Sunday, January 4, 2009

Jill Yamasawa's _Aftermath_

Jill Yamasawa's Aftermath (Kahuaomanoa Press, forthcoming 2009)

In preparing to teach a course in poetry & politics this Spring (beginning in a week!), I've been reading books about public uses of poetry (Joan Shelley Rubin's Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America) and about the suppression of leftist poetry (John Lowney's History, Memory, and the Literary Left and Cary Nelson's revolutionary memory). Rubin's book explains the significance not only of historical memory but also the early 20th century practice of memorizing and performing verse in school. This reading helps me better understand my father's many recitations of “Snowbound” as well as my mother's obsession with “Invictus." According to Rubin, poetry played a crucial role in creating a public vocabulary with which to bind friendships and discuss ethical issues. But it's Lowney who helps me get where I want to go in my thoughts on Jill Yamasawa's forthcoming book, Aftermath, which is the biography of a place, McKinley High School, in Honolulu. Like so many places in Hawai`i, McKinley High School is only the most recent building, name, ideological construction for what have been other names, other uses, other cultural values. While Lowney notes that “the problem of memory is, of course, fundamental to modernity and constitutive of literary modernism” (4), poets in Hawai`i know this as a problem closer to home. At home. The problem of memory is inscribed in the names used to mark places in Hawai`i. To the winner go the names. What is now called Ford Island (at Pearl Harbor) was Moku `ume `ume, Chinaman's Hat was Mokoli`i, Diamond Head was Leahi, and so on. (In recent years, however, these names are often used in tandem, or as political and cultural choices.) McKinley High School was built in Kewalo. Yamasawa quotes the “Dictionary of Hawaiian Localities” from 1883:

A fishpond and surrounding land
on the plains below King Street,
and beyond Koula.

Kewalo contained a spring called “Drowning waters,” after a spring used by priests for human sacrifice. As we find out some pages later, Kakaako / Kewalo “was a place of recreation” where Kamehameha had a residence, “along with his family, and personal kahuna.” That the militarization of Hawai`i, the thirst of the military for young soldiers from local high schools, is linked to this is clear in Yamasawa's sequence, although the sacrifices have a very different meaning or provenance. And therein lies much of her tale. It is a story of empires (McKinley's and Bush's, by way of the Vietnam War), as much as a story of the young people who participate in it, either as its victims or perpetrators, often as both (children of immigrants from colonized places who become soldiers in the American army). It is a tale of institutions attempting to organize multiple pasts into one, and it is equally the tale of challenges to those institutions.

Yamasawa builds her project on an axis. On the synchronic line is the study of mathematics; Yamasawa's narrator, Shirley, is a math teacher at McKinley High School, where she works with special ed students. Math, as we know (even if we sometimes suspect otherwise) makes sense, provides an abstract logical view of the world. The other, diachronic, line represents history. This is where logic and sense threaten at every turn to collapse, whether because a student has no family to record on his family tree project, or because McKinley High School itself is a colonial implant on the `aina. While the sections of her book are titled with reassuring words like “slope,” “variables,” “equations,” and where even “inequalities” takes on a neutral cast, what falls into these categories is less easily organized. While Shirley can teach math, it is clear that most of what is to be learned (via Shirley) is about Hawai`i's social and economic inequalities, its fraught linguistic history, its various amnesias (including those of the present about the present). There are moments in the text where these axes come together violently, as in “A Long Walk of Thresholds”:

There's an Original Sin
that taints our country. The radicals wrote
men and women are created equal.

The historical radicals—before McKinley—set down an ideal line that could not bear the press of American history.

Words, too, exist on this axis. Take the name “Pele,” as one example. In her poem, “Madame Pele,” Yamasawa offers up the many meanings of the words “Madame” and “Pele,” including the Brazilian soccer player, Pele. In Hawai`i we know Pele as the volcano goddess, a spiritual life force. But the astounding turn in Yamasawa's poem comes here:

I mean the bomber so named before its presentation
to the Air Force by McKinley High School students after
a successful bond drive to cover the cost.

This would be during the Second World War, Pele's name appropriated by the military for a very different kind of firepower. Yamasawa draws attention to other words, as well, from “Homeland Security,” “Mission Accomplished,” and many others. She uses several forms of English, standard, non-standard (including Pidgin and the immigrants' accented English), as well as Hawaiian words that bring with them large cultural concepts. Yet one among the many ironies about McKinley High School was its status as a non-standard English school, meaning its students spoke Pidgin, not what some still refer to as "proper English." The split between standard and non-standard schools in Hawai`i lasted many decades. See Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue for a personal/political history of Pidgin.

Jill Yamasawa's documentary poetry reflects the poet/teacher's capacity to empathize with her students (if you know Jill, she's hard to separate from Shirley), caught up in domestic dramas that are also national in scope. Nowhere in the book are we permitted to forget the Iraq War or the military recruiters settled just off-campus. Empathy is an ethical act; the reader is not permitted ever to forget that the words she uses for place or politics are pre-selected for her. Yamasawa has performed the discipline of research, peeled back the layers of history and language, re-membered for us the meaning of the many sites that are McKinley High School, as well as the students shaped by it.

Yamasawa's book will be published later this Spring. In the meantime, sections are available in Tinfish 18.5: The Book.

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