15 December 2009

Private Graveyard by Arlene Naganawa

Private Graveyard
By Arlene Naganawa
Gribble Press, 2009 $10.00
Winner of the First Gribble Press Poetry Contest

 Review by Susan Jo Russell

Private graveyards—we all have them. Arlene Naganawa shares hers with us—the literal place, as yet unhaunted for the children playing there in the title poem, and memories of the individual dead who exist now only in images. The brief opening poem, “Compass,” almost an epigraph for the collection, which was the Gribble Press Poetry Chapbook Winner for 2009, draws the reader in with a question, as if to a friend met on the street, “Diane’s dead now, did you know?” The tone is deliberately too casual, too blunt—a cover for what the words can’t contain. “Compass” points to, encompasses, in its terse five lines, a central theme of this collection—it is not simply that we have become separated from those who once knew us, but that, in that separation, the very selves we once were are dead to us, as the devastating last line reveals, “and I’m not the girl in the flowered dress.”

Naganawa’s work shows an easy spinning of meter and line. One rarely stumbles in a reading of her poems—image is supported by sound, without fuss, as in the insistence of hard “c” sounds that undercuts what might otherwise be too sweet a memory in “Diane Mae 1951-2005” (whom I assume is also the Diane of the opening poem): Your childhood friend (her hair slicked back with a headband, white plastic stamped with rosebuds) is standing barefoot under the sprinkler. It is not until the next couplet that the slight unease we already sense is made more explicit: “No one will give her/a map of her young heart . . . .” In these poems what is gone remains as an emptiness, never filled in, an open grave in the private graveyard.

The people we encounter here confront an unrelieved wanting (“want,” as a noun, occurs frequently), as in this poem, whose title is its first line: It May Come As a Surprise but you are not the center of the universe anymore, not since your mother buttoned up her blouse and walked away, leaving you to watch pink clouds circle the sky over your crib, mobile turning on invisible wire. . . . Not all of the poems are scenes from lost childhood. Two, in particular, open up into an examination of fear, greed, racism, and the power relations of U.S. history. “Great Northern Railroad” recounts a story of a Japanese farmer who never recovers his land, and the life that land would have enabled, after his internment in the U.S. camps. “Peaches in North Carolina” is a surprise in this book, a leap from the poems of loss that are closely connected with Naganawa’s own history. This ekphrastic poem is based on a photograph of the lynching of John Richards in 1916 from Without Sanctuary (edited by James Allen; the reference to this book might have been made more clearly). It is a remarkable interpretation of that photograph, juxtaposing the imagined dailiness of the lynchers and the lynched with the almost sensual violence of the act itself.

Although a poem or two did not lift me beyond a simple sadness for those who die too young, most often Naganawa’s imagery and deceptively straightforward language express a palpable longing and regret. The children in “One Afternoon” already yearn for something they can only describe by imagining objects they might find in the woods: “whole robin egg, shed snakeskin/mouse skull, perfect and clean.” Nagawana’s poetry reveals how the persistence and accumulation of loss, death, and unfulfilled promise claim pieces of the self, pieces of history and culture, leaving holes in the fabric that can’t be repaired.