Book Review

I went a bit mad with Pink Waves, Sawako Nakayasu’s beautiful poem. Why? For several days after the first reading, I kept seeing a ribbon unspooling through corridors of a dream. Was Nakayasu’s book a spell? If so, I wanted to discover her new book as a grimoire.

I diagrammed the structure like a card trick. Around the poem’s perimeter, I walked my reading-dog, the mental pet who pulls me by her leash with rude sniffing pauses and dashes through stanza-hedges. In my treehouse, after scrubbing, so to speak, I put some of Nakayasu’s word-bundles on my operating table (the size of a TV tray). Then, wearing safety goggles, I dropped pellets of the poem into a glass of aqua vitae, like a Magic Rocks kit, to observe the growth of chemical towers. Truly bioluminescent.

Some tinker-toy stuff: Pink Waves is a glowing poem of ninety pages. There are three sections, “A,” “B,” and “A’”. If you read these titles like musical notation (the poet does have musical training), then the apostrophe of “A’” might indicate recapitulation of “A” with augmentation. Look at the seed-like movement of the section beginnings:


it was a wave all along


it was a wave all along
a passing moment reveals itself to have cued the long apology


it was a wave all along
sliding between the heat of now and surrender
a passing moment reveals itself to have cued the long apology
i sat with a friend and the loss of her child

Jumping the hedge to “B”:




was that you
or the genre trouble


no and no
dorsal recumbent
egression, delay

Then dashing through concentric hedges to “A’”:


it was a wave, would i snap


it was a wave, would i snap, was it you
or was it a passing moment of genre trouble, long bewildered


it was a wave, would i snap, was it you
sliding between the heat of no and no dislocation
a gasping moment of trouble caught in the bright light
of delay and transitory and loss, hers and mine both

Gently—I’m not a vivisectionist—gently staying, for a moment, with method and arrangement: You can see how the lines of the first two sections, in their line positions, transform the corresponding lines in “A’”. The first sections are like the encounter of persons who, struggling, mirroring and moving together, make a third thing in the space between.

The roiling motion of the poem, by concentric expansion, does become bewildering. Each section has eight stanzas. In “A” and “A’,” every stanza doubles the number of lines in the previous stanza by repeating them, or so it seems, though the order of repeated lines slips around, while inserting an equal number of new lines, or so it seems, such that stanza 1 has 1 line; stanza 2 has 2 lines; 3 has 4 . . . with stanza 8 having 128 lines, a structure suggested by Ron Silliman’s Ketjak. (Listen to the Balinese Ketjak field recording from the Nonesuch Explorer series!)

But the structure is more suggestion than rule. I found a hiccup to this eddying, expanding pattern in stanza “A 7,” which contains sixty-one rather than sixty-four lines—I triple-checked. And (yes, a bit mad) I asked where are the missing lines? Are they significant disjecta membra? Until I noticed that the stanza ends by quoting Silliman’s capping phrase “we ate them.” Here I had the shocking suspicion that the poem was winking at me, and I retracted my tape measure. Snap!

Basta to my stick figures . . . Pink Waves has features of an ars poetica politica. These features reminded me of a sensation I used to love in the downtown Dallas Library. While walking upstairs, you passed a Rauschenberg collage on mirrored plexiglass. You could see your reflection through images from a receding news of the day (JFK in the open limo at the Triple Underpass, a floating astronaut in his Pillsbury pressure suit), your form and image ascending the stacks in a jeweled mirror. (And if you should visit the Look-Up Desk with questions about pictures appearing in Pink Waves, you won’t be disappointed.)

Adam Pendleton’s “Black Dada”; Karl Schwitters’s Ursonate as the song of:

Ursonata in the kitchen. Ursonata in the shower . . .
Ursonata sung by a beetle . . .
Black Dada, Ursonata . . .

with its buzzing babawawa; the manifestos, in their moment, of Valerie Solanis and Sol LeWitt; Gertrude Stein’s practice versus the slap of her ego; intimations about the power moves of Language Poetry and its progeny at “the next intersection”; the remarkable painters’ poetry of Takagai Hiroya “wailing at the edge of the ocean in post-3.11 Japan . . .”

The movement of contraction-repetition sometimes builds tension that snaps with the release of new lines:

that dark alley where my politics beats up your aesthetics
since when is discernment the right thing to desire
i propose the evasion of inordinately large demands
the grand narrative collapses under its own weight
i take a kick in the mouth for you, over and again
the scalpel is sharp, use discretion when cutting
my facility when it arm wrestles with your facility
i let you mortar muscle celebrate and hate me
speaking into a space where one is illegible
if time drops here my function is to bewilder it

Nakayasu (with designer Laura Joakimson) also composed the gestural layout of text. In section “B,” the lines begin to expand, “jumping the gutter” from the left to the right-hand page, getting longer and longer. High tide. Read the jump lines separately, if you want, as a satisfying micropoem within the poem, like marks left by trotting sandpipers between waves. Then the lines shrink and recede.

If you are new to the refuge of her work, I cannot recommend highly enough Nakayasu’s translations from Japanese. Sagawa Chika in Mouth: Eats Color (Factorial Press). I’m grateful especially for translations of the poetry of Yi Sang in Yi Sang: Selected Works (Wave Books) with fellow translators Don Mee Choi, Jack Jung, and Joyelle McSweeney. Also, don’t miss The Ants from Les Figues Press. Then get everything else.

About the Reviewer

Gray Palmer is a Los Angeles-based playwright, performer, and critic affiliated with the long-established poetic theater collective Padua Playwrights. His plays have been published in The Wax Paper and by Padua Press. His theater journalism is available online in the archive of Stage Raw. He once surrounded City Hall with two hundred honking taxis.