 January 2013 @ 11:35 pm
Sharon Suzuki-Martinez's The Way of All Flux  
I came across Sharon Suzuki-Martinez's debut poetry book The Way of All Flux (New Rivers Press, 2012) on the library shelf last week. I hadn't heard of the poet, but I had noted the press before because it is located in the northern part of my state in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Suzuki-Martinez's poetry ranges between a kind of absurdist lyric and a more typical (first person) lyric voice. This collection is especially interesting for the ordering of the poems in four sections, beginning with the more absurdist, even nonsensical poetry and ending with more confessional poems that draw on the poet's own life.

I was a bit unsure of how to approach the poems at first, beginning with the odd collection of three epigraphs by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the fictional film character Keisuke Miyagi (Mr. Miyagi of the Karate Kid films), and ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. The sandwiching of a comical Asian American film character (who embodies many stereotypes of Asians in America, especially in his accented speech and his fortune cookie utterances) between more serious philosophers who nevertheless also might be read in an American context as marking exotic Asian difference signals a mischievous playfulness. Thankfully, Suzuki-Martinez carries through this playfulness in the first few poems rather than veering into a serious philosophical mode.

In the first poem "Proverbs," for example, Suzuki-Martinez offers a series of nonsensical proverbs that challenge the expectations of fortune-cookie philosophy:
The one who pets the scorpion
with the hand of compassion and receives punishment
is not unlike the woman who throws her cabbage to the fire
while the beloved moose marked for death will be spared.
Such is the way of the world.
While the first two lines of the poem start it off with an image that seems to lead to a proverb-like lesson about the need to act wisely in addition to compassionately, the next lines do not follow through with such an expectation. The other stanzas of the poem throw layer upon layer of absurd images into the mix in increasing nonsense: "Lo, the quiet duck places its foot on the oblivious worm." The images are humorous, quixotic, and open-ended in meaning, challenging the pat quality proverbs.

While many of the poems in the collection maintain the kind of humor and nonsense quality of "Proverbs," others take on more serious and reflective qualities. A few of the poems are rooted in specific locations where the poet seems to have lived or visited, as revealed in the biographical note at the back of the book. For example, "Written by the Mississippi River" offers a poem that visually snakes down the page and asserts, "Translucence is / the most beautiful / quality a body could have / it's the movement of / light."

The final section includes more poems that reference the poet's experiences and details about her family. In "Mom among the Birds of Paradise," she writes:
On this frozen Minnesota night,
I'm an old empty sky.
BUt your memory warms
me like the full moon
floating long ago over Kaneohe Bay.
And in "The Names Rain Down," she writes:
My brother left Hawaii in 1978 for
Seattle before it became fashionable.
He told me it wasn't safe to see
Washington's interior with an Asian face.
To lose sight of the ocean
suggested certain disaster.
These lines connect racialized experience with concrete regions such as the Hawaiian Pacific, Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest in Washington state. The poems reflect on little details of the experiences of Japanese Americans in these differing spaces.

While the poems are almost all a page long each and mostly in free verse, the collection ends with a more specific poetic form in "Desert Cicadas Haibun," with a prose passage capped by a haiku. Suzuki-Martinez reflects on the image of the cicada outside her Arizona home and remembers the plastic cicada keychain she gave to her mother, who traveled from Hawaii to Las Vegas with it as a lucky charm. The poem thoughtful connects these disparate locations and contrasting interpretations of the figure of the cicada along with her own feelings about cicadas and their buzzing.

I think there is something really fascinating going on with the ordering of the poems in this collection, moving from the nonsensical to the lyrical (ethnic self), but I'm not sure what else to say about it...
Current Mood: deviousdevious
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Secret Asian American Man: gee-rapp-uhsa_am on January 9th, 2013 04:49 pm (UTC)
i really enjoy the self-conscious, playful collections that have come out from some asian am poets (like john yau)... will definitely get this one...

i never quite understood why so many poets take the term "asian american" as a pejorative... as if somehow that the naming of a racial category in addition to a writerly category is itself some "mark of the (orientalizing) beast"...

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