Reviewer: Lee Rossi
Once upon a time, I took a workshop with Garrett Hongo, the Asian-American poet and memoirist, and as always happens in such settings, some of the aspiring writers started pestering him about The Secret. Hongo, somewhat of a Zen Master in his teaching style, answered simply, “Groove your stroke!”
What does baseball have to do with the poetry? we asked ourselves.
Meditating through the years on Hongo’s koan-like mantra, I’ve come to a couple of realizations. First is that you have to know yourself, know your gift, and not be ashamed of who you are! The second realization is that you have to practice your stroke until every poem hits a homerun.
In The Yellow Door, her fourth book of poetry, Amy Uyematsu continues to groove her stroke. Again, she focuses on the history of Japanese-Americans and on her own experiences growing up in an otherwise all-white suburb.
Like many of her better-known contemporaries in the Asian-American writing community, Uyematsu never strays far from the tragedy of her people. Unlike some of them, however, she doesn’t let her politics or sense of history shrink her sense of life’s possibilities. She is perhaps most similar in temperament to David Mura, in her abiding fascination with Eros and how it bridges the divides between peoples and cultures. Like Mura she enacts a transvaluation of values, affirming the yellow, brown, and black, everything that white racism negates.
This new book contains many of the characteristic pleasures of her writing—precise diction, keen awareness of social and cultural differences, and what I can only call “local color,” but there is less recrimination and anger than in earlier work. The book exhibits a sense of accomplishment and ease, as well as an awareness that the taboos and restrictions once imposed on Japanese-Americans have lessened since she was a girl.
As with her other books, The Yellow Door is divided into more or less cohesive sections. The first section includes meditations on the different cultural meanings of “yellow.” In “Riding the Yellow Dragon,” for instance, she counters negative Western notions about “yellow” (as in peril, as in cowardice) with an extensive list of positive images drawn mainly from the Far East: the imperial Chinese dragon, symbol of power; the yellow earth of a Tibetan prayer flag; “the pledge of courage” in the samurai’s yellow chrysanthemum.
Section two, “Carnival Nights,” gathers poems about dancing. “Sansei Line Dance,” for instance, shows her “line dancing to Don Julian and the Meadowlarks/ in the basement of the all-Japanese/ Pasadena Presbyterian Church.” In the charmingly humorous “This Is More about Hands than Feet,” we see her trying out different partners in a salsa class: “Mr. Know-It-All who says/ ‘Your elbows are too high!’” and “the overdressed fellow/ his wrists of jello.” Throughout this section we see her dual struggle, to embrace the cultural hodgepodge which surrounds her and to hold fast to her Japanese inheritance. The most painful moments come when the dominant white culture rejects her. In “An Argument for Dark-Eyed Romeos” she relates that in her little town white boys wouldn’t ask her on a date “because I’m Japanese” and because this was “a no-mixed-dating town.”
Section three addresses America’s ongoing racism with poems such as “Thriftstore Haiku” and “Unpronounceable,” the latter about the difficulties that teachers and others had saying her name: “All my life I’ve excused all those who spit out/ and garble my family name, as if the non-English sounds/ just aren’t worth the trouble.” One hears the still-simmering anger at a carelessness for which there is no excuse.
Her style is various: at times descriptive, at others polemical, here essayistic, there reflective. The rare moments of lyricism, e.g. “Orchid Season in Mr. Ikeda’s Garden,” are set among longer narrative and meditative pieces. Her skill as a miniaturist is obvious in the book’s many haiku but also in the longer poems, which are often built from expertly examined images and lists.
The book’s fourth section, “In Our Light Yellow Boats,” marks a breakthrough or departure not just from the earlier sections, but also, I think, from her earlier books. Part lyric, part narrative, these three poems attempt a reckoning with the struggles of her grandparents’ generation. As a younger son, grandfather Jiro had nothing to lose and everything to gain in leaving for America. Even the racism he encountered in his new country did not daunt him. She writes (in “The Sea Off Kazusa Province”):
Jiro never regretted leaving Shizuoka—
This section surprises with its tone of conciliation and acceptance. In “Under the Wave at Kanagawa,” she tells her grandfather’s spirit that she has left behind “my years of noisy outrage to tell the world/ how much you suffered unfairly.” Has she failed him? Has she failed herself? She asks: “Would you be pleased I grew weary of anger/ and finally understand…/ that certain tragedies cannot be avoided….”
The final section continues in this introspective vein, offering poems about aging as well as the tsunami of 2011. They offer a mature vision of life’s possibilities. She wonders, for instance in the poem “As We Walk,” if “my own sadness [is] part of an endless song.” Moreover, she comes to a kind of acceptance, of her history and herself. In “When It Is Time,” a poem which reads almost like an epitaph, she declares:
And if I am nothing
After a lifetime of unease, of never feeling at home, not in the US or even in Japan, the struggle for self-acceptance seems close to resolution. By the end of the book, Uyematsu has perhaps walked through the yellow door, designed to keep her separate, towards full participation in her own humanity.