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The Asian Reporter's
BOOK REVIEWS


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

ordinary hands

able to place

one stone upon another

no matter how

different the shapes

or unlikely the weights

What holds them

together

is some center

invisible to the eye

only realized

when the hands

are patient

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.

 

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