Book Review: Poems: New and Selected (Jane Joritz-Nakagawa)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Disability poetry is a discipline with a large umbrella, yet even within this diversity Jane Joritz-Nakagawa occupies a place not easily duplicated. Yes, she is a poet with life-long disabilities, and she has recently been working through a nefarious cancer, but these are only one aspect of her work, and not even its most obvious preoccupations. She is also an ardent feminist, an American ex-patriot in Japan, a champion of women writers in diaspora, and a dedicated experimentalist. All of these facets of her work are brought together in her most recent book Poems: New & Selected.

Joritz-Nakagawa is a prolific writer. In selecting the poems for the book, editor Paul Rossiter culled work from eleven previous books covering eleven years , quite literally a book every year. In addition, he included selections from her latest work Plan B Audio. Joritz-Nakagama's work is not for the poetry novice or casual reader. The poet herself rejects the label "experimental" for her work with its implication that the work is not serious, preferring instead to call it "unconventional" or "non-main stream." While this is broadly helpful for readers approaching her poetry for the first time, it is fortunate that Eric Selland's "Foreword" provides some guidance, lending her ouevere a sense of context.

One of the bits of information Selland provides is that Joritz-Nakagawa completed her masters in linguistics prior to becoming engaged in poetry and that she entered poetry at the time when the LANGUAGE poetry movement was at its height. This influence is readily apparent in many of her poems. "Meditation 12" one of the poems taken from her 2009 book The Meditations begins:

monolithic but

whatever these monuments

whatever these moments
or movements contain

whatever errors they contain
whatever contains these monuments

whatever movements contain these errors
erroneous containers moving

This lapping back of words on each other, the transpositions and transformation of words in which the repetition and music of the words drive the lines runs to varying degrees throughout her poetry. It these language-driven pieces seem almost bodiless, the poet's recent work is very much informed by her own body. The new poem in this volume, "Plan B Audio" is very much a product of her experience with cancer and her recent essay "Fibropoetics" reveals the extent to which fibromyalgia has been a factor in her poetry even, if, as Joritz-Nakagama herself says, she is not always aware of its influence.

Joritz-Nakagama's poems are deliberately open-ended and non-authoritative. Just as the meanings and rhythms of lines within the poem bleed into each other, distinctions between outside and inside the poem are blurred by a refusal to set boundaries or draw conclusions. If this attitude was originally derived from linguistic considerations, it has become more concrete as the poet herself has experienced the messiness of the body and its refusal to conform to our expectations, desires or control. She says, "my own fibropoetics [is] characterized by (both the disease and the poetics) a lack of closure unpredictability, emotionality and fluidity, ambiguity, asymmetry, uncertainty, fragmentation, pain as well as pleasure and a sense of humor."

A propos of this, a poem from her 2017 book Tera Forma offers:

        remote possibilities of escape

                 a person in pain exceeds language

inventing and watching herself [die]

                        I cannot recall events

as what happens is what feels untrue

        & belongs nowhere & walks endlessly

                if nothing tangible is at stake

                        mornings in bed, mostly alone

As Selland says in his introduction and Joritz-Nakagawa herself states, she is an ardent feminist. Much of her work is bound up with issues surrounding women's rights, particularly those of abuse and subjugation. These concerns are sometimes explicit but it is rarely pedantic. One of my favorite instances of this "Memory Trick" which begins with a roadside accident:

The exhausted body

Of the kitten flattened
On the pavement sparkling in
in the sun

but then

My torn shirt cradled in my arms That
Night too, no one to help I ran
Home with one shoe on
I called you that
Night just to find out
Whether it had really happened

An invisible handprint, a scar under
The furry part, a piece of the kitten's ear
Under my pillow, my claws, crying into

The bowl on all fours, the position
You will never se me
In, my stunned immobile body

Another leitmotif of Poems: New and Selected is migration. As an American transplanted to Japan since 1989, she knows firsthand the difficulties involved in making one's way in a new culture. In 2017, Joritz-Nakagawa combined her passions in editing the self-described anthology women: migration: poetry. While this project involved collecting migration poems of other women, the editor herself had written poems reflecting concerns about migration for a number of years. As a woman, an immigrant and a person with a disability Joritz-Nakagawa considers herself not just an outsider, but an outcast. It is a position that has only been confirmed in the politics of the past few years, as Americans know well. Nevertheless, she says, "I still want a seat at the table." Poems: New and Selected provides that seat.

Selland concludes his introduction by saying, "there is no way to describe definitely or to explain Jane's work." While this could be construed as a disclaimer in w reference to some poets, in Joritz-Nakagawa's case it is merely the recognition that her poetry has achieved what she has set out to do. Perhaps the best way to approach her work is just to dive in, as one would to a wonderful meal, enjoy those parts that give the most pleasure and not try too hard to analyze or classify. Among the wide variety of styles the poet tries, there are many haiku-like moments in the book where readers will just want to stop and linger. I will end with this one (keeping in mind, of course, that no poem every really ends):

silhouette in a window
the night overtakes
waiting for a sign
becomes increasingly still


Title: Poems: New and Selected
Author: Jane Joritz-Nakagawa
Publisher: Isobar Press
Publication Date: 2018


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).