Renée Sarojini Saklikar Reviews New Poetry Collections for EVENT 51/1

Renée Sarojini Saklikar Reviews:

Matsuki Masutani, I Will Be More Myself in the Next World, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021
Margaret Christakos, Dear Birch, Palimpsest Press, 2021

In both I Will Be More Myself in the Next World and Dear Birch, we find an examination of the moment—of the quotidian, noticed, recorded—consigned into a personal poetics. Both collections claim everyday existence as the ground tilled in this moment of climate emergency and pandemic.

Masutani’s spare, koan-like meditations on his life echo a fierce yet gentle honesty. Christakos’s book-length series of long-line couplets situates us under a birch tree in the month of August. In both books, the micro-observations of life in these strange times perform juxtaposition, beckoning us into a created tension between the hard and the soft.

Masutani structures his lean, vertically shaped poems into six sections entitled ‘Marriage,’ ‘Japan,’ ‘Island Life,’ ‘Chemo,’ ‘Parkinson’s,’ ‘Old’ and, at the end, ‘Grandchildren.’ The ‘Marriage,’ ‘Chemo’ and ‘Parkinson’s’ sections contain Japanese translations. The book takes its haunting title from the first poem that appears in the book, which is set out as an epigraph: ‘I am//more than/my body/more than/what I think./I am/more than/what I do/what I did/and what I will do.//Actually/I am/more than/what I am/in this world/and I feel/I will be/more myself/in the next/world.’

The beats of each short, sharp line break contrast with the gentle Zen atmosphere created by the decision to place only a few words on each page, which resonates with pathos, the simplicity of the words conveying longing, nostalgia, pain, joy and the ephemeral nature of existence. All these elements are emblematic of the collection as a whole. To construct a book of poems in this way takes years of skill and is deceptive: it looks easy, but is in fact very hard to do.

This is a book that encourages readers to dip into its pages, pause over the spare structure of Masutani’s words, reflect and then dip back into the text. Playfulness cohabits a kind of rueful regret at the process of time passing, what Virginia Woolf once claimed was the essence of all tragedy.

Masutani underscores that understanding in this sequence from the ‘Marriage’ section, in which humour and sorrow emerge side by side, a knowing wink to the beauty and tension in any long-term relationship: ‘My wife says//“You are/in front of your desk/all the time/from morning till night/day after day/year after year/it’s obviously an old habit.”’

These lines, placed vertically, fill each stanza with space ample enough to resonate outward and work with the beautiful design by Mark Hand, the blue and green cover bearing the reproduction of a lino-cut reduction by Mimi Fujino (‘From Tumbo Island’). All the components—design, image, poem stanzas and line breaks—create the sense of a complete, otherworldly dimension.

Kudos to Masutani’s publisher, Mona Fertig, who just recently announced her retirement after over 30 years in BC’s independent literary publishing market. Readers will delight in the end product, a thing of beauty to hold in the hand and perfect for a meditation on the ‘impermanence of all things.’ Masutani’s work recalls not only the irascible humour of Pound, but also the delicacy and drollness of Italo Calvino. Here’s the first poem from Masutani’s ‘Parkinson’s’ sequence, eviscerating in its honesty, which begins with the poet’s scene setting: ‘In the middle//of my cancer treatment/I saw myself leaving/this world and realized/leaving means losing/everything.’

And then, devastatingly, in the second poem of the series, we encounter the following: ‘a friend of mine came over//to congratulate me/on my recovery/from cancer. /She is a retired GP/We went for a walk. /She said, /“You walk funny. /Like you have Parkinson’s.”’ Lines like these, with the first line of the poem constructed as the title, and the accompanying translation in Japanese on the facing page, mirroring the simple English phrasing, cut like a knife, the word-flesh open, raw and yet almost whimsical.

Poets will appreciate the difficulty of creating lines spare enough to contain worlds of pain. Masutani leaves us breathless: delivered with a light grace, ‘you walk funny’ is both an accurate and cruel description of those who suffer from Parkinson’s. The poems in this section of the book act as a kind of accompaniment to those of us who at this time might need to visit a care home, delayed by a COVID outbreak. Instead, we hold Masutani’s words as they stare out from the page, the beautiful book trembling in the hand, imagining a step-by-step walk down the corridor. His book resounds with these spare insights into the human condition.

In contrast, Margaret Christakos sets out her long poem in couplets that stretch out across pages, evoking a more baroque meditation on loss. We are told that the book muses on two losses suffered by the ‘bisexual writer,’ that of her mother and the break up of her romantic relationship. These experiences are observed by the poet, sitting ‘in the company of an urban birch tree.’ The sensation created is one of ‘sitting shiva’ in a triumvirate of tree, poet and reader.

The entire book presents the disciplined surface of these long-line couplets, almost all of which are precisely eight words across. The regularity of construction creates an ecosphere wherein we are greeted with the first diary-like poem, its opening lines telling us exactly what to expect: ‘She is a diarist, & as such wants/to remember thoughts & events she has lived.’ Thus, the speaker both situates the reader and, manifesto-like, proclaims and summarizes, in effect, the entire contents of her book.

The insistence on the third-person address, for what is ostensibly a series of confessionals, is rendered more mesmerizing than coy by the skill of the poet. This skill with image and a ‘self-metered’ line finds strong expression in the poem ‘Aug 22’:

Awaking into the resolve of a new day,
one with a smoke-coloured moist sky & breeze

rushing through your canopy creating a pleasurable field
of sonic caresses both calming & inciting; it

drenches her inner hearing & makes her brain
tissue bloom, her lungs reach up through her…

In the hands of a lesser poet, lines as interior and as confessional as these (note the number of gerund verbs stacked with the stanzas: ‘Awakening,’ ‘rushing,’ ‘calming,’ ‘inciting,’ ‘hearing’) might ultimately grow tedious, but Christakos creates tension with her refusal to indulge in the sentimental, and with her use of well-placed images, such as ‘smoke-coloured moist sky,’ that startle with their inclusion of the unsettling. The juxtaposition of the lyric ‘smoke-coloured’ with the ‘squishy’ word ‘moist’ provokes interest. Christakos’s use of contrast carries us deeper into this beautifully written book. Here the text is encased in the book like a kind of tinder box, where reading becomes an act of ignition and Christakos’s structural conceit of the eight-word couplet-line runs like a flame, sparking our senses.

Here, too, the publisher, Palimpsest, gives the reader a wonderfully tactile experience: the pages of Dear Birch are typeset on heavier cream stock, rough and matte, perhaps mimicking the sensation of birch paper.

In fact, both Masutani and Christakos create the tactile with words and images that stick to our psyches and call for revisiting. It’s impossible not to read the poetry books of 2021 through any other frame than our enduring storm of climate catastrophe and continuing pandemic. In doing so, we might carry within us a greater appreciation for books such as these, with their micro-observations of the daily agonies and fractured joys of living, which step by step record the touch of self brushing up against this challenged world.

Renée Sarojini Saklikar