Carolyn Nakagawa Reviews Three Poetry Collections For EVENT 50/2

Carolyn Nakagawa Reviews:

Lily Wang, Saturn Peach, Gordon Hill Press, 2020
Jen Sookfong Lee, The Shadow List, Wolsak & Wynn, 2021
Sachiko Murakami, Render, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020

In her debut collection, Saturn Peach, Lily Wang presents a light and colourful world that floats in the joy of dream-logic: ‘She is a girl. She is a boy. It does not matter.’ The poems take pleasure in detail, and their lightness gives an impression of charming frivolity. Yet it is precisely this lightness that allows them to careen unexpectedly among the sensory, nonsensical, mundane and penetrating: ‘What if you are full of mosquitoes?’ is followed with, ‘What if you were just like me?’ Or, driving with a friend, the speaker is asked: ‘Are you sure you don’t want to sit up front?/Have you ever been in love?’ Wang does not linger with these loaded questions, declining to diminish them with attempted answers, but they remain a part of the tapestry she gently weaves. While many of these questions are ones that anyone might recognize from both intimate and commonplace discussions with friends and family, others are bolder and more self-consciously that of a poet engaging with the most important struggles of her art form: ‘what are words for?’ or ‘Let there be/what?’ Wang approaches these questions with the curiosity of a wise child; in the absence of answers, she invites delight rather than trepidation.

Pop culture is as much a part of the world of Saturn Peach as the speaker’s personal memories and friendly questions. Movies are a kind of shared dream that the speaker can cheerfully reimagine through an effortless blend of recalled imagery and associative commentary, whether it’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Goodfellas, Suspiria or Psycho. Moreover, movies are a natural facilitator of friendship: both a common language for those who have seen them and a source of enjoyment. In ‘We’ll Make a Deal,’ the speaker watches the movie adaptation of a book she has read while a friend agrees to read the book, having already seen the movie. Waiting to hear from her friend, the speaker keeps rewatching the movie. This kind of excited longing for connection with another person is echoed on a concrete level by the poems’ intimate pleasure in sensory experiences, such as when ‘Two different textures meet’ or ‘you cup your hands and form a lotus.’ Perhaps most pleasing is when Wang builds on the abstract and concrete in her work by joining them with bold, open-ended metaphors such as ‘stories are peaches and grapes.’ The dream-world of Saturn Peach is one to both ponder and savour: Wang’s poems reach out with the warmth of a friend and offer questions and ideas to carry with you long after reading.  

Dreams and desires look very different in novelist Jen Sookfong Lee’s first poetry collection, The Shadow List. In her poem ‘Wishes,’ Lee’s speaker presents two contrasting lists of desires: the first is wholesome, beginning with ‘Babies’ and finishing with ‘a cat, long-haired and suspicious.’ But it is the second, the ‘shadow list,’ that truly haunts her fantasies: instead of babies, there are agonizing sexual fantasies; instead of ‘an A-frame cabin on a cliff,’ there is a ‘car that makes noises that sound like sex.’ While The Shadow List is dominated by a domestic environment, that environment is a figurative and often literal shadow of clichéd, idyllic images of femininity and motherhood: the second-person addressee’s house is usually depicted late at night, and images of decay proliferate, such as ‘larvae in the quinoa’ or other healthful grains ‘All in their clear containers, so they can judge/you from within.’ Meanwhile, ‘moths circle the trap/that smells like sex.’

Second-person address dominates the collection, placing the reader in the role of a protagonist whose inner life plays out in night-time bedroom reflections while her son sleeps in the next room; in digital, real and imagined encounters with lovers; and in the relentless domestic matters to be managed, from infestations to laundry. This is how the reader encounters the decidedly unwholesome desires of the central figure: as an already well-known part of ‘your’ experience, as present and inevitable as needing to fold laundry. By weaving these desires into ubiquitous, mundane domestic imagery, Lee insists that these shocking images have just as indisputable and valid a place in a woman’s life, even if hidden from view.

Dreams are delightful in Saturn Peach and defiantly liberating in The Shadow List. In Render, Sachiko Murakami’s fourth poetry collection, dreams are an expansive yet claustrophobic arena where intergenerational, familial and personal traumas play out. Murakami’s poems emerge from a potent miasma of memories variously inherited and individual, insistent and lost. The dreams of Render are a way of recovering or making meaning of memories lost to addiction and trauma. Through these dreams, the speaker struggles to reclaim what has been rendered and to build from it a recovered sense of self.

If questions and curiosity drive Saturn Peach, fragmentary language and an attempt to define drive Render. Before the table of contents, we are presented with a dictionary definition of the title word ‘Render’ that lists over a dozen possible definitions as a single entry. Each of the book’s five sections has both a title and a phrase in which the letters of the word ‘render’ are highlighted. Language is a means of rendering experience, in this case experiences so traumatic they elude sense-making. Some of these traumas are more commonplace than others; for example, ‘Night training’ is when ‘a babe becomes accustomed/to the soothing taste of absence.’ From a near-universal (if subconscious) memory of infant need, Murakami spins into recognizable childhood memories of family meals and car rides. These memories, though, are far from harmless. This is especially clear when they are framed as encounters with a fear of Death, as is explored in ‘Thanatophobia,’ a sequence of poems distributed across the first half of the book. Although the memories get more specific, they are characterized by the same open, dreamlike register which vividly depicts the experience and effects of trauma around, within and outside of actual representation of traumatic incidents. These are poems that live trauma, and invite the reader to remember that experience as their own, rather than trying to explain traumatic incidents as cause and effect or to depict them empirically to a detached observer. In the book’s opening, Murakami deftly situates what becomes a deeply personal and specific journey within a shared context of trauma that anyone who has had parents, belonged to a family, or experienced being an infant can recognize. 

Render lives in the Vancouver of nightmares: memories traced desperately onto streets, intersections, even actual maps, as a way to pin them to something concrete and finite. Space, and especially the urban space of Vancouver, has been a guiding principle in much of Murakami’s previous work: The Invisibility Exhibit roams Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, while Rebuild meditates on the psychological impact of Vancouver’s real estate and development landscape on its residents. Render’s Vancouver is more idiosyncratic, laid out in a less recognizable order, a setting for a personal, rather than social, malaise. Murakami drops pins on ‘the darkest night of my addicted life’ by reproducing a literal map of Vancouver and annotating a series of labelled intersections. Elsewhere in the book, her speaker recalls ‘straight, decent roads/lead to my dealers: Smithe & Beatty,/Nelson & Burrard.’ But her Vancouver consciousness is also readable in more commonplace images, both visual and psychological, that speak less to a history of addiction and more to a general experience of living in Vancouver: she dreams of ‘hiding a bundle in my shirt like/I’ve been picking roadside blackberries’ and observing ‘some other she/crouched in my upright stance’ as if ‘Waiting for the Big One.’  

Lee’s urban setting is also distinctly recognizable as Vancouver, though from a different vantage point than Murakami’s: residential neighbourhoods built up within an immediate landscape of shadowy alleys, ‘sea-salted air,’ and ‘asphalt…streaked with long stripes//of blood or shit or mud’; ‘the beach/in winter’ with ‘kelp bulbs that popped in [the dog’s] mouth,’ present immediately alongside ‘a house you helped rebuild’ and a ‘brown streak she smeared on the north wall/of your stairwell.’ It is an imperfect, made-over domesticity always in a state of decay, permeated by the grit and fecundity of urbanity and surrounding rainforest. ‘There is nowhere…this city doesn’t intrude,’ a speaker observes when the smell of salt emanates variously from a couple’s coital sweat, ‘the almonds still on the table’ and ‘the mud-ringed inlet two blocks away.’

In contrast, Saturn Peach uses a spare, non-specific suggestion of urbanity as a limitless canvas to explore friendships, connections and every other big question it happens to come across. Wang’s poems float above and dip into residential neighbourhoods, arcades, condos and crowds. These environments are just one type of catalyst for connection and exploration in the unimpeded landscape of the poet’s mind. While Wang makes wonderful use of abstraction, physical details situate her poems in a generically urban setting that most readers, especially city dwellers, will recognize easily enough to take for granted. Although Wang’s setting is very different from Lee’s or Murakami’s, all three collections use their physical environment to lend support to their respective dreamworlds. 

In dreams, compared to waking life, logic is usually looser or merely absent; interesting memories collide with mundane ones. Anyone who has ever woken from a dream feeling slightly puzzled but utterly delighted will know the enjoyment in store for readers of Saturn Peach. Similarly, anyone who has tried to explain a pleasing but nonsensical dream to an uninterested friend or family member will be awed by Wang’s ability to transmit an often sadly individual experience to readers. Anyone who has ever woken from a nightmare will appreciate the visceral illogic of Render and how Murakami bravely reconstructs a traumatic past beyond the boundaries of prose or fact and builds poetic signposts for a just-as-unknowable future. And anyone who has ever woken from a dream knowing more about themselves than they did the night before has glimpsed what Lee achieves in The Shadow List. Wang, Murakami and Lee have each harnessed recognizable conceits of dreaming to create poetic works that expand their readers’ waking consciousnesses past everyday barriers of self, memory and convention.

—Carolyn Nakagawa