An Old World Made New: The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn

The Narrow Road to the Interior

The Narrow Road to the Interior
BY Kimiko Hahn
(W.W. Norton, 2008)

Some poets inhabit themselves like spelunkers. They issue reports on how they arrived and what they found, and a reader’s pleasure often comes from discovering the familiar cunningly reconfigured. But part of what makes Kimiko Hahn’s new book so appealing is her ability to transcend the confessional lyric by adapting Japanese poetic expectations and fitting them to her own unique — and very personal — requirements.

The voice may at first seem like a narrative convention: the poet as woman, mother, wife, ex-wife, lover. This is not unfamiliar territory. But there is more going on here, and the title is a good indication of how it operates. The Narrow Road to the Interior is a translation of the great Japanese haikai poet Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, a poetic travel diary that describes (and fictionalizes) a long walking journey he took through remote provinces in 1689. Hahn’s concern is less with the details of that book itself than with the implications of its methodology. She applies Japanese literary aesthetics to the world she inhabits — the East Coast of the United States in the first years of the new millennium, including the terrorist attack of 9/11 — and thereby devises a novel way to shape her apparently autobiographical material.

Like Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, Hahn uses various permutations and extensions of the idea of travel to explore a more subjective response to the past. The poem “Utica Station” describes a train journey. A woman with an infant sits near the poet, reminding her of her own daughters so that the process of moving through space also becomes a journey back through time. “I do not want to return to their infancies. I would merely do the / same: want to be in this notebook, not on the carpet covered with / dolls. To be at the window waiting for their father, not swinging / them in the park. // That was my mother — in the sandbox. // The farther south, the greener. Is it my imagination — or the proximity / to the river?” (p. 5). For Bashō, the physical journey was an aesthetic pilgrimage to specific places.

Hahn uses various permutations and extensions of the idea of travel to explore a more subjective response to the past.

Similarly, Hahn sets some of her poems at Wellfleet, Gowanus, Brooklyn, Great Barrington and Boerun Hill. Named locations are important in Japanese literature because they carry overtones of poetic and/or historical occurrences. Names resonate with qualities. And for Hahn too, the use of place suggests a grounding in lived reality — or, more correctly, in the illusion of lived reality, for Bashō fictionalized his travel diary and we have reason to believe that Hahn does the same. For all its appearance of artlessness, The Narrow Road to the Interior is a highly aesthetic construct, operating on a plane well beyond the expectations of organized reportage. How “factual” her poems are is impossible to gauge on internal evidence alone. They certainly seem rooted in lived experience. But they also seem shaped, and the poet points out this strategy in “Blunt Instruments” in which she quotes approvingly from Earl Miner’s Japanese Poetic Diaries (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969): “…there is an artistic reconstitution of fact participating in or paralleling fiction” (p. 55). Later in this poem, she is even more explicit: “Confessionalism in poetry? I’m not clear why this issue has come / up since I’ve always assumed poetic license — so any ‘confession’ is / bound to be fictive” (p. 56). But is this “confession” itself any more veracious? There’s no way of knowing. Fact, thus, becomes just another component, a starting point perhaps, a source to be exploited. It’s the manner of its shaping that makes it sing.

All writing is based to a degree on some form of experience that is reworked in the process of composition. But in this book it is essential to consider the implications of such manipulations because Kimiko Hahn’s texts often look like raw reporting: “I know there are times when I feel boyish: regulation push-ups / (fifty), chinos and boots, JD (my dad’s preferred drink — one of the / few things we have in common) — // Maybe Cicely is thinking to tell me, Easy for you girl — you can imagine, / you can play, you can return home to the husband. The safe, straight life. right?” (“The Orient,” p. 69). It would be hard to identify anything conventionally poetic about this passage; it seems like unedited prose, discursive, random jottings, like notes or journal entries meant to be reworked later or not. (And notice how the convention of indicating line breaks with a slash may feel somewhat futile here. Are these even meant to be read as lines? And if not, is this still poetry?) Large portions of The Narrow Road to the Interior read this way — and for a very good reason. The author is writing out of one of the great traditions of world literature: the zuihitsu, which in Japanese literally means “following the brush.” Truly random jottings run the risk of recapitulating the familiar tedium of the diary entry or the blog. But randomness can also be a pose. Zuihitsu applies poetic compression to the loose, prose-like expression of discursive content, thereby creating an appealing hybrid form. Speaking more broadly, this stance derives from the Sino-Japanese tradition of the “literati” — the so-called amateur painter/poet who creates freely, in contrast to the rigid formalism of the academic artist. So while the poet is writing as a modern American woman who views herself within contemporary geographical and psychological environments, she is also rooted in this well-known East Asian artistic tradition in which a sincere response to the world is preferred to a well-crafted formalist effort. Authenticity is prized … as is the illusion of it.

About a third of The Narrow Road to the Interior is made up of short poems identified as tanka, the foundational form of Japanese lyric poetry, also known as waka. The tanka is a thirty-one-syllable lyric verse, often broken into two syntactic units of seventeen- and fourteen-syllables, out of which the seventeen-syllable haiku evolved. Tanka are topical, usually season-specific, with another familiar trope being the vicissitudes of love. We of course have a recent tradition of English-language haiku; but Hahn is operating at another level, one which ignores the mechanical “rules” of haiku / tanka composition. At first glance, her tanka may seem like overly-loose interpretations of the form because they do not look like what we are used to seeing in collections of classic and medieval Japanese poetry.

Here is a run of three of Hahn’s tanka:

2
The trees flinch in the late summer air over Boerum Hill. We already
miss scorching on that Salt Marsh Road.
3
The summer was about rage. Will recollection fall dead off the trees?
Can it? I am the one who left.
4
Did my daughters hike the the Sunken Forest with their father this
summer? Is to imagine, to imagine regret?

— “Gowanus, Late Summer,” p. 36

We may not read these poems as “Japanese” because they do not employ the kind of imagery or phrasing we might have expected, and counting syllables is not instructive although the length of each and the amount of material included feels fairly close to what is found in Japanese tanka. More problematic, perhaps, is that they seem like prose. Yet the sense of poetic compression is certainly there, and they deal with attributes of the seasons, with emotional responses to change, with love — painful love, at that: all central concerns for the tanka. They seem intensely worked, as if the foundational experience has been reduced to the core essence of its meaning. These tanka both partake of the Japanese tradition and push off from it. As with the zuihitsu, Kimiko Hahn has taken an established form and made it new.

The title of the book points to the experience of travel; but the journeys are inward and more often through time than space. Journeys end; the traveller returns home; and the idea of home is a powerful theme that runs throughout this book. In “Wellfleet, Midsummer” we find:

31
It’s a former life—the one bent over small children and a small dog,
tweezing ticks off all three. I think how I don’t even miss their
father.
32
A friend claims she grew up with fireflies on Fire Island but I’ve
never seen any — any wonder after years of fogging? Yet, mos-
quitoes gorged on the abandoning wife.
33
Loneliness is the habit of this house: even with two box turtles in a box
on the porch I wonder what a home may be.

— p. 24

The question of home in this book always comes back to family: daughters, in particular, as well as the shadowy presence of a male and/or absent male, be it an ex-husband or weirdly disembodied current lover. These figurers are listed as types but do not emerge as individuals. They are presented solely in terms of the poet’s experience of them. This is less a limitation than a method of intensified focusing: it is less the world we find here than the poet’s response to it. “I love the unabashed first person — it almost risks the confessional / quality that a diary exudes, or that diary-like information can con- / tain in a conventional poetic form. Even the tone becomes altered / by the form. // (What is true here?)” (“The Orient, ” p. 67). We can accept that factuality is not the sole source of truth; yet the uniformity of the single, self-conscious voice processing the seriousness of its experience does somewhat limit the poems. Kimiko Hahn refers to the great Japanese women poets of the past: she reads Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji with a daughter, emulates Sei Shonagon’s fondness for lists with two of her own, and the book ends wonderfully with her own responses to the Thirteenth-century poet, Princess Shikishi:

Loneliness is the habit of this house: I gaze at the leaves with frost
spread over them. — Shikishi
Loneliness is the habit of this apartment — this bowl of flowers that,
outside, would still root in the frost.
Spring is the habit of this apartment: each morning I rub the mist
off the bathroom mirror so I can see us both brushing and
gargling.

— “Conspiring with Shikishi,” p. 102

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