Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Asia Pacific Writing Series Books 1-4

2 June 2014

Individually, her poems have a single, tender conceit. It ranges from the tragic, to the inci-dental, to variation on the transcendental in ‘Antelope’, where a childhood encounter with an antelope at a mountain spa resonates through the years:

To the spa in my dreams
In the dead of night gently    I put my toes into the hot water
Through the steam opposite    I can hear faint steps
That antelope
Returns      each time

Images of mountain and water inform a number of Masayo Koike’s poems. Among her many supple and inventive works, ‘Hakozaki on Deep Blue’ is notable for the humour and urgency of its observations:

Nothing captured Hakozaki Ichiro’s heart as much as deep
      blue flowers

One day
When he was waiting in front of the station for a friend
By chance his eye fell upon a nearby flower bed
There quite by accident
A mass of small blue flowers was growing
His line of vision
As if harvested by a vacuum cleaner was sucked into it

In ‘the sequel’, the poet notes her own love of the colour blue, particularly of blue flowers: ‘Aren’t I Hakozaki? Isn’t Hakozaki me? We love blue.’ She extends the reach of the poem into minute evocations of the colour, whether it be a spot of blue on a body or a faint touch in the white of an eye. The employment of narrative and close attention to the texture of words underscores an appealing originality.

Shuntaro Tanikawa (b.1932) seems to have more in common with his female compatriots than with the masculine ‘grunge’ of the Chinese poets Yi Sha and Yang Xie. In this selection, he appears to be a poet of extraordinary range, with a free-wheeling persona that takes him comfortably through a variety of form and subject. He possesses a clear and candid voice, which immediately engages the reader. Like Masayo Koike’s work, there are many references to sea and forest; and Rin Ishigaki’s poetry may also be compared to Tanikawa’s poems, in which everyday objects often reverberate beyond themselves:

In the distance the sea caught the light
From the unvarnished table that arrived yesterday the faint
     scent of forest
But birdsong faded away (‘Here Now’)

The direct voice can on occasion be complex, as in the fine ‘Shaping Sand’ which plays with the very idea of writing:

The lines born from your fingertips
Shape forms without shape and unshape forms with shape
Reject the flora and fauna of a single star

Tanikawa’s poems about family, especially his father, are particularly strong, but equally striking is the finely delineated ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, poised as it is between nature and art, between the costly acquisition and the found leaf. The poem begins:

Next to the Chagall lithograph that I bought with all my savings
I placed a Japanese chestnut oak leaf that I picked up on the road

It concludes:

The sound of Ravel played on the piano in the background
Today becomes one with eternity

In the blue sky outside the window my heart and my body melt
… Where did these tears come from?

Moving from the aesthetics in ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, a world defined by the beauty of image and sound, we enter into a different world, a contemporary world full of noise, turmoil and extempore choice. My first reaction to the poetry of Lưu Diệu Vân (b.1979) in the selection from Vietnam was that I wanted to hear her read live:

ask a poem to a bar
leave it alone
sit at a distant table
watch its every move
while intoxicated
take another poem home (Lưu Diệu Vân, ‘time killers for poets’)

Rich in theme, with a brave and lively selection of imagery, Vân excels at incisive observation – at times tragic, and more often than not, very funny. The poem ‘post-feminism’, coming after a crisp dissection of Confucianism in ‘dead philosopher’s apologia’, is a highlight. Here are some snippets from this tale of an unfortunate dinner-date:

he eagerly criticizes, after a few inhales of thick smoke
you have yet to possess true feminine traits ...

I wear red high heels, clingy off-shoulder silk dress, and
      elegant white pearls ...

I widen my eyes in surprise and yawn discreetly with my
      mouth covered, slowly cross my long legs, neatly fold
      both hands on my lap, calmly interrupt his second
      criticism after asking the waiter to bring me a separate
      bill for the lemonade and crème brûlée to take home ...

Feminist and political appraisal is strengthened by Vân’s awareness of neighbourhood, specifically its imagery in such poems as ‘dolls and bicycles’ and ‘the finality of peace’. This location of politics in the individual’s life is evident in ‘my 1975 story’, through a transposition of time that presents national tragedy in two short, vivid pages:

I am a young woman, approaching eighteen years of age
scrambling around the square, morning, noon, day and night
where they bind prisoners to flagpoles
under the broiling sun
imploring gazes
offering to exchange wedding bands and keepsakes for half a
and a mouthful of cold water

The other two poets in this Vietnamese volume, Lưu Mêlan (b. 1989) and Nhã Thuyên (b. 1986), are both promising writers in their twenties and at the beginning of their careers. Both show an exuberance and inventiveness in their use of language. For Nha Thuyen, water appears to be her chosen element, in that it works as an expressionistic device to make a frag-mentary, and fractured, connection with the world. An example of this trait can be seen in ‘unfamiliar appearances (1)’, where:

the girl shrinks herself behind the wooden door, clutching a
      			handful of rain
from somewhere the autumn sky pours down on the garden

she dips one by one a pungent kumquat leaf of water

Lưu Mêlan also reveals a fragmentary, disconnected and migratory self when she evokes in ‘Ninh Thuan’, ‘a sun shined Saigon’ of ‘somber clouds and chilly winds’; a Saigon which is deceptive, illusory and alienating. Such features are also present in the final volume to be dis-cussed, a selection from the Philippines.

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About Jennifer Mackenzie

Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about the Asian region. Her most recent work is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020) which she presented in 2023 at the Ubud Writers Festival and at the Mathrubhumi Festival of Literary Arts in Trivandrum.

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