Red Hen Press
Want is the body’s fate: sitting while desiring to stand, standing while thinking about sitting. There is no end to our hunger, and once we taste the impracticality of lust, there is no way to quell our pain. If the body wants something, the body does what it must to fulfill its needs. Denial of our appetite can only work temporarily.
It is with brutal honesty that Mariko Nagai writes of these themes in her new collection, Histories of Bodies. Sex and death are old news, but Nagai reminds us that we are not as smart as we think we are, and that we have not seen as much as we think we have. Throughout the collection, layers of desires collide and reoccur in surprising and, sometimes, unwanted places.
What is the genesis of our wants? It is a question to which Nagai knows there is no simple solution. There is the practical, or tangible – what sates hunger temporarily.
Nagai, however, focuses mostly on the intangible: the yearning itself. Here is the fate into which the body is born. Love and sex intermesh until the line between mind and body is transparent. In the hands of a lesser poet, such heaviness could become pedantic, but Nagai’s clarity and lack of sentimentality draw the reader in while keeping enough distance.
Take, for instance, the first poem, “Histories of Bodies,” which serves as a rightful prelude to the book. “That’s how we can distinguish a man from a woman, or from ourselves: only in a moment / of embrace,” says Nagai in her opening stanza. Most of her poems, including the introductory – toward the end, Nagai remembers a photograph of genocide – describe the death inherent in sex. What unites both? When we have sex, is it a way to forget, like sleep? Why do our desires constantly reset? There is no easy answer in Nagai’s frightening, beautiful version of love.
In the entire first section of the book, Nagai writes of relatives. Even though she has present lovers on her mind, she cannot deny the force of her family history. In “Love Letter in a Poem So My Mother Will Not Be Lonely,” Nagai writes of the ways in which she clings to lovers as she used to do when lying next to her parents as a child. Though Nagai ends the poem stating that specific desire, there is enough brief background to draw in the reader:
At the counter of an herb shop, a man,
about Father’s age, and his wife
standing next to him, were bent down
as you and Father would bend down by the kitchen
sink, grinding the meat into ginger, folding them
into gyoza shells. Pounding hard, slamming,
the herbalists crushed the roots, smashing them until
the grounding became indistinguishable.
It is a stanza filled with clear prose, a memory of how those in front of you can change into ghosts of the past, and vice versa. Compare that to a poem like “Hunger,” in which Nagai writes of watching her father’s reaction to her mother’s death:
Night after night, my father lay out
Dinner for her. He serves her the first tea.
My father’s walk tell the stories he does
Not tell as he limps after dinner to the river. Every night,
The mosquitos hunger for their mates, flesh, he hungers
For the end, as he did, her hand fisted
Over his, two first almost a globe, & the doctors
Kept pounding her, pounding, breaking him.
The poet rephrases her thoughts with enough subtlety that the reader might not pick up on the variations at first. The most obvious connection between these two passages is the pounding, but given time and repeated readings, the indirect beauty of Nagai’s poetry seeps into one’s thoughts. Phrases that seem insignificant resurface as titles of poems, and a vegetabe or flower takes root again as a larger idea.
One example of such a reoccurrence is Nagai’s use of the rose. Throughout the book, Nagai specifies the amount of roses each lover has given her. By assigning to each set of flowers an arbitrary amount of time – five flowers represent five days of love, or five months – Nagai calls into question the very idea of quantifying love.
This questioning reaches its peak in the poem “Roses,” in which Nagai recalls the flower her bloody nose makes as a child, after she beats her nose on a swing. The poet states, “A lover once gave me seven roses, a stem for each day / we had known each other. Metaphor is for the weak. / I plucked the thorns off and they died too soon.” In the face of genuine concern, Nagai neglects the gift and shrugs it off as too clichéd. The hurt that ensues is made even more evident as Nagai mentions her grandfather. A picture, entitled “Roses and Thorns,” in which her grandfather tends to his plants, is all that remains. It is a relic of a purer time in which a man could simply stand in a field. Her father, upon Nagai’s breaking her nose, tells her not to demand too much. The loss of innocence is sealed with the final line, “Roses are the weakest, / roses are the most selfish flower of all.” There is a certain guilt that comes with the desire to feel love. It is considered the sign of a weak mind to want something so common. The reappearance of the rose throughout the body of work serves to heighten Nagai’s desire to live without fear of cliché.
“Hunting the Dead,” a poem in six parts, comprises the second section. In this piece, Nagai furthers the idea that sex and death are intertwined. The following line, in which the poet speaks of starting each morning by calling to ghosts, is indicative of the theme of the work: “We ignore this audience in order to run / our hands over the lengths / of each other’s bodies, to name things again / so that we may love what can be taken away.” Even when we wake, our desires greet us. We are hungry, we must fall back asleep, we have to touch someone, there is work to be done – no matter. Relief produces forgetting. The return of the desire is inevitabe and unplanned. Nagai speaks of the shame our desire causes us, and she reminds us that lust is present in more aspects of our lives than we care to believe. The conflict arises as we try to reconcile somewhat stabe feelings with unpredictabe urges.
The poems in this collection are varied enough to produce striking contrasts, poem to poem, section to section – six in total. Section three is flanked with prose poems, in the middle of which lie middle-sized pieces with couplets. A poem entitled “Georgic” evokes Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.” The subtle way in which Nagai frames this poem – there is a sparrow, an old couple, an eagle, and a homeless man’s ranting – remind the reader that the profane can be majestic. Also in the section are more sparse pieces, like the back-to-back coupling of “Fable” with “Practical Truth.” The white space on these pages is a welcome break that serves to illuminate the scattered thoughts of Nagai’s lovers and family that come back to her at inopportune moments.
At the end of section three is a short prose poem, “A City of Absent Lovers,” in which Nagai uses her succinct writing to command the form. Here is the anonymous loneliness inherent in a city, a place where one can easily forget names. Feelings of anonymous lustful remembrance are, one hopes, something akin to what love must be, but as Nagai says earlier, “Must, as everything else, is something we’re taught to believe.” Names come and go, but something remains – idiosyncrasies all meld together to form a perfect person who could never exist in the first place. The result is an impossibly synthetic and, ultimately, more intangible figure than what one was, at one point, able to touch.
Section four begins with another prose poem in which Nagai states, “Love poems are outdated like drawing rooms and making love.” She then continues to describe the phantasmagorical offerings her boyfriend gives her:
“Here is a picture of a woman with a twelve-inch penis, almost as if it is part of her body, here is another name for courtship, here is a man without a face, she is looking for him among his audience, we are searching for a part of ourselves, we are like any other we read in books, we are like any other.”
This rejection of the comforts of clichéd love is part of our existence, a cultural fact that is as elusive as the love it derides. This mystery embodies Mariko Nagai’s poetry: themes that shift but do not change, people who, somehow, are present and not present.
In the final section, what the reader comes to expect – vegetabes, roses, cicadas, mosquitos, and the surreal nature of emotion – returns in waves, the culmination of which is the ambitious “Etudes in Nine Movements.” In this climax, Nagai begins each section with a short italicized phrase almost gleaned from her other poems. After each sentence, Nagai again uses her abilities with the prose poetry form to convey her messages. In section seven of the final poem, Nagai writes:
“Do not fear love; do not fear the touch of a man who sits next to you, a silent moment filled with a slight touch of knee. He is asking nothing. He is asking everything. He is asking for something you can easily give out, only if you know how to write love poems still. But you do not. Poems have left you, and even what you write has no story because there is no love.”
What we can love is that which goes away, a touch, a magician releasing doves, a mother folding a thousand paper cranes, pinning them together, and watching them stay in one place.
The loneliness of Mariko’s writing is palpable. Individual moments of ecstasy occur through the poems, but Nagai asserts that the only existing emotion is lust; if there is love, it is merely a sense of attachment brought on by stringed memories of temporary elation. In the presence of our wants, everything is intangible. Without fulfillment, the desires themselves become wholly tangible. However paradoxical that notion may be, Nagai grasps it and does not flinch in the face of sadness.