James Baldwin starts off a masterful essay called “A Fly in Buttermilk” by saying, “I found myself, willy-nilly, alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.” When approached with this prompt, I immediately wondered, “forget being an American, what does it mean to become an American?” Here are two poets from the Americas, well-laurelled and vastly popular in other countries, but virtually unknown in the United States.
José Watanabe (1946-2007) is Japanese Peruvian poet, one of Peru’s most celebrated writers. He spent his early life on a sugar plantation, but moved to Trujilo in time for his schooling. In addition to poetry, Watanabe has written children’s books and screenplays. In a poem titled “Grandson,” he describes himself as “furiously decomposing,” a phrase that seems appropriate in describing the craft and sensibility that guides his poems: “when the scrutinizing certainty of science / is insufferable, / I, furiously decomposing, insist the doctors/ believe me, we cannot die of a failing organ / unless it sparks a secret metamorphosis / until it matures into an animal ready to abandon us.”
That animal, a haunting one that populates many of Watanabe’s poems in different shapes, reminds me of Kafka’s. A poem titled “The Sole” starts off: “My life depends on the tireless mimicry of sand hues, but this subtle trick that lets me eat and frustrate enemies has deformed me.” The deforming, decomposing after-effect of the human imagination drives these poems, in both content and craft, dissolving to recreate as the only possibility for preserving this organic life, one autonomous of us, and always on the verge of departing.
Born in Tokyo, Hiromi Itō now divides her time between Encinatas, California and Kumamoto, Japan. Throughout the 1980s she wrote collections of poetry about sexuality, childbirth, and the female body with such urgency and care that she’s often credited with changing the shape of contemporary Japanese poetry, i.e. sexing it. “A Poem for Ueno-San” starts with Hiromi Itō noting, “This is when I think of Ueno-san / Her language, her territory, her culture.” Her poetry persistently prods and enacts the process through which language, territory, and culture constitute an individual. Shocking, frank, and revelatory—shocking and frank for nothing but the revelatory—her work reminds me of one of my favorites, Emily Dickinson’s “They shut me up in Prose.” Each of Hiromi’s poems gives us a glimpse of a mind going round and round, a mind incisive, subversive, obsessive, and generous.
In another poem, she presses, “More than through skin, more than through sex / Unease is something that becomes clear through language.” Here language and body are synonymous. The words we use are a growing, changing corpus; our limbs, skeleton, and faculties are meaning making mediums that render the world for ourselves and for others. It’s not enough to say that Hiromi’s words are alive; her poems startle us into our own bodies the way an accidental shoulder-brush does, a longed-for touch, one of those glances you catch across a crowd.
I confess that the first and primary guiding limit that came to my mind was finding poets that could double back to promote The Asian American Literary Review. When in Rome. Hiromi Itō will be one of the readers featured at our symposium, which will take place at the Japanese American National Museum (LA) on 7 May, as well as a reading at the University of California, Irvine on 9 May, both with scholar and translator Jeffrey Angles.
An extensive folio of José Watanabe’s poetry appears in the current issue of The Asian American Literary Review by way of Michelle Har Kim’s masterful translations. One could look at these two poets to try to tease out further guiding limits: Japanese, translation, twentieth century, etc. Although one could undertake this task with the expressed effort to enumerate Gerald Maa’s failures at inclusivity, Étienne Balibar once said that when one starts looking for anthropological differences, he will immediately start a list that grows and gains speed ad infinitum. To my eyes, Balibar’s statement is most fantastically substantiated by the absurd proliferation of boxes for Asian Americans on the 2010 census—as I remember, there were two boxes for ‘other’! (I’m not insinuating that the consolidation of Black America into one box is any less absurd—and don’t get me started on how the census form treated Latin Americans, the face of our “immigration problem.”) Utter inclusivity is Tantalus’s fruit. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be an imperative to try. In fact, I see this quality of difference bolstering the imperative, an argument for another day as my word count dries up.
Ezra Pound once called poetry an algebraic equation for the emotions. Although (great) poems have multiple answers, there are right ones and definitively wrong ones. Both Itō and Watanbe’s poems are ones capable of churning out and allowing an astronomical amount of possible efficacious meanings. Not only are “American” and “Asian” necessary candidates as variables, the poems also emphatically exhort the reader to never forget that they—“Asian” and “America,” that greatest poem, as one American calls it—are algebraic equations unto themselves. Both Itō and Watanbe think of inheritance, and somewhere in William Blake’s “America,” subtitled “a prophecy,” someone bellows, “For every living thing is holy, life delights in life.”
Gerald Maa is a founding co-editor of The Asian American Literary Review. Having earned an MFA from the University of Maryland, he is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Irvine.