"Foreign Wife Elegy" by Yuko Taniguchi

Coffee House Press

2004

It is an interesting coincidence that the author Yuko Taniguchi and I share a few things in common; a name with a same phonetic sound Yuko. In English, Eve is Eve, but in Japanese there are a few Yukos written in different characters holding different symbolic meanings. I wonder which Yuko Ms. Tanigichi is? She even has a poem called "Name" which deals with just this subject. I also write poetry and am a foreign wife in a foreign land who speaks a foreign language.

 

I went through a typical dispute in my mind whether to think/write in English or in Japanese to do this review. And I decided to do it in English, my adopted second language rather than my mother tongue because English is the daily language for both me & Ms. Taniguchi no matter what at this moment. I still write in Japanese for different purposes in some circumstances but it is not hard to assume, reading this collection, that English is the tool for her creation.

 

I have to be honest I had a certain skepticism when handed \work{Foreign Wife Elegy} to review. I presumptiously assumed this collection would use exotic foreign-ness as its selling point, a type of writing I personally detest. My negative assumption was clearly washed away when I stepped into Ms. Taniguchi's world through the title poem "Foreign Wife Elegy" with its simple but staggering opening line; "My language has its own world where he doesn't know how to live, ..." This modestly sized poem which rings with the unspeakable emotions and pains of being a foreigner and a stranger completely captured me. Then I read her own words stating  the  genesis and intention of this collection in the press release letter accompanying the book. I was gratefully relieved to know that she was aware of the universal quality in her poetic search and I was ready to share her words.

 

When I read poetry, I first pay attention to the relationship between the language and the poet; how the language lives through the writer & vise-versa. Then I further pay attention to the sound of the poet's mind/heart breath. As the last thing,  I check the architectural and musical elements of the work; form/content/flow. I personally prefer the relationship to be organic and the breath to be natural and simple and to my happy surprise Ms. Taniguchi smoothly passed the test. Although rather young (born in1975), Ms Taniguchi interestingly shows the definite qualities that belong to the long tradition of Japanese "feminine" writing from the heian era's Sei Sho Nagon and Lady Murasaki to the early  20th  century's Akiko Yosano to the present generation with a contemporary voice such as Machi Tawara. The basic characteristic of this tradition is the fact that the writer lives through life and the writing emerges out of the alchemy of the life experiences. None of the writers in this tradition are cerebral composers. They do not manipulate lines and phrases out of their minds alone. They live and through living their poetry is expressed.

 

In the manner of this tradition, Ms. Taniguchi's personal life experience becomes the primal source of her creation. Her physical & metaphysical sensations react to the reality she lives in and the distilled result of this alchemy becomes poetry. Her eyes, her skin, her ears, her mind, her heart, they all become the doors to her poetics. This ordinary life-ness comes from the Buddhistic tradition of "Heijo-shin kore michi"( the path of ordinary mind/heart). I do not think she is intentionally aware of this quality, but it is definitely there in the way she cherishes the almost "nothing" moment of life. Simple acts become extreme drama in most of her writing such as talking to her father on the phone, slicing a cake or  boiling water for tea. I was delighted to see this genuine Japanese-ness, vividly expressed in this relocated young woman.

 

Living in a foreign language environment creates a gap in one's mind. Language, a tool to describe things, is much more integrated into one's thought process than we think it is and Ms. Taniguchi is well aware what this language gap can do to our minds. "Foreign Words" examines this fact from both dark and light ends. "No words match our intention"she proclaims. Her wisdom shines naturally here.

 

The book consists of four parts. 1.writing on her husband's experience as a nurse in the hospital, 2. writing on her family in Japan, 3. her personal writing on herself, and 4. more objective non-Japanese related poems. Every poem in every section has things in common; i.e. references to water(in the form of ocean, river, lake, rain, water in a kettle, faucet water etc.) to color, specifically the color yellow ( I hope this choice of color is not based on socio-psychological reasons), to hair and other physical body parts and her obsessive concerns toward life and death. These images are scattered throughout her work, often weaving from poem to poem becoming her personal palette and showing us her individual characteristics.

 

Interestingly, the Japanese have a general tendency to describe things indirectly. Instead of being straightforward, we prefer to suggest them. I see this basic Japanese way of describing things in Ms Taniguchi's writing. Or moreover, this indirect method of saying things has become her art. She moves around the center, never mentioning what the center is. But as we stroll along with her, we get much closer to the point than any direct description can ever reveal. I enjoy her smooth liquid-like "moving around"and am impressed with her ability to give metaphoric impact without giving us metaphor laden descriptions. You can see a good example of this in "He said, Scratching, Dark Room" and so on.

 

Another merit I see in her work is the fact that she never uses so called "heavy poetic words". She always speaks with the simplest, easiest vocabulary. It is refreshing to swim along with this extremely flexible style which reminds me of her favorite reference, water. It is not "words"that make her poetry but what she sees, feels and hears. It is almost as if she dictates what she goes through in the most honest manner.

 

The one negative I see in her writing are these moments of liquidity that after awhile start to fall into their own cliche and pattern. Her smoothness is her identity, but it can also be her own "cookie cutter" trap. A certain unified emotional vibration can be seen in every poem. For me this is a danger. In the poem "Breathing", she says "Surviving requires a certain naivete." I hope she will not become too skilled at this naivete because intuitive freshness is her hole card. Once she becomes too skilled and self-conscious or this motif becomes too pervasive, there is no more genuine naivete.

 

Over all, reading Foreign Wife Elegy filled  me with great pleasure and empathy. I hope English speaking readers will go beyond their exotic trip to Japan/Asia in order to share the universal human experiences to be found in these  pages as Ms. Taniguchi wishes them to do.

Steve CannonTribes