Books / Reviews

Existence is but a brief shimmer of light

by Steve Finbow

INCIDENTAL MUSIC, by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa. BlazeVOX, 2010, 112 pp., $16.00 (paper); and NOTATIONAL, by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa. Otoliths, 2011, 68 pp., $12.45 (paper).

If the saying is true that “writing about art is like dancing about architecture” — or, as Martin Amis argues, that, when reviewing poems, critics do not respond with sonnet sequences — then, writing about poetry collections is like tap dancing on top of the Tokyo Sky Tree, a dizzying experience that could possibly end in disaster and calumny.

That said, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s latest books warrant attention, regardless of the dangers. Originally from the United States, the poet lives in central Japan, and it is from the poetry of these two countries that her work emerges, converges, and diverges.

“Incidental Music” opens with the marriage and schism of death and birth, a cracking open of the seam of verse, a fractured sonnet probing Nabokov’s observation that “the cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The poems that follow — inspired by poets from the San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, New York, and Language schools of poetry — refigure our view of the world. The poet truncates lines and excises words that ground us in experience. At other times, there is a proliferation of nouns, mirroring the materialism of the world, the impossibility of experiencing everything in it. Charles Olson’s theory of projective verse and open-field composition informs a number of these poems in that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.”

Incorporating into their structure the abstract precision of haiku and tanka, along with post-1945 poetic form, the poems read like a mash-up of Matsuo Basho and Ted Berrigan. The subject matter moves swiftly yet easily from black holes to “American Idol” to rape to buried temples. The words “becoming foreign in your mouth” until they translate into images in your mind, the surreal juxtapositions transforming into truths and strange yet somehow familiar commonplaces.

In “Notational,” the words spread out even more across the page, like a river’s many tributaries, creating a delta while searching for the sea, continually seeking for an ending, a consumption by and consummation with something larger, an “infinite spacing of intact trace effortless gut in radiant space.” In these poems, much more so than in “Incidental Music,” the poet rewires the mind through shifting, contrasting, and conflicting meanings until one does feel like a “baby raised on agent orange in a senile pattern.” In a similar way to Jackson Mac Low, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa uses source material — from authors as diverse as John Donne and Charles Bernstein — as linguistic launchpads for her poems. In doing so, she transforms the original text into melancholic yet vigorously contemporary and thoughtful reflections on society, spirituality, and language — not surprising that two of the authors she thanks for inspiration are Soren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In an essay on the poetry of Larry Eigner, Robert Grenier wrote, “The ‘timing’ of what is being said here — relative to its articulation, moving through the (available) space of the typewriter page — is absolute/’immaculate,’ so that what is ‘said’ on/in that space happens.”

In “Incidental Music” and “Notational,” the reader gets a sense of the poems being written as we read them, as they happen, that they are “fermented photographs” changing and mutating the supposed reality of what they claim to have captured. Or that they are created “of something else to the point of dissolve,” showing us a fleeting glance, a snatched thought, a notational sketch of what, after all, is always incidental music.

The poems in these two volumes generate all the grace and beauty of Japanese screen paintings (and all the horror of slasher movies) as they attempt to apprehend the world through language. From jubilation to vivisection, via the history of poetry, these collections show a poet in full control of her powers and pushing the boundaries of poetry, a fearless and challenging writer in the mode of Lyn Hejinian, Alice Notley, and Susan Howe.