HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Poem in Blue

Joel Swann’s series of 21 reviews of international poetry from Chinese University Press continues.

Noriko Mizuta, Poem in Blue trans. Jordan A. Yamaji Smith (Hong Kong: CUHK Press, 2015), 56pp

As the word ‘verse’ comes from the Latin for ‘turn’, some critics have argued that poems can be usefully understood in the way that they demonstrate moments of change, alteration, and transformation, in numerous forms. Noriko Mizuta’s poems in Poem in Blue is a useful case study in this approach, as their various topics are underpinned by shifts in the way perception and experience are written, that unfold and develops over the course of each text.

The opening poem, ‘If you happen into a deep sleep’ begins with almost self-conscious banality, describing past experiences in terms of linear progression – we return from sleep to waking just as the ‘seasons change’ (3); and we send ‘parting glances’ back to people we’ve left behind as you would ‘riding on a train’ (6-7). The second part more threateningly describes sleep as a different motion, trapping you ‘in a deep cylinder / Spinning away / Slipping away’ (16-17), removing a clear sense of location or progression, ‘Never arriving / At the wound / Awakening’s reliable / Aspiration’ (24-27). Often, it seems, the poems begin by trying to come or go, but end up with the realisation that all they can do is circle around and aspire to a point.

That process happens again in the middle of the collection in the poem ‘On the Fossil Museum’, where the centre of attention is something far more materially and tangible. It puzzles over how something entered its hard fossilized form after so much time:

This

Isn’t something I could come to understand

A tree?

A rock?

….

Ah, how to describe this hardness

Long-living

This chill

That cannot be absorbed (7-10, 22-25)

However much its production is enmeshed in patterns of organic growth and decay, challenging time, life, and death, this is an ‘unmelting body’ (32). Eventually the poem settles on seeing the fossil in terms not so much in terms of its petrification than in terms of its display in an ‘incandescent case’ (73), where it is ‘Incomprehensible to scholars’ (82) – the proper mode of engagement is, instead, the cinema:

Where are the screenwriters?

They’ve arrived so late

The directors

Colorless

Only with form

Without gestures or lines (83-88)

Although lacking so many of the qualities fundamental to film – including colour, movement, or shape – the ‘bright stage’ somehow suggests that see ‘anything, everything / Contained in / This action’. The cinematic stage offers a way of seeing the fossil-text in a way in which knowledge ‘never arrives’ (to return to the first poem).

The expansive fossil poem is adjacent to the sonnet ‘Poem in Blue’ itself, and taken together they make for an interesting pairing. The intensely material focus is gone, replaced instead with the ways ‘blue sky’ figure the loss of memory (once again, an almost ostentatiously banal figure). Initially, that blue sky is to be followed (3); as it develops, ‘Sky envelops everything around’ (8); finally, the ‘Flavorless / Blue’ is inhaled (12-14). To write a ‘poem in blue’, then, is not so much to descant on the colour as it is to write from being in the midst of the colour, which has gradually lost its associations with things in the real world. The blueness is less of a nod to the passions as it is to a kind of material indeterminacy – the ‘blue promontory’ described in Antony and Cleopatra, or Sylvia Plath’s ‘substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances’ (in the poem ‘Ariel’). In moving out of a world of colourful things into a world of colour, ‘Poem in Blue’ seems more sanguine in its turn that many of Mizuta’s poems – adopting a new stasis, rather than a bewildering free-fall.

These brief examples show, I hope, how there is plenty to enjoy in these neat poems: if they lack some force in isolated phrases, images, or ideas, they make up for it in a poetic dynamic that never leaves us where we started.


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