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Laying it all out on the table

by David Cozy

Hiromi Ito’s poetry is often described as “shamanistic,” and indeed, according to translator Jeffrey Angles, when she performs her poems she sometimes “sits on the floor like a shamaness and raps on a drum.” That sort of thing, along with the insistence — often asserted but seldom supported — that oral poetry is more authentic than poetry on the page, can grow tiresome pretty quickly. Unless, that is, the poet doing the drumming has real talent. Hiromi Ito, no bongo-beating poseur, does.

KILLING KANOKO, by Hiromi Ito. Translated by Jeffrey Angles. Action Books, 129 pp., $16 (paperback)

The first thing to note is that she has more than one arrow in her quiver. She does do shamanistic outpourings, but in addition she produces poems in an austere style that display considerable delicacy and finesse. “So as Not to Distort,” for example, is a love poem, simply written, but never simply romantic. The woman narrating the poem, eating sweets with her lover, revels in their love but is also aware of the risks love entails:

Then the two of us

Bring together our syrupy mouths

Slide the palms of our hands

Moving them in the shape of love

But

You know

I don’t want to distort

I don’t want to be distorted

This is what I think, oh man, my man.

The deliberation with which Ito renders a lover’s joy, hesitation, pleasure and fear reassures readers that, in poems where she has chosen a style more elaborate and emotional, it is a choice — it’s not all she can do.

When Ito decides, as she often does, to write poems (as Angles puts it) “narrated in extended, sometimes even unwieldy passages of relatively colloquial text,” the issues that elicit this inelegant style are often drawn from Ito’s deep immersion in feminism, and inspire poetic responses that must have been shocking in the 1980s, when many of these poems first appeared. Consider, for example, the first stanza of the poem “Postpartum”:

Childbirth was not dying nor defecating

Childbirth was just a very painful period

For the thirty-seven hours from beginning to end

I kept on bleeding just as if

I were having a period

I wanted to change my maxi pad, change it right away

I was constantly aware of my anus but

I knew I didn’t have to defecate

The pain was unpleasant

The pain was unpleasant

Dying was unpleasant

Unpleasant.

That the poem mentions defecation, menstruation and even maxi pads must have been unsettling enough for some, but even more shocking would have been Ito’s demystification of childbirth. It’s a mess, to be sure, but it is neither the most painful thing a woman will experience nor the acme of her existence. In Ito’s most notorious poem, “Killing Kanoko,” she continues her debunking of the fairy tales told about women’s lives by writing frankly about killing her daughter.

Also concerned with women’s lives is the long poem that concludes the collection, “I Am Anjuhimeko.” Based on the words of an early-20th-century medium, it is the most shamanistic of the poems included in “Killing Kanoko.” Angles claims that Ito uses the shamaness’ words as “the point of inspiration for a dramatic new myth of healing and self-discovery,” but one shouldn’t let this description, evocative of an Oprah’s Book Club selection, put one off. Angles is not wrong, but neither is his summary sufficient to describe Ito’s version of the Shamaness’ words and the need Ito has to speak them, a need she likens to a leech-child on her back: “The only way I have to respond is language, all I have is language, I respond with language, I respond, and as I respond, I sense the desire of the leech-child I carry on my back slowly being satisfied.”

Readers of “Killing Kanoko” will not be satisfied. They will thirst for more from Hiromi Ito.