EILEEN TABIOS Engages
THE ANTS by Sawako Nakayasu
(Les Figues Press, Los Angeles, 2014)
Insect Country (B) by Sawako Nakayasu
(Dusie, Switzerland, 2007)
To know of Sawako Nakayasu is to know that she’s got this committed relationship to/with ants. She’s been writing about or through them, as well as conducting related performances, for many years. When I think of Sawako Nakayasu, I remember her lovely smile, her intelligence … but also, always, ants.
Thus, I was not surprised when she came out with a new book entitled (wait for it) THE ANTS. Eagerly, I delved into it. Actually, I could have opened the book with no particular enthusiasm to my curiosity and still would have been snagged immediately into the book—there is a propulsion to Nakayasu’s writing styles and engagements with ants that make the book a page-turner.
That propulsion may be attributed to the enchantingly weird turns the poems make, their wit, their humor, their insight, even its version of algebra (“Apple Speed”), their deft deadpanness (“The Cannibal”), the writing’s punchiness (“Art Project”) and always her unique discernments. Here is a sample—and for this example, I opened the book at random to show how many of the poems benefit from Nakayasu’s poetic strengths as I identified them:
We are sitting around the table eating and drinking and exchanging stories about flashers, gropers, underwear thieves, your general assortment of urban perverts. When I tell the story about the man who came up to me and opened up his bag and offered me one of a teeming million wiggling ants in his bag, the whole table goes silent and I am reminded all over again how hard it is to get along with the women in this country.
One of the book’s strongest poems is actually the opening one, “We the Heathens.” After reading the first poem and before the rest of the book, I wondered whether this poem would overshadow the rest as I found it so effective. Fortunately, all of the poems were strong in different ways.
The writing contains much forward-pushing momentum, of which “Battery” is an exemplary example owing to its use of repetition, (lack of) punctuations, and masterful use of the word “very”—here’s the poem’s beginning:
We get lost in the desert, lost very lost, and although we aren’t going to tell anyone that we can’t possibly be any more than two miles from civilization, the fact remains that we are lost very lost in the desert very desert, and the car very car is having a hard very hard very hard time getting started up again, and so we very kick it in its ass very ass and the car is still having a hard very hard time …
Now, I did pause in my readings over the poem “Decay,” specifically wondering whether it was aptly titled. For, isn’t the matter of decay a process of time versus the quick crack of the pop? Here’s the poem below and you decide (at one point in my considerations, I thought the poem should be retitled something like “Bliss”—as in the paradoxical bliss one sees in a hungry ascetic’s eyes):
The great desire is to get inside of it—the poem, the painting, the movie, the music.
An ant, perceiving itself to have failed to get in anywhere, takes one brave leap off a cliff, thereby making its last and final attempt to get into something, anything, anyhow.
On its way down, or perhaps at the moment it lands (neither of us are quite sure which), it makes an undeniable percussive sound as its body breaks, pops, and for the duration of the decay of this sound, it is as inside as it can get, there, inside that sound, however short-lived, who cares if it is witnessed or not.
Nakayasu does note “however short-lived” for the sound of “pops”; I wonder if it’s an improvement if the “pops” was just eliminated so that the “sound” referred to then would be the breaking, which is more of a process of time as is decay. Anyway, a minor point….
Nakayasu’s ants were previously featured in chapbooks; Galatea Resurrects reviewed the Dusie chap INSECT COUNTRY (B) twice – HERE by Bob Marcacci and HERE by Nicholas Grider. I also previously reviewed the first chap, INSECT COUNTRY (A) over HERE. Reviewing THE ANTS made me look up the B chap version again and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I can see how for some readers or depending on the reader’s mood at the time of reading, the chapbook presentation may be more effective because of its ant-like scale: the smaller size of the chap, the more emphasized drawings of the ants, and the fewer number of poems present the project more intimately than does this “trade book.”
Interestingly, I didn’t have the same doubt in reading the poem “DECAY” – the duration implied in “decay” not fitting the brief time aspect of a “pop” sound -- when seeing it in the chapbook version. I’m not sure why; perhaps the chapbook’s enchanting presentation just doesn’t lend itself to analysis so much as just experiencing joy.
Yet of course the book is necessary as it’s also worthwhile reading to see all of the ant poems in the same space. And the book’s advantage is how its scale, unlike with the chapbooks, allows for references to other poems in the series (e.g., "Ant Heart") as well as to evoke a more present sense of the poet’s autobiography or series persona (I can’t tell, not that it’s necessary to know for purpose of enjoying the poems, whether some of the Japanese references are true to life or fiction). The overall result is a deeper, more multi-layered project that will linger in memory longer than the chaps’ charm. Nakayasu has spent years with ants, and this book makes her endeavor worthwhile.
I’ll end with one of my favorites—it made me laugh out loud, startling the cat and making her jump from the windowsill:
I am observing an ant trail from the tenth floor of a building, and photograph the exact same frame, once per second, sixty times, in order to have an accumulated minute of ants. Later, much later, I go back to the same exact spot where the ants once were, and place a grain of rice in the exact location of each ant in each frame. I am growing satisfied with the precision of my accumulation of ants and time as represented by grains of rice, until my postwar Japanese mother finds me and slaps me upside the head for wasting all that rice and tells me to get back inside and do my homework.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be anthologies she edits because they focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work. Soffwana Yasmnin engages her poem "Jade" from her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS AND NEW (19980-2010) . Her latest book, 147 MILLION ORPHANS (MMXI-MML), is also reviewed by Joey Madia at New Mystics Reviews as well as at Book Masons Cafe Press Website and Literary Aficionado.
And her latest anthology as editor, VERSES TYPHOON YOLANDA, receives an engagement in this issue of GR by Aileen Ibardaloza; at Manila Standard Today by Jenny Ortuoste; at North American Review by Vince Gotera; and at Philippine Inquirer by Luis H. Francia.