It’s a given that releases from local poetry publisher TinFish Press will feature verse, but form, subject and author are usually a surprise. The latest installment, TinFish 19, defies preconceptions from the outset with a volume reminiscent of an old composition book, complete with rust-colored cardboard covers and thick black binding. There’s no introduction, only title and table of contents—throwing readers right into what feels like someone’s private—if quite well made—poetry journal.
Editor Susan Schultz made an excellent choice opening the collection with Jill Yamasawa’s enchanting and unusual ode to paradise, “The Prodigious Man.” It begs to be read aloud and pointedly engages one’s tongue and mind: “You must have a mind of paradise” it advises, to “behold everything that is not here / and everything that could be,” and to devour the poem’s charms.
It’s smart, too, that what follows are two pieces about TheBus, an inextricable but not often exalted facet of our island ‘paradise’. In a series of thirteen short poems offering different perspectives, Gizelle Gajelonia boldly likens TheBus to God; echoes its bumpy, potholed circuit; and subtly evokes a generation’s dependence on public transportation.
Ryan Oishi, in turn, rides TheBus, using complaints about traffic to open up a prosaic laundry list of O`ahu’s problems. While these facts, such as projections that O`ahu will deplete its groundwater by 2020, are important to know, and his aim to provoke change admirable, there’s little humor or style to lift it out of a well of doom.
Many of the collection’s poems are intriguing but largely inscrutable, and the more successful ones tend to be less complicated in language play and more inventive in structure, without becoming mired in concept or forced in intention. Barbara Janes Reyes’s meditation “She: Chant/Fragment,” builds in intensity and depth as it continues, repetition working to its benefit from the first “she of air-conditioning / she of tinted windows,” to “she of brittle peroxide / …she friend of earthworms” and beyond. Emelihter Kihleng’s humorous yet earnest attempt to persuade unwanted tourists from visiting Pohnpei, “Don’t Come to My Island,” unfurls its message like a wave that reverberates on our shores.
Other standouts are Janna Plant’s “Flashing Daisies,” which reflects its clipped phrases like a mirrored mobile; “What the Landlord Said” by Oscar Bermeo, conjuring an arsonist’s sandpaper hands; and “Mao’s Indigestion” by Kenny Tanemura, whose tender description and concrete imaginings make real a world where Mao’s deepest worries and remembrances are unveiled.
But stuck in the middle—and it’s often in the center of our personal journals, too, where things get good—is arguably the collection’s best. “On Place and Certainty” by Dennis Phillips draws in readers with its confident voice of presumed authority, spins them out past “the anniversaries of births and deaths / [that] cluster around us like shadows / gathered at the base of a midnight tree at noon,” and around the hurricane of “phrases you never thought you’d use,” finally delivering them to the oft-searched for, “one real place.”
Of course, that place, like this unassuming yet robust collection, is not at all what one would expect.
—Reviewed by Christine Thomas
For the Honolulu Advertiser, published 11/22/09