Hahn: Burning the Incense of the Heart
by Beverly Tsao
Reading the poetry of Kimiko Hahn is much like riding a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions as she pulls the reader into her exploration of the hearts vast terrain. She buckles you in with analytical detachment and you know you are a captive reader for the duration. The theme resonating through all her three collections is the reclamation of a personal and ethnic history as an Asian-American mother of two daughters through the painful absence of her own mother who died in a tragic automobile accident.
The Unbearable Heart is a moving elegy in her mothers memory and this thread continues to weave a tapestry of loss and absence through all three collections. In her poem, The Unbearable Heart, the following lines haunt me as I read her subsequent work: As I write this, I still demand your attention, mother. Her mother becomes the driving force of her verse in several ways. By becoming the poets muse, her mother will always be present in her daughters and granddaughters stories. As the impetus of Hahns poetic voice, she is the path to the aesthetics of a daughters heart and the connection to Hahns own Japanese-American heritage replete with its own domestic stories and cultural myths.
In the poem, Cuttings, Hahn explores the her familys loss with the zuihitsu, a form of Japanese essay which can be traced as far back as the Heian period as a type of informal book of notes which men and women composed when they retired to their rooms in the evening and which they kept near their sleeping place, possibly in the drawers of their wooden pillows, so that they might record stray impressions. The sensual imagery in this poem is intense and an element that is evident in all of her work:
In Volatile, there is not only the echo of the lost mother, but just as the title implies, Hahn does not spare the reader by mincing words or thoughts as she protests against male tyranny. The poem, The Glass Bracelets is an outcry of indignation as Hahn reads a story in the newspaper about a woman who was wedded to the deity Dev at the age of seven as sexual slave to the men visiting the Temple:
There is the rumble of political thunder throughout this book as Hahn begins to question the status quo of any social or religious order promoted by men to enslave women and children. Hahn quotes several lines from feminist writers including Adrienne Rich and Elaine Showalter. Her study of feminist writers has elicited a poetic response which had been dormant prior to this collection. This voice of remonstration continues into her latest collection, Mosquito & Ant.
But there is more to Hahn than her outrage over the exploitation of women. Her poetry is a lyrical combination of alliteration, repetition and wordplay charged with multiple meanings. Her collection, Mosquito & Ant, her richest work to date, exemplifies her talent with words and their associations. The title poem, Mosquito & Ant refers to the secret language of Chinese women called Nu Shu (female writing) which could date as far back as the Soong Dynasty (900-1279) as a form of resistance to feudal Chinas repression of women with its barbaric practice of foot binding and denying access to education. Little is known about these writings as Chinese men customarily (and expediently) burned womens books when they died. In the poem, she reclaims the lost text of these women when she tells us, I want my letters to resemble/tiny ants scrawled across this page.// I want my letters to imitate/mosquitoes as they loop/around the earlobe with their noise:// I want my letters to resemble the smoke/when the widower burned his young wifes poems/so she might polish them in heaven./The smoke not unlike that from burnt toast or punk. The incense of Hahns poetry is not to soothe, but to chafe with pungent words insuring that the reader not forget the historical/cultural value of what has been lost.
In my favorite poem, Responding to Light, she renders a personal narrative of the way women are silenced behind the walls and closed doors of American homes today. The interaction is so subtle and so implicit that we almost miss the implications of what could happen to mothers who disappear into the woodwork and the impact this disappearance has on a crucial period in a daughters development:
Evidently Hahns concept of mother is absence, an absence she perceived long before the accidental death. Consequently, her loss is sublimated into the mother (and poet) she would become by not making the same mistakes. Within this open space of insight resides tremendous power to alter the course of ones own destiny by rejecting patriarchal codes of conduct. The last stanza solves the dilemma of how she will reclaim what has been lost:
The path back to any womans cultural/biological rights is the voice of protest, the voice of loss. Hahns poetry is not for the faint of heart wishing to remain secluded from the harsh reality of sexual and racial exploitation. Like Kafka, I believe a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us, and my penchant is for words that prick my skin, just as Hahn attempts to incite her poetry students to write with more feeling and passion in the last stanza of Pine:
Kimiko Hahns spiritual and intellectual search for truth follows the true path of the heart.
BIO: Beverly Tsao lives in DuBois, Pennsylvania and is currently a doctoral candidate in English Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has had her poetry and short stories published in various literary journals and small presses. Tsao notes, "The reason I wanted to do this review was the negative Kirkus review about her work being 'too political,' and I felt it was unfair and sounded racist as well. Got my tempter going!"