Upon first reading, this book of poems seems frustratingly eclectic. The reader is expected to negotiate radical shifts in spatial geography and spiritual iconography. Clusters of poems jostle uncomfortably against each other, moving from the Canadian High Arctic to the urban centres of Japan, from the biblical figures of the Old Testament to images drawn from Buddhist philosophy.
It would have been reassuring, had these clusters been organized into clearly delimited sections. Instead we are faced with what appears to be an impenetrable and heterogeneous series of experiments, each of which cries out for development into a book-length collection.
But Sally Ito's first book is not meant to pander to our desires for the solid comforts of home, identity, nation, completion. Born of Japanese parents and raised in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, she explores with irreducible ambivalence the problem of disintegrating identity, and the difficult experiences of migration-exile and return. In an increasingly integrated world, where huge masses of people are constantly thrown into migration, and in a country whose nationality is itself in crisis, Ito is arguably writing the hybrid poetry of the future.
This hybrid quality is reflected in an aesthetic that is derived from the Japanese as well as the Imagist school initiated by Ezra Pound in 1912. The two traditions are, of course, complementary. In an interview with this reviewer, Ito pointed to the influence in her work of the Japanese emphasis on "silence, the breath, brevity, ephemerality, and impersonality." Ito's intimate understanding of this aesthetic is informed by her experience of translating Japanese poetry during a stay in Japan, which she writes about in "On Translating the Works of Akiko Yosano".
In this poem, translation is not merely a matter of finding dictionary equivalents. The translator awakens her mother with a long distance telephone call,
clattering like bamboo sticks
upon the smooth stones of your memory.
The meaning of a single word referring to "thick bamboo grass" is revealed as the memory of a forgotten world, a distant childhood. The linguistic problem of translation becomes a problem of poetics-in Imagist terms, the problem of finding "ideas in things."
"Translation is impractical," says the mother. In his essay "The Task of the Translator", Walter Benjamin describes this impracticality by the image of a broken vessel: A translation must render "the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel." The desire for such an impractical, impossible articulation of heterogeneous fragments is precisely what is evoked in Ito's poetry.
Perhaps the most direct reference to this desire is a poem about the original land mass, "Pangaea", which split apart to form the continents: "We are all from the same continent, from the same void of disturbed memories." But we forget the violent origin of our differences, and so we must "stumble across it in our dreams ... and wonder at the startling similarity of our thoughts."
Ito's access to such disturbed memories is, as she says, "deeply spiritual." At times, she has direct recourse to the language of religion, exposing her Buddhist and Christian influences. She explains, "Faith provides a vocabulary, a grasping of the Ineffable." This spiritual dimension diverges from the purely Imagist aesthetic, which, as critics have pointed out, risked triviality with its focus on the microcosmic, the narrow world of small objects.
Ito's experiments in spiritual poetry may seem dangerously anachronistic in the context of postmodernist literary fashions. But her struggle to mediate the sensual and spiritual worlds is reflected in her meditations on the experience of displacement, a singularly postmodernist preoccupation. Perhaps spirituality is the only avenue of escape from the postmodern condition, as some theorists have recently suggested in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion (Routledge, edited by Andrew Wernick and Philippa Berry).
At the same time, Ito arguably takes another kind of risk in trivializing the domain of the social. In two poems she refers to the political engagement of her female protagonists, and in both cases that engagement is reduced to mere slogans, fashion, the sublimation of desire.
As we near the fin de millÚnaire, the experience of migration and cultural encounter is fraught with conflict. Yet in Ito's poetic worlds such conflict is circumscribed within the sphere of "confiscated identities". The Immigrant Wife ("Winter's Bride") is frozen and preserved "in an icicle showcase of glass.a spectacle of culture." Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet of punishment and exile, is trapped by a gleaming wall of his own words, "an impenetrable reflection of myself."
The destruction of these static edifices of identity is itself redemptive. Thrown into a pit by his own brothers, Joseph faces the divine and comes to terms with his own reflection, "bloodied, tattered." In "The Mountain of Broken Glass", this redemptive encounter is inherently dangerous, requiring the greatest delicacy "so as not to cut or scratch/our frail, fractured reflections."
The conception of identity as essentially ephemeral and fragmented does not impinge upon the peculiarly gendered character of Ito's poetic. Two poems based on biblical figures focus on the feminine desire to give birth. The subject of "Mother" is a magical being, "gift-giver, oracle." Asked about this, Ito explained, "Women have a different spiritual struggle than men. The desire to give birth and have children is particularly women's experience and in the Bible, the stories of Hannah and Rachel really show that struggle-their fertility became a way for them to see God. In other poems, I explore the symbol of the mother and the feminine as the unconscious."
However, there is a deep ambivalence about the confines of gender at play among the poems. Women communicate with the divine, but they seek secular knowledge with equal intensity. They pray for a child, but they also wrestle with a very physical "monster/called Love."
I have puzzled at length about the strange naivety of Ito's approach to the contested sphere of the social, which contrasts greatly with her sophisticated explorations of problems of identity. Her work seems undisturbed by the debates currently raging among the politically correct about cultural appropriation and the politics of representation. In some ways this disavowal is refreshing. However, what is disturbing is the complete absence of human agency within the poems. Identity and place are architecturally defined. They may be fragmented or ephemeral, but they are not made by self-creating subjects.
Thus, unexpectedly, the Other appears as a banal stereotype, almost an inanimate object within several of the poems. In "Begging Bowl", the image of poverty is beautifully transmuted into an aesthetic of liberal guilt ("I see my reflection in the shimmering gold of your flattened figure ...."). "Slides of the North" represents-or misrepresents-the traditional hunting activities of the Inuit as symbolic of the destructive human encounter with nature-this despite the strenuous efforts of these very people to educate non-aboriginals about their sacred and ecological relationship with the land.
In an essay on Salman Rushdie's novel Shame, Aijaz Ahmad, quoting Raymond Williams, notes the increasing prevalence in the literary world of an aesthetic of "self-exile and `vagrancy'," the detached sense of "the migrant intellect rooting itself within itself." Ironically, the migrant artist may produce precisely what she seeks to resist: the stereotyped Other.
Ito addresses this problem directly in "Why Did You Tell me Lies about Foreign Countries?" in which the woman narrator asks, "Am I another story, a womb to forge your exotic fantasy?" This very question may be asked with respect to Ito's unreflexive appropriation of Inuit myth in "Sedna", or Black gospel music in "Kumba".
Sally Ito is a skilled poet. Her work poses some important challenges for readers and writers of poetry in a changing world. I recommend this book; read it, more than once.
D. L. Simmons is a freelance writer who recently received her doctorate at York University.