Ephemerality — the poet as diaphanous creature. Part animal, part dual existence between sheets of the atmosphere and the ground, unwilling to emerge as fully forged because of allergies to set boundaries, this is the unsettled territory that Janice Oshiro attempts to lightly inhabit in Pier. Like with Cole Swensen’s Goest, the title suggests a certain ambiguity which plays out through the book. [Note: Swensen is also a blurber.] In poems that repeatedly sway from assertion to negation, the self-negating voice that takes shape is friend to shadow and ghost, a kind of spooky kabuki, where the characters exit through fog. The speaker always seems to have “a girl beside her” ready to deflect into that state whenever necessary as though it were a Harry Potter-like cloak of invisibility.
In “Snow Logic” the words of Oshiro put it this way, “Spoon, / unfinished state of being / a moon, my only handle”. The unfinished state of being that is alluded to is the main machine cranking up for production in this text. The hum of its engine and gears is one many readers have grown accustomed to with poets for their first books. The plasticity of self is an enormously appealing theme for writers of first books, especially when they are young. [Full disclosure: I don’t know how old Oshiro is, but her jacket photo makes it seem as though she is young.] As a reader, I make a mental note that the formative years of any poet are engaged in a flurry of decisions about how that poet is going to materialize. In Pier we are taken into that process up-close, writ large. The fits and starts of imagining are being played out in this book, often in ways that Oshiro can’t predict. From “Snow Logic” again, “Bear, interrupt / my empty bowl of reason. / Show me that the end / I know is wrong.”
Oshiro’s path to “an end” is intuitive. It feels its way along the murky bottom with family members and totem animals (like the bear — above — or sea squirt) in tow.
Certainly I can’t criticize any writer for taking on this territory of the self, especially a poet in his/her first book. It seems quite natural for a writer to go there, especially because it is poetic instinct that dictates one’s first impulse to filter everything through the self rather than a fiction writer’s instinct to filter everything through plot and the motivation of characters. Inevitably, a poet’s second book and onward, when the self begins to congeal and real-life decisions force one’s hand, is what brings one to posses oneself. Some, though, become intoxicated with the plasticity of self and
On the first day, the sea
squirt swims until finding
a place of attachment
* * *
When the woman smiles at me, I mouth
the words, “I’m sorry.” My father’s piss
hits the creeping sheet of water flooding
the street in front of her house.
His elastic legs can point in every direction.
His stream hits the surface then deflects into an arc
that falls back down into his open mouth.
When the woman smiles at me, I know she means
how difficult it is to love.
* * *
On the first day, the sea squirt swims until finding a place
I wish, I wish not to discuss
these places that prong up.
My inside’s flower won’t.
The petals splay and out comes.
* * *
On the first day, the sea.
To cleanse the organs, make your fist
into an external one. Punch it into your stomach
and double over as if in pain. Stay doubled,
if you cut it off, can you
serve it on a platter?
Hand, say wing.
Hand, say fight.
Hand, take flight to keep the water flowing.
* * *
An extra finger, my father
pokes a needle into himself to flush
over all the waste.
He wants me to see him drain it out.
He turns on the faucet of his belly.
On the first
day the sea
a place of a-
* * *
When people say my name, I think they mean
me, but they have someone else in mind.
At the Waikiki Aquarium, I watch the frogfish
all day. Brown and still like a piece of shit
anchored to the bottom of the tank.
The sign says the frogfish looks like a little man.
I look like my father. I reply to his face.
* * *
then, having no reason to move, the sea squirt eats
its brain and tail.
On, the first day, the end of the first day.
* * *
If attached, a pest, if of the open
I love him.
* * *
This is the end of the pier,
where I am only one of many well-
See how the piles root in two directions?
When the boat pulls out
I wave when waved to from the deck.
Clearly, this is a new poetic strategy, to identify with a tunicate, to tunicate oneself, as it were. As I read, I wonder how far to extend the analogy. Is the speaker hermaphroditic? Does the speaker filter media through pharyngeal slits? Should a reader regard the presence of a notochord as evidence of a primitive backbone? Does the swimming around as a youth suggest “attachment issues” as an adult? Does their evolution during the Cambrian period make one associate them more or less with Baby Boomers? Is there much more to differentiate among the innards besides gonads and heart?
Most of Pier finds the speaker identifying with non-human elements. In “Move” this speaker also directs herself towards the father, one of the few places in the entire text where the speaker aligns herself with a human being. [Interestingly, another place where this happens is in “Intermission” where the figure is an uncle pissing in the cane . . . together with the father pissing in the street may be revealing a degree of “pissing envy” for the speaker — at least as far as the public aspect of that practice is concerned]. Other instances such as in “Next, Dust” where the mother makes an appearance the movement on the part of the speaker is not so much a taking-on-of-the-skin of the mother as it is a moment empathy towards her — mother as house, as architecture, as something to believe in.
However, the father is more protean. He is the shape-shifter and presumably where the speaker has learned her talent for taking on the form of objects in the world, of living through the imagination in it. Of course, this father also seems to be a source of shame as well. In “Move” the speaker reports how the father’s belly is drained as if it were a vat of industrial waste. Later, the frogfish (identified as anchored shit) is equated to the father, and immediately thereafter the speaker associates herself with her father as “being like him.” This gesture of accordance with the low-lying and stationary father betrays a certain loyalty in the speaker, an unwillingness to run at the same time that she is tunicate, that which wanders the pelagic sea. This kind of interesting tension is what makes “Move” a spare but complicated offering.
In “Move” Oshiro’s speaker also makes its only reference to a pier. In the poem the speaker moves out on a pier where the sea surrounds her (and presumably many floating sea squirts that are looking to attach). The states that she is only one of many well-wishers, but it is somewhat unclear what it is that the speaker is wishing upon — upon a father that has somewhat lost his way? Upon a more general notion of those who are flagellating their way through a sea of many identity options? The nest line about the piles rooting in two directions is also somewhat mystifying; however given that this longer poem in the book is centered around the speaker’s father and “Next, Dust” is centered around the speaker’s mother, one can come to understand the statement about the two piles as making a reference to the influences of the two parents. The automatic waving suggests that reactions to some things are automatic, instinctual. One can’t disentangle from parents very effectively without a serious loss of biological fitness.
The delicate matter of living inside one’s skin pervades Pier, and Oshiro provides a near-handbook on how to slip through the defined boundaries of objects and animals and inhabit them. This animistic impulse is combined with her penchant for ancestor worship (mainly in the form of mom and dad) which in totality provides for a delicious atavism. The old mind of “the native” is conjured up for me with its rare hybrids and mysterious associations. Except for the invocation of a very few placeholders in the modern world, this book of poems seems like it could have been imagined by a poet writing at the beginning of the 20th Century, not the 21st Century. Throwing off the obsession with the mediatized world and its electronic display is not an easy feat, especially for someone whose generation seems to be preoccupied with the newsfeed and the blinking screen. Pier reminds me that it will not be so easy to shake off the animal world, not until bears and otters will insist upon watching their favorite films (starring other members of their species) the way chimps already do.