Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan's Shadow Mountain,
selected by Kimiko
Hahn for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry, is a collection
that connects gestures in American History to expressions of personal
experience. Kageyama-Ramakrishnan selects a plain style aesthetic to
narrate a journey from childhood to womanhood. For Kageyama-Ramakrishnan,
the landscapes of Shadow Mountain
become a poetic space to explain
the complexities of self, of what is directly seen by others and what is muted
by the absence of light or knowledge. The first two sections of the book echo
Jeanne Wakatsuki's Farewell to Manzanar
by consigning the story of Japanese-Americans
interned at the Manzanar Relocation Center to collected childhood memories. But
Kageyama-Ramakrishnan's speaker creates a consciousness informed by family stories
about the camps and personal experiences of alienation to announce ideas of place,
self and legacy.
's proem, "Fallout of the West,"
uses sharply quick lines and subtle inside rhymes to tell of the nuclear onslaught that
begins the book's story about a community of survivors that share in
temporal recourse, "strands of/each child's DNA/that could stretch
beyond/the reservation/beyond the mountains,/and the next state." The
lines are like short breaths to add narrative to moments in time
omitted in most history books. Images of darkness and shiny metals
and allusions to rootedness and transcendence combined with close
attention to time and place help Kageyama-Ramakrishnan draw attention
to the history of the Japanese American Internment during World War II.
The seven poems in the first section forge a voice
for the poet's treatment of her themes: violence, struggle, and family history.
Kageyama-Ramakrishnan consistently references specific dates and
sometimes employs personification accompanied by charged imagery to
negotiate her themes. "Emergency Caesarean, 1967" moves ahead 16
years from the introductory poem to peruse the concepts of birthing by
force and suture, and like so many other poems in the book, combines
tension and simple diction towards an arrival of earned surprise, "His
gloved hands, soaked with/Betadine, lifted your blue body out,/away
from her cigarette."
"The Grandmother I Called Mama
a multivalent informing of the poet's the sense of self. Here Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
suspends images from Japanese folklore's legend of Momotaro, the Immigration
Act of 1924, and a narrative about the speaker's grandmother to create
an episodic account of how amalgamation into America implies loss, "I
wore her wedding dress/on Halloween./She said I was third born,/the
last child to taste her rice candy." The speaker parallels a death of
tradition with her understanding of her grandmother's mortality.
Sometimes vivid and childlike imagination
runs through these poems as a balance to lighten the elegiac journey that
embodies Shadow Mountain.
In "The Moon and Kaguya" the voices of
child and woman that are usually so distinct blend to create a world for the
poem to live in conversation with possibility. After the speaker metamorphoses,
from dove to butterfly, she is able to converse with the moon. The
poet uses this claim of voice to explore how ideas of self can become
confused and reconciled through story telling:
(Who will be the moon if I leave?)
I'll make myself the moon.
My children are the platinum starts.
I feed them corn pebbles.
They ask me my name.
The second section shifts voice from the child and woman and begins to
address specifically the men in the speaker's life. Once again we
find the poet's attention to amalgamation towards erasure of family
history. The book's title poem is divided into nine sections and is a
wonderful example of Kageyama-Ramakrishnan's skill for creating
tension in line breaks. Corporeal references run throughout and the
use of alliteration, assonance, and anaphora also help build this
tension. The machinery of the camera appears in several poems and
sentences stop completing which suggests a connection to the untold
stories situated within a photograph and the silences of family
history. "Someday when someone tells me reasons why/my parents make me
stand so still right here,/I'll exhale deep breaths of relief to
know/their silence in snapping these photographs/of the rock and
pagoda-roofed guard house,/where there is something my father can
still see." The poet then begins inquiry about the history that's
been dissipated, references to smoke and vapor continuously resonate
as metaphors for this disappearance. Weather, energy and geography
also play a part in the story this book tells. Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
moves to employ a Keatsian pronouncement to these elements. In the
poems that follow the poet recollects events of how writing and
re-writing becomes a source of strength & perseverance.
The poet, in the third section,
shifts scenes to Croatia. The boy in the tragedy of Ivan and Tvrtko is
a reminder of the boy in the internment camps introduced earlier in the book.
We are no longer surrounded by the mountains and barbed wire that is the landscape of
Manzanar. Instead the speaker's reconciliation is explained in conjunction
with the ruined landscapes of Croatia. This section implies a loss of innocence
and the poems begin to journey through forms of falling, gravity and ashes. There
are very direct explanations of the scenes these poems successfully set, as we see in
"Hand Gestures: After Wave Pact" "His hand feeling her heart beat at
the wrist./Her hand holding tight as they thread new air/and water.
Couple out on their first date/climbing air as if they were destined
to/tip-toe about the salt-water's surface."
In "Seam Poetics" Brenda Hillman says,
"<>Some think that, in order to retrieve a 'general' readership, poetry
should be easier to understand. I think not. Poetry needs to include the fragmentary,
the uncanny, & the baffled." Kimiko Hahn champions Shadow Mountain as
a book to "be read by those who love poetry—and by those who will
begin that love, here." Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan manages accessibility,
but also is successful in offering play that demands the reader into having
to pay close attention. She does so by way of mixing quotidian diction with
syntactical strangeness and the use of figures of speech as offered in
"A Song Played for You," "I dream I can see your touch
—you,/sitting in your sunroom,
the windows/pouring in lots of sunlight, tangled/wildflowers lingering in your/favorite
room, Ivy's and Bella's/desks, mini-office they share with you." This
poem is more generative and displays Kageyama-Ramakrishnan's formal
range. She then works in couplets and the poems become quite musical.
The book concludes with playful poems
about cats, a sonnet that is the speaker's lament for a lost lover, an
Ars Poetica titled "Japanese Ceramics," and the last poem in Kageyama-Ramakrishnan's
first book is a mix of lyric and narrative that reads as a gift for the women in her
family. "Origins of Impulse," lists a series of snapshots that have
conjured the writer's impulse to write and offers a confession of love
for her family and the story of their journey. In an interview with
Rigoberto Gonzales, Kageyama-Ramakrishnan explained that in this poem,
"the speaker comes full circle, ending with the acknowledgement of
maternal legacy. For the speaker in this poem, love is about
celebrating maternal ties, remembering and honoring maternal origins."
The poem references the image of stretching DNA made in the book's
opening poem as it begins to find a way to embrace a sense of
alienation within the speaker's identity, "I gave up yellow, my
favorite color,/started a lifelong love of lavender, wrote of/my
mother's face in my face, staring at me,/her disdain when I dyed my
hair red." This final poem is an expression that creates voice for a
generation of young writers from minority backgrounds that are just
beginning to practice the craft of writing. Readers are left with a
reason to keep on with the struggles of writing as offered in
Kageyama-Ramakrishnan's gesture of legacy in this final poem.
work is in Shaking Like a Mountain, Copper Nickel
other places. She is a Kundiman fellow and teaches writing at the University of Colorado.