Approaching Shadow Mountain

Shadow Mountain. Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, Claire.
Winner, Four Way Books Intro Series Award
Four Way Books, 2008. (80 pages).
ISBN 978-1884800849

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.
     Shadow Mountain'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" addresses 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.

Soham Patel's work is in Shaking Like a Mountain, Copper Nickel and other places. She is a Kundiman fellow and teaches writing at the University of Colorado.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761