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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #8 (February 21, 2006), page 13.
Japanese American poet balances personal life and ancestry
Stone Bow Prayer
By Amy Uyematsu
Copper Canyon Press, 2005
Paperback, 121 pages, $14.00
By Dave Johnson
On the cover of Stone Bow Prayer is a photo of a heap of small stones smoothed and rounded by an ocean, a river, or time itself. This artwork is an apt, visual prelude to a wry and rueful collection of poetry by Amy Uyematsu.
The poems are organized into twelve sections based on the ancient lunar calendar of China. Dividing the year into 29- and 30-day months, the calendar was adopted by Japan around the seventh century and used until it was replaced by the Gregorian system in 1873. Sections have been named according to the early Japanese lunar months.
To this thoughtful structure the poet brings her rendering of the passions and yearnings we have all felt, an offbeat spiritual temperament that rings a bell for some, and notations of the mysteries of life — all scattered across literary and actual cartography, from the islands of Japan and the broad plains of China to the carefully manicured lawns of Southern California.
As a public school math teacher as well as a poet, Uyematsu often employs numbers in her poems to explain how it all adds up. As a sansei (third-generation Japanese American) she also explores her heritage and personal history. In "Simple Division" she succinctly reports:
My history echoes
from small diameters —
120,000 issei and nissei
divided among 7 states
equals 10 barbed-wire
desert prison camps.
Hang on to the page, reader, as the poet shifts to a sardonic observation of contemporary society in "Flavor of the Month":
America’s newest hunks are Asian —
from Chow Yun-Fat to Yahoo’s Jerry Yang,
they’re no longer the dateless wimps and nerds
who watched their traitor women dance away.
No, who’d have guessed that brains and commitment
would become a sexy commodity,
or that smooth, gold- and tawny-colored skin bears
a sweeter scent and glistens in the sun.
In this third book of poems, Uyematsu changes voices to weave universal insight, traditional Asian poetics, and the hurtful remembrances of a mature woman into a singular perspective that reflects a compassionate life led in both darkness and light. She is candid about the signs of a girl’s entrance into troublesome puberty, shares her memories of the first stirring of desire, and moves forward to that inevitable crossing beyond which men no longer look at her as they once did.
She also spends time with a few of her math students. In "When Geometry Gets Mixed Up with God and the Alphabet," she reports:
Every time he writes "angel" she puts a big red circle
around it, not round like a halo but cranky
and shrill with her thick felt-tip pen,
just for misspelling "angle" again,
as she takes a point off here, another point there,
until he’s down to a lousy C-plus.
And then, after spending time in her math class, we are taken to a special place reserved for women of her ancestry. Her poem "Inheritance" begins:
I recognize the pastels in this woman’s scarf
the predominance of pale apricot pink,
waves of jade and slate in the grainy silk
three surprising curves of persimmon revealing
an eye that’s unmistakably Japanese —
the impulse toward heat
when feelings are muted.
Lastly, in "Balancing Stones," a poem that gently restates many of the themes of this impressive collection, Uyematsu talks about the careful use of gravity and attraction to create a work of art:
I have seen
able to place
one stone upon another
no matter how
different the shapes
or unlikely the weights
What holds them
is some center
invisible to the eye
when the hands
and trust is complete.
Amy Uyematsu is the winner of the 1992 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, has two previous volumes of poetry, 30 Miles from J-Town and Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain, and was also a co-editor of Roots: An Asian American Reader, one of the earliest anthologies in Asian-American Studies. She lives in Los Angeles.