Beverly TsaoKimiko Hahn: Burning the Incense of the Heart
The Unbearable Heart, Kimiko Hahn
(New York: Kaya Production, 1995.)

Volatile, Kimiko Hahn
(New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1999.)

Mosquito & Art, Kimiko Hahn
(New York: W. W. Norton & Complany, 1999.)

  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 heart’s 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 mother’s 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, motherHer mother becomes the driving force of her verse in several ways. By becoming the poet’s muse, her mother will always be present in her daughters’ and granddaughters’ stories. As the impetus of Hahn’s poetic voice, she is the path to the aesthetics of a daughter’s heart and the connection to Hahn’s own Japanese-American heritage replete with its own domestic stories and cultural myths.

In the poem, “Cuttings,” Hahn explores the her family’s 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.”[1] The sensual imagery in this poem is intense and an element that is evident in all of her work:

  She taught me to pluck or cut flowers near the roots for the long stems.
Recut under water. She taught me to rub my finger and thumb together over
the silver dollar sheath, to rub off the brown membrane and scatter the seeds
on my skirt. Gently so as not to tear the silver inside. I see them and think
of her name, not Maude, but Mother.

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:


At onset of menstruation the child was,
and still is, auctioned for the privilege of
tearing her hymen often times
by one with syphilis or gonorrhea—
virgins believed to be a certain cure.
It is difficult for me to like men at times,
any man, when such atrocities are sanctioned
by the religious. Atrocities for male pleasure.
And I doubt a woman concocted
the legend of this goddess. I am fucking mad
and want my daughters
to never leave our small Brooklyn apartment….

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 China’s 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 women’s 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 wife’s poems/so she might polish them in heaven./The smoke not unlike that from burnt toast or punk.” The incense of Hahn’s 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 daughter’s development:

  Somewhere in the small house with no hallways
the mother disappeared
just before the oldest daughter’s plump body
too early sprouted hair
and too early, though any time was too early,
budded nipples. This daughter
already knew since third grade that she would bleed
and in the telling had shivered uncontrollably
as if there was no such thing as radiators.
If I had told her that early evening
I would have held her
and not let go. I would not have left.

Evidently Hahn’s 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 one’s own destiny by rejecting patriarchal codes of conduct. The last stanza solves the dilemma of how she will reclaim what has been lost:


So every time the daughter sees someone
she moves away from the rooms
that imitate the ventricles that are finally only tissue.
Every time she speaks it is a leave-taking
of the sealed-off room she knew existed all along
toward a stew fragrant with fiction.

The path back to any woman’s cultural/biological rights is the voice of protest, the voice of loss. Hahn’s 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”:

  I see pine and I see
what I know is feeling.
I imagine stepping barefoot
under those trees
onto a bed of their
brown needles.
So prick my skin.

Kimiko Hahn’s spiritual and intellectual search for truth follows the true path of the heart.


1 from the Introduction to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Trans. & Ed. Ivan Morris. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, 11.

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!"



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