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Poetry as stimulating as a stun gun

by Stephen Mansfield

THE NEW YURI AND SELECTED YURI: Writing From Peeling Till Now, by Yuri Kageyama. Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, 2011, 134 pp., $19.99 (paper)

In the babbling cosmos of contemporary literature, there have been a handful of distinguished cross-cultural writers who have made the English language their own. One thinks instinctively of Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian who maneuvered words with the elan of a chess master.

More proximate in time and place is the Tokyo-based Dutch writer, Hans Brinckman, a nonfiction author, who also happens to be a poet. Yuri Kageyama, a Japanese woman with an American background, appears to be perfectly at home with both cultures, but chooses to compose her poetry exclusively in English.

Like the manifesto loving European poets of the 1920s and 1930s, Kageyama’s intentions are concisely stated. In her Introduction she writes, “Racial stereotypes and sexuality have always been my obsessions.” These are themes fully explored in the pages that follow.

Kageyama’s images, scoured, purged of ornamentation, can have the effect of a stun gun. In one poem she writes:

SuperMom endures, her womb red and
heavy and big and open, wrenching out
babies and seaweed and stench.
SuperMom spurts out curdled milk like a
fountain in the desert.

In “For women only,” a poem about gender segregated carriages on the Tokyo subway, she infers that the issue of females being sexually harassed is grudgingly acknowledged, but shunted to the rear by more pressing concerns:

farthest from the ticket gates
the first car up front,
and the most dangerous
if we crash

After several dire warnings and premonitions about men and matrimony in the poems and short stories of this anthology, “After the storm” hints at the possibility of a mundane but precious happiness. The sexual fantasies and power infatuations of Western men are exposed in unsparing detail in “Little YELLOW Slut.”

A similar, worse-case treatment of male attitudes toward Asian women is dealt out in a later work, “an ode to the Caucasian male.”

The subject of casual duplicity is touched on in “Disco Chinatown,” when the author writes of male entitlement, of a man establishing proprietorial rights:

You tell me not to dance with anyone else
When I just met you tonight
And isn’t your old lady waiting at your
apartment?

Unlike the writer Anais Nin, whose discreet affairs and erotic writings were sealed in the time capsule of diaries until after her death, Kageyama, a creature from a more divulging age, writes poems that celebrate the voluptuous.

Her artistic activities are documented in “Talking TAIKO,” movie in a DVD form by Yoshiaki Tago. It includes her live performances, commentary, interview snippets and contributions from several musicians, including the Ghanian master drummer Winchester Nii Tete. The performances remind us that the fusion of speech and drum, voice and animal hide, are among the most elemental and expressive of human sounds. Appearing in the flesh, Kageyama comes across as a supremely confident individual, in full control of her material, a person who appears to embody the idea that if an ordeal doesn’t destroy you, it will make you stronger.

The short stories, combining the economy of Jhumpa Lahiri with the hard-won maturity of vision that we associate with the novels of Margaret Atwood, are intimate portraits, segments of reality that allow us to eavesdrop on the intimate conversations of Asian women, or at least to imagine we are.

Beside the patent theme of death, “The Suicide” is about an inarticulate woman who manages to find her voice, only to have it silenced by her husband, though there is an ambiguity to the ending that offers hope. “The Father and he Son,” the final entry in the book, is a disturbing account of the conflicted relationship with a father, a respected scientist, prone, like so many highly educated Japanese males, to fits of domestic violence.

Because this is not feminist propaganda, the women in these narratives are not invariably strong-willed; nor do they necessarily stand up for their rights as we might hope. There are stories of women waiting patiently for men to improve, women who are prepared to make allowances, to cover up for shortcomings and inadequacies.

The focus in Kageyama’s work is less on beauty, which can be delusional, than on truth. Serious literature, we realize, does not exist to comfort and mollify us, but to unnerve and agitate.

With such a fierce and unsparing concatenation of images and observations on rape, parental abuse, loneliness, injustice, suicide, teenage abortion, racial slurs and human inanition, you could be forgiven for thinking this a joyless work. Although clearly not for the faint-hearted, Kageyama’s book of ordeals is full of life. And the rumble of authorial anger.