Sally Ito’s two poetry collections, Frogs in the Rain Barrel (Nightwood Editions 1995) and Season of Mercy (Nightwood Editions 1999) are deceptively spare in their lyric character and unique in their attention to Christian spirituality (Ito has also published a short story collection entitled, Floating Shore, which was published out of Mercury Press in 1999). Where I recall the kind of challenge and de-stabilization of Catholicism in the work of Barbara Jane Reyes, there is a clear attention in Ito’s poetry to excavate the productivity in Christianity as a mode by which to situate the contemporary “self.” Ito constellates this religious impulse with lyric poems that are reminiscent of Cathy Song’s most recent collections in that they often take direct and crystalline images to page without adorning them with a particular motif. Indeed, at times, such poems take on such quiet moments like a child’s discovery of animal life or the dripping of water down a plant. On the other hand, there is a clear ethnic and racial polemic to other poems, which thus make Ito’s work a constellation of various themes and tropes.
The poetry collection first begins with a set of lyrical meditations that seem more personalistic in scope, but the gradual arc of the collection that moves to more ethnically specific considerations, and finally concludes with an intriguing set of monologues that convey Ito’s attention to the Bible and refigurations of it within poetry. In “Why Did you Tell Me Lies About Foreign Countries,” Ito’s topic is one that is a larger feminist politic related throughout the collection regarding the fetishized exotic female other; I reprint an excerpt here:
When you slept in the savanna
with a lioness’s pelt as your bed,
the negress whom you paid to sleep with
must have smiled her rotten teeth
as she sang of your glassy tears
upon her pockmarked belly.
On a beach of star strewn pebbles,
you lay orange in a Polynesian sunset
with Gauguin models by your side, --
barely clothed, skin shiny as satin,
bones exposed like contours
of scenery on a coloured canvas.
Somewhere in Japan, amidst the cards and companies,
a large, clouded temple of lacquered wood
must glow eminently like a Sony Video commercial
in Times Square. Your kimonoed ladies, like mist,
must forever dance in pine boughs
where no one can see them (24).
Ito’s lyric speaker constellates different geographical terrains that imbricate female sexuality as something to be objectified, whether it is in Africa (stanza 1), the South Pacific (stanza 2), or Japan (stanza 3). Certainly, there is this implication of sex tourism, whether or not it actually functions as a codified industry. All three stanzas are linked in their connection to art forms. In stanza 1, the “negress” is not simply a woman who has entered a romantic relationship with a “hunter,” but also has been “paid,” and the songs she sings serve to emphasize the centrality then of this man’s place, his emotional state, rather than hers. The second stanza functions in a similar manner where the thoughts and feelings of these women are placed secondarily in relation to their beauty and exterior, rendered problematically then in the terrain of representation. Specifically, the reference to Gauguin models routes the reader into the understanding that these women are constricted within certain visual paradigms. The final stanza leads the reader to Japan, seemingly referencing the cyberpunk future wherein Japan stands as the referent to an economic superiority. Given the time period of this collection’s probable writing, likely in the late eighties and earlier nineties, one sees how the existing trade tensions between Japan and the North American continent might have figured into Ito’s work.
My favorite poem in Frogs in a Barrel appears is “Portrait of Snow Country,” where Ito pens a lyric concerning Japanese Canadian internment. Ito is quick to employ the constraints of the sonnet form in a way that amplifies the tragedy of the poem’s content:
Brown house-shacks cluster together as
flakes float and settle upon their wooden roofs;
silence in this valley slowly creeps in and moves.
Winter has finally arrived. Snow cold weather.
Black trains pull in, bleating faraway calls,
their billowed smoke fading into the white air
as more passengers arrive to this ‘somewhere’
interior built of nature’s shale and limestone walls.
A mountain sketch reveals white sentinel peaks
looming over an old man and his young son,
squatting on their porch, looking into the darkened horizon;
faces flat and dull, colour faded from their cheeks.
A photograph taken, words later scribbled in the corner,
‘Father and I on the porch, Winter of ’42, New Denver.’ (31)
As in so many cases of lyric aesthetics, the dissonance produced between the way this scene is rendered and its historical context, amplifies the problematic nature of geography in this poem. Once again, this lyric continues the larger thread of representation and encryption. Here, the poem itself is a representation of the internment, but the content brings us into a drawing and a drawing of the internment. One is unsure how the beginning of the poem routes into the “mountain sketch” and the “photograph.” Is the “mountain sketch” taking inspiration from the “photograph.” In either case, the pictorial representation of Japanese Canadian internment geographies is highlighted here. Perhaps even more unsettling is the way in which Ito is able to employ the sonnet form to highlight such an austere and tragic moment.
In “Garment,” Ito develops a sense of the more complicated racial and ethnic contours of the Canadian region:
Watch the way Inuit women
sew with their teeth,
soften the hides
with their saliva
chew at the sinewy edges
A hide is a landscape
harsh, brittle as ice,
a cold, glittering skin
Labor over it,
warm it with your breath
and it will form a skin
around your body
as it once did caribou
embrace you, hunter,
This poem functions on the turn of the final word, “brute,” which is difficult to parse out at first. Does the “brutishness” refer to the Inuit women, levied in a derogatory fashion? Instead, the poem seems to suggest rather the way in which the Inuit women are figures that literally become beastly in their use of these hides that do form a second skin, so we might think of brute as a form of animality that is accorded here to these female figures. Given the landscape’s unyielding “nature,” the brutishness of the Inuit women seems rationalized in this poem and grants us a larger arc to consider the racialized women that populate the collection, to explore how they navigate the various challenges that are accorded to them. We are reminded once again of the earlier arc of objectified and exotic women; here that lens is shifted in a dramatic way, focusing much more on un romanticized view.
I shift now to reviewing Season of Mercy, Ito’s second poetry collection, and one which takes a much more stringent lyrical approach to Christian spirituality. The conclusion of Frogs in a Rain Barrel sees a series of different monologues that invoke Joseph and his coat of many colors and Ruth and her obedience, so it seems a longer project for Ito to consider the productivity of Christianity especially in a time that is considered to be increasingly secular. However, Ito seems to recover the notion that compassion and faith can be more metaphorically drawn and therefore does not have to be situated solely within a Christian paradigm and this is the collection’s greatest strength.
In “Hatred,” Ito metaphorically relates the ways in which such affect can transform the body:
Behind every hatred
that the eye
is but a hissing stream of opaque fluid.
Throw down your head
hold out your hands
and cup in them
the worst of yours fears.
Stare at the dense reflection.
Your face, eyeless (18).
This poem is more evocative of the style that Ito takes in this collection, where the lyrics seem much more widely applicable. The particularity achieved in certain poems within Frogs in a Rain Barrel seems evacuated more largely in this collection for a broader ethical message. The use of the second person and the absence of a clear lyric speaker does seem to evoke a similar disturbance in the way in which vision is cleaved. What’s more problematic about this poem is that one does not now the source of the hatred and with many of the poems that take this approach, the reader may be frustrated in the lyric ellipticality.
In “Nazareth,” which appears in the third section of the poetry collection, there is a sense that the poems have constellated around the concept of a personal lyrical pilgrimage:
The road that winds from it,
is just as narrow
as that man said it was,
the carpenter’s son
who must have travelled [sic] it,
stepping out into the wide expanse of desert and hills,
to set on his brow,
the crown of time’s circling
days and nights.
the pain of knowing,
having to wait,
wait endlessly (44).
Many of the poems in Season of Mercy take this lyric trajectory where the lyric speaker who is not necessarily invoked by the lyric “I,” nevertheless gives a recounting of a Biblical event. The question of suffering seems to be a larger thematic that Ito interrogates. In one of the most provocative poems, she explores the transnational valences of Christianity. “Fumi-E” is accompanied with an author’s note that states that “The fumi-e was a flat stone or metal plate, etched with the picture of Christ. The Tokugawa Shogunate used the fumi-e to expose Christians. Belief in Christianity had been made illegal by the Shogunate. Anyone who could not step on the fumi-e was deemed a traitor to the nation and was either tortured or put to death” (51).
They were heretics of a sort,
refusing to step on the fumi-e,
martyred on the stakes in the sea
where the tide consumed
their last full sigh of life.
What possessed these simple fisherman and their families
to worship the coveted icons—
a star of David, a wooden cross, statues of Mary,
hide them in their
crudely converted altars of Buddha
at the price of death
is as much a mystery as prayer itself
As fire consumes
so does water,
the very stroke of death,
the very breath of faith (51).
I end the review here, where the question of persecution still looms large. A Season of Mercy seems to suggest that spirituality needs a place in modern times. As such, Ito’s poetry is unique in its Christian-inflected approach.
Because spirituality and religion can be tend to overlooked as a way to critique Asian North American literature more broadly, Ito’s work certainly offers a new terrain to interrogate and could be thus included in a variety of course offerings. The deceptively simple lyrics also generates a familiarity to the reader, and yet requires them to spend more time parsing out the various interpretations that can appear.
Buy the books here: