Book Review

The titular “Isako,” from Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s visionary debut collection, Isako Isako, names a collective voice whose ambit spans four generations of Japanese-American women. From prelapsarian rice paddies through the bombing of Hiroshima to Arkansas internment camps, the character Isako becomes a figure of migrations both large and small, a figure—simultaneously sister, daughter, mother, and grandmother—by which Malhotra meditates on women’s bodies as a kind of ur-home, an intimate rootedness, among the larger geographic and cultural displacements to which Isako is subject.

The opening proem of Isako Isako, a paean to the women whose “labor”—a pun Malhotra stresses—allows the collective Isako to endure through generations, locates Isako first in “the smokestacks / of Richmond” north of San Francisco. “You worked until the final hour,” Malhotra writes, “then rose / three days later, baby squalling on your hip.” The timestamp signals Malhotra’s subtle layering, throughout the collection, of Isako’s narrative atop foundational myths of exile and homecoming. Likewise, the poem’s conclusion reads Isako’s eventual internment intertextually, situating it against the promise and limitations of American democracy: “O praise to the camp midwives, the Nisei girls,” the poem’s final movement begins. “And to the college-bound coed / who crossed the country, camp release papers / in hand, hallelujah. Her truth marches on.” Richly ambivalent, the poem’s citation of Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is further complicated by the facing page, a massive facsimile reproduction of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, which was posted across the Bay Area in the wake of Pearl Harbor to order Japanese-Americans to internment camps throughout the country. Aspirations to postbellum equality, then, confront here the realities of historical truth, just as the opening proem’s lyricism becomes undermined by the enlistment of language—bolded and blown up to seventy-point typeface—in implicit and explicit systems of violence. Isako Isako’s is a masterful opening sequence, one that showcases Malhotra’s ability to seamlessly interweave narrative, lyric, and documentary modes. “This story’s old,” she writes later, “the woman / —dead, papers boxed / in a back closet. I’ve seen them.”

We, too, have seen this kind of semidocumentary poetics before; whereas the rummaging of personal effects has led to sentimentality and self-righteousness in several recent collections, Isako Isako eschews both easy nostalgia and sensationalized, one-dimensional politicking. What separates this collection from others, in other words, is that Malhotra routes its ethical commitments—its fierce moral consciousness—through nuanced thinking at the level of form. “A kimono tied right over left is a sign that the wearer is deceased,” she writes in the prose poem “A History of Isako.” “In English all words begin in the left margin and disappear into the right. I rewrap the garment believing a new grammar may be necessary.” This kind of aggrandized gesture of protest is, these days, a familiar one; but Malhotra backs this rhetoric by manipulating grammar in freshly disruptive ways. In “After Hiroshima,” about Hirohito’s surrender, Malhotra rethinks line and spacing in order to meditate formally on the various lacunae that haunt Isako Isako—gaps between voices, cultures, bodies, and time periods:

first time I hear god’s voice
                                    is over the radio                     (to the government
                can you imagine?                   of the United States
can you                                   our empire accepts
                           provisions of declaration                    )

Moreover, just as Malhotra’s formal innovation is wedded to ethical commitment, her use of obliqueness constitutes a method of accessing the deep mysteries of memory and identity. Far from empty lyricism, Malhotra’s is a mature voice ordering its imagery with purpose and intentionality, employing indirection as a means of sliding behind and below those experiences—of history, of family, of self—accessible via straightforward narrative.

Isako Isako is not without its shortcomings—no book is. In particular, the reliance on Isako herself as a kind of intergenerational consciousness—a “figure proliferated through time,” Malhotra gorgeously puts it—lends the collection a slightly abstracted feel, a sense that the poems lack, at times, the immediacy of granular personal detail. Relatedly, the theorization of Isako—the explanation of just who, exactly, this voice is—comes too late in the collection to help parse what appears, at first, as multiple characters whose narratives overlap and blur in confusing ways. Yet this confusion is, perhaps, a productive one, part of Malhotra’s “new grammar” deliberately cultivated in an effort to remind us—again on the level of form, of manuscript organization—that identity is unstable and that we are always, in our own identities, multiple and many-historied. In the end, the question is the old one of imitative form: whether, as Yvor Winters said of Whitman, “one must write loose and sprawling poetry to ‘express’ the loose and sprawling American continent.” For Winters, poetic form is “a means to arrest the disintegration and order . . . feeling,” yet Malhotra makes a compelling case that dwelling momentarily in confusion might allow us, as individuals and as a collective, to access some deeper, less ordered aspect of our humanity.

It is precisely that aspect that Malhotra examines in the collection’s most striking poem, “Isako Shows Her Daughter How to Ply the Line,” an allegorical Künstlerroman—and an ars poetica to boot, which uses a narrative of a mother fishing with her daughter to meditate on the female artist’s imperative to slip the nets of tradition.  Here is the poem’s conclusion:

Cut the line, the child says     showing her affinity for fish. What fails to pass
                  from one set of hands

to the next. What slips away     trailing a cut line. Netting a fish proves harder
                  than it looks.

Isako fears her line has run to its end. The departed body
                  fills with radiance.

There is no way to know if a fish is female if you refuse to split the hull.

The “line” that Isako’s daughter learns to ply here is, on a literal level, the fishing line, but throughout the poem it becomes a “line of teeth” in the fish’s mouth, a genealogical line of descent, an umbilical cord, Isako’s lifeline, and—of course—the poetic line: the speaker’s creative work replacing her mother’s work of reproduction and survival. One of the most ingenious uses of line and enjambment that I’ve seen, the poem testifies powerfully to the complexity of Malhotra’s writing, the way she weaves together those lines that tie us to the past and that write us, simultaneously, toward the future.

About the Reviewer

Christopher Kempf is the author of the poetry collection Late in the Empire of Men. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, he is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Chicago.