A Mediated/Meditatory/Mediating Life
- Roy Kiyooka (Author) and Daphne Marlatt (Editor)
Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Roy Kiyooka (Editor) and Roy Miki (Editor)
Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sneja Gunew
The pulse of an English…not my mother tongue
The juxtaposition of Roy Kiyooka’s Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka, edited by Daphne Marlatt, and Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka, edited by Roy Miki, exudes an almost unbearable poignancy.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the mediated nature of each text heightens rather than dilutes this effect; in the case of Pacific Windows there is the expected mediation of a dedicated editor whose commitment is modestly expressed in an afterword; in the case of Mothertalk the mediation doubles and trebles. In the first instance Mothertalk evokes the relatively traditional memoir of a parent by a child, but in this case the parent outlives the child, and the text is in turn edited by a former companion. Further ramifications are created by the fact that the initial interviews were conducted via a translator since the son did not have easy access to his mother’s tongue. Marlatt, in turn, well-known for her own nuanced writings on relations among women— including those between mothers and daughters—has gracefully taken on the task of ordering this monologue which is also, in its own right, her homage to her late friend, Roy Kiyooka. In some respects she inserts his life within the mother’s text, both in the structuring of these memoirs and in the introduction and appendices, the latter comprising a brief interview with Kiyooka’s father and a talk and letter by Kiyooka himself by way of autobiographically contextu-alising the familial relationships.
For Kiyooka, as this book demonstrates, his mother represented his access to an imagined ethnicity, that of being Japanese as well as Japanese-Canadian at a certain fraught historical juncture: "She and she alone reminds me of my Japanese self by talking to me before I even had the thot of learning anything ... So that it is that I find myself going home to keep in touch with my mother’s tongue and, it must be, the ghost of my father’s silences." But indeed fathers do figure prominently in this text. Mary’s strongest affiliations, as presented here, are, arguably, to her own father, that last scion of an impoverished samurai fam ily who educaled his daughter in the particular form of kendo swordsmanship (Iai) of which he was the last acknowledged master. The other dominant note is Mary’s own nostalgia, not for some diffused ’Japan’ but for a very specific place—Tosa, conjured up in all its idiosyncracies through the cast of characters which populated her early life. While the stringencies of an arranged marriage and life in Canada are luminously presented as well—enhanced by their fragmented nature because it allows the reader’s imagination to enter the text—the defining focus remains Tosa and Mary’s overwhelming desire to return.
Pacific Windows represents mediation of a different kind. Miki’s refrain is that what began as a collaborative venture was marked at the beginning by his anxieties as an editor to arrest Kiyooka’s irrepressible impulse to keep revising his work. But because rewriting was also a manifestation of the living spirit creatively reaching outward into mutability, the death of the poet makes the editor’s life easier and the friend’s loss palpable. Whereas Mothertalk subdues the various voices and interpreters under the one unmistakable and powerful voice of Mary Kiyooka, the collected poetry of Roy Kiyooka, paradoxically, diffuses the voice of one poet into a community of characters and places. His life touched many people and testified to a particular cultural period that, among other elements, illustrated a country coming to terms with its own diversity and hybridity. While the point of view remains uniquely that of the artist-poet, it succeeds in connecting many different places and people. Whether these be the father-son relationship which comes through Wheels, a trip across Japan (which in a sense balances the father’s ghostly absence in Mothertalk) or the meditations on the British painter Stanley Spenser’s letters to his wife resulting in the ’found poems’ of Nevertheless Those Eyes, communal relations and communities retain their specific tonalities while at the same time suggesting a greater whole. The details of difference are suggested in the meditations which bridge a visit to Hiroshima and the internment of Canadians of Japanese descent: "I never saw the ’yellow peril’ in myself (Mackenzie King did)." This from a Canadian whose formal education ended with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. ("Dear Lucy Fumi," Appendix 3 in Mothertalk).
In Pear Tree Pomes, dedicated to Marlatt, Kiyooka registers his own mourning for a relationship that did not take the traditional form of marriage, but rescues from it in the process a different and complex friendship. This ability to face life’s betrayals while at the same time finding something to move the spirit onward is a mark of all these poems—compellingly registering the human while resisting critical analysis. Once one begins to pin these poems down, the attempt to plot the subtle balance between the emotional appeal and the aesthetic achievement remains elusive. The final section, Pacific Windows, brings us full circle in its depiction of the aging son and the frail mother poring over old photographs (an interesting variation on Roland Barthes’s classic text, Camera Lucida, of a son mourning his mother embedded in a mediation on photography): "Each summer they peeled away layers of dross and became more and more their essential selves; even their roles as a mother and a son had portent." That portent, of course, acquires an unexpected meaning when one juxtaposes Kiyooka’s two books. These collected poems parallel a comparable achievement in Kiyooka’s classic Transcanada Letters (1975) in which a period and, once again, Kiyooka’s unique perspective thread the country together in spite of all its bewildering variety. It may be that with the appearance of both these texts and their consolidation of Kiyooka’s legacy we may hope for the reprinting of Transcanada Letters as well.
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MLA: Gunew, Sneja. A Mediated/Meditatory/Mediating Life. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 184 - 185)
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