Poems that speak in essence of time in Tokyo


Aileen Fedullo is a young American poet whose observations of people and life in Tokyo over the past decade (“Plastic seasons scraping against eyes”) have been sometimes acerbic, often passionate, always penetrating and more often than not jotted down in coffee shops.

Meeting in a coffee shop in Ebisu, Tokyo, I’m wondering on what her eyes are alighting — raw material for a creative process wholly her own. For Aileen is not the kind of poet who dashes off verses as one-off spiritual exorcisms. Rather she is the constant (for which read unrelenting) revisionist.

Aileen has always used words and punctuation with infinite care. She thinks it a dedication born out of respect for a feisty grandmother who wrote a monthly column called “The Woodlander” for The Pike Country Dispatch. “She’d tell me stories, just as I told fairy tales to my youngest brother. I was 16 when he was born — served up, like me, on Staten Island, N.Y.”

Last month Aileen saw her first book of poems published here by Printed Matter Press. Though rarely satisfied, she’s very happy with the way “She Said . . .” looks and reads.

“She Said . . .” is compiled under four headings. First is Women. In “Desires,” a chorus runs: “We want our own electricity . . .” so telling men to keep their own ideas of energetic power to themselves.

Following is Challenges, about friends in a sad marriage, “dulled” and “polished” wives as “forgotten fixtures,” the cost of settling for less, loneliness and pent-up emotion: “Don’t touch. / This menagerie of emotions running across my face, / is heated matter / contained with precise tension.”

Next comes Writing, containing the poem “For Edgar Henry,” a fellow scribe now passed on. “He so encouraged me,” Aileen says. The poem reads, “You told me, ‘get up and read, / So what if the poem sucked . . . / Keep at them, keep at them / Readings should be conversations, sipped, savored. / Striking into us.’ ”

The final — and longest — section in “She Said . . .” is Love. This includes her favorite poem — the one she believes is the strongest and most successful — “Home Fries Please.” Originally she wrote 11 stanzas, but decided it was the last that summed up what she wanted to say: “Lasting love / is a diner breakfast, / cheap and plain / on heavy dishes.”

Aileen has much on her mind. A single mother for two years (she may have come to Japan as the archetypal trailing spouse, but is now taking the lead), Aileen has decided to take her two sons, aged 10 and 7, back home. So her mother is in town, offering support as her daughter packs to leave Tokyo after 10 years. “We have somewhere to live but that’s about it. No, I’m not worried. I’ll have the few things I care about: my boys, computer and typewriter, guitar and my books.”

Aileen has lots of books, collected in part through a B.A. degree in English literature in New York, a B.F.A. in creative writing from the City University of New York at Brooklyn College, and a master’s, studied online in Japan. These days, she says, she’s far less afraid of editing her own words, or anyone else’s for that matter. “I’m ruthless,” she admits, happily.

Working freelance when she first arrived in 1994, she settled first into science writing and then developed an interest in the problems of breast feeding. “I had some problems. With no help, I had to help myself.”

More books: “Stacks are surrounding safety . . .”

Over the past few years, her creative writing has developed a pace and style all its own. “I had always wanted to write poetry. Tokyo was where it took off.”

Her writing has evolved stylistically and in terms of topics. “I found my voice. There are different aspects to developing and finding a voice, starting with the ability to speak, then looking at what’s inside that communication: what is being spoken. Any image then hits home, becomes larger than the moment. I’m very visual.”

Any poem begins with journaling — notes about people seen, conversations overheard. “If I don’t have a notebook and pen, wow. Soon as I get home, I sit down, begin work.” Any draft is then subject to intensive critique and revision. “I muck about — cut, change, move around, spend forever hunting down the right word.”

She seeks the essence of the original experience. “Revision Talking” (from the Writing section) exemplifies such distillation: “The finished poem should be / a bullet train that lights your eyes / and catches you over and over / with its wind like a mad, mad kiss.”

Aileen describes herself as the sort of person other readers will hate when she dies, because she writes in all her books. “I underline, circle, star, make notes. . . . I have six bookcases full and they make up most of my luggage currently on the high seas between Tokyo and New York.”

She’s not afraid of starting again. “I have a clear sense of what I am trying to do, in every aspect of my life. If something doesn’t work out, well, I’ll use it — save the experience, change it, use it later in my writing. I can’t not write.”

She has an epic story on a back burner — an allegorical tale she wants to tell, but not until her voice is more consistent. “The hardest part is not being able to make what you want to say come right. It’s like a woman’s love — shimmering . . . out there but hard to verbalize. I have to push and pull, whittle away to make it just so. Man, do you have to work hard to get what you want. Always.”

Having made the decision to leave, she can sleep with it. “I may fail, but I’ll fail better each time. There’s always another way. There’s always another way . . .”

The poet, who soon turns 34, can be summed up in her poem “Lady’s Garment”: “Hiding laughter in her eyes / and deft turns of conversation / She is wise, untouchable.”

She is also beautiful, a great mother and — it must be said — very brave.