La Chica’s Field Guide to Banzai LivingPoetry
Reviewed By Abigail Chabitnoy
- Omnidawn (2020)
- 88 pages
I can’t recall which poet specifically compelled the poem to offer a space of re-visioning. It is indeed the work of any poet worth their salt: to not merely draw our eyes to the cracks (though of course, by revealing them to us we might ourselves begin the work of seeing them mended) but to show us how, in the fashion of Japanese kintsugi, the gaps can be filled and remade. As before––perhaps in some recognizable way––but in a way that can also never be the seamless façade we once took it for. Jennifer Hasegawa’s poems in La Chica’s Field Guide to Banzai Living perform this alchemy, revealing our flaws and our darkness in order to direct our light. Her poems take as their premise language rooted in warfare and violence (her sections titles borrow the language of rockets) in order to reclaim that language for its earliest ambitions of facilitating community. Though most of us have come to associate the term “banzai” as a Japanese military rallying cry, its literal translation is “ten thousand years” and was originally associated with wishes for long life and celebration. These poems ask: What will it take to live up to such a notion?
There is a term I first heard at the Institute of American Indian Arts, in the context of Indigenous literature: survivance. We survive, yes, but more than that we remain resilient. We thrive. In defiance, we survive and we live still. In like manner, Hasegawa’s poems insist on more than a passive continuation of being.
burn out, disengage, and drop
to lower orbits.
pollinates the voiceless to
birth the supernatural.
clean progenitor of the
new tongue of the ages.
It is in the cracks—the perceived lifeless voids, whether brought on by warfare or the raw power of the land itself, in this case citing the volcanoes that shape the poet’s Hawaiian home—that we will find a tongue to speak with, a voice to be present.
In these efforts, there is an othering at work as well. Just as we see the need for light by the presence of so much that is dark in Hasegawa’s work, we see ourselves, our present and future desired selves, against who we wish to distance ourselves from. Hasegawa takes our hopeful fantasies of colonizing other planets and, as only one who has experienced true and irrevocable displacement can, shows them for the horrors they will be. In our fears and dislocation we find ourselves—though that doesn’t mean an easy return. Even the speaker of the poems remains skeptical: “Tell me / what you’re afraid of / and maybe / you’ll find your way home.”
For the displaced, even home becomes a site of othering, of distinguishing the self from the not-self. Through imperial violence we are made alien in our own land. “This belongs to you. / It does not belong to me.” This othering is a source of tension, but in part this tension springs from an inability to see our own past and home for its inevitable flaws while keeping the future at a distance, untouched by our histories. The work encourages us to “Trace the trajectory: / the instinct to connect points.”
In some cases, such points cannot be denied. In most of the erasures I’ve encountered, the form itself tends to be summoned to comment on the violence of others, done to others. In “Carrying an M16 in the Garden of Eden,” however, the culpability of the speaker is preserved, enacting instead of a demonstration of some other violence an inability to erase or deny our own. “I signed those papers and now the sun is homeless shadow in a doorway as long as the fingerprint of a bullet.”
While these poems seek to evolve from a language of violence, they do not attempt a straight or ever-onward trajectory bent on a progress. Instead, these poems insist on pattern recognition and listening in order to determine where we should go next. We “return / and return again / to these places / only to find ghosts”—others’ as well as our own. The way forward isn’t an either/or—it’s a both/and. We go back and we are other and so the places we return to are other too, and in this back and forth we move—that’s all. Maybe not forward after all. What if it is enough to simply move, to carry what we wish to hold within the self or preserved in the act of removal, through othering. Both/and, banzai living demands.
Certain of the poems, though presenting as narrative on the surface, confound the reader on first blush. If our global society and information overload makes the tradition of literary allusions less reliable, all the world in the palm of our hands still opens greater access and reveals layers of conversation in poems such as “The White Bull of Itaipu” if we are willing to participate. Still others present more reflection than projection, falling short in and of themselves to model transformation, and some poems at times stray from the point of their origin, if poems can be expected to do otherwise. But even in these sober anecdotes and amblings resembling almost an elderly senility, the poems insist on themselves. The collection insists on continuing the internal trajectory it has set for itself. These poems are tender, too. One does not expect to endure ten thousand years in any understanding of the concept and not feel an ache, perhaps of loneliness, from time to time. But therein too is the question: Ten thousand years of what? For whom? By whom?
. . . when it breaks,
they’ll call it an apocalypse,
but our hands
will be unbound.
And our faces,
oh our glistening faces
will flex in recognition;
flash their alphabet of atoms,
to spell out a new world
of glorious rocks
and fascinating residues.
Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan, 2019), shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. Visit her website at salmonfisherpoet.com for more information.