Landing: A Review of Laurel Nakaishi's Ashore
There may be poets who do not long for a retreat into nature, into Place with a capital P, rich in synesthetic beauty, in history, in possible futures. I am not one of those poets and so I welcome the immersion in place that Laurel Nakanishi offers in Ashore, her debut collection of poems which Carl Phillips selected for The Berkshire Prize from Tupelo Press.
For a book focused on place, and the flora, fauna, geologic formations and weather of particular places, it is aptly titled. Ashore is the work of an islander. When one grows up surrounded by the ocean, as the poet did in Hawai’i, being landed takes on greater relevance than it might for one raised on the mainland. The timing of the collection’s launch, as we emerge from our islands of lockdown, amplifies the place-consciousness and connectedness that permeates this collection.
The poet I find in these poems plays with convention and expectations in her use of white space that on some pages pushes poems into boxes at the bottom page. The poems that skip across the page, with white caps of space waving them along, are lively and meditative.
“Place(less)ness” is a centering poem here, literally and figuratively. Its 18 lines of images shift from estuaries to prairie grass. They skitter across the page to mirror the places and distances that make up the thesis of Ashore. It closes with
I barely know how to live
entering days by the blue rip
(the sky through clouds)
the air makes bands around my neck
as I walk somnolent on
Although this speaker may feel drowsy, nothing escapes her. Nakanishi is both poet and scientist wielding precise language and keen observational tools to discover both the natural world and her place in it. The way Nakanishi presents her work reminds me of a naturalist cataloguing her observations. Some poems are footnoted, some multipart poems are separated into numbered and indented paragraphs. These explorations move between particular landscapes (Hawai’i, Montana) and relationships (brother, grandmother). Each place and person lead the poet to find her place in a taxonomy of self.
“When you run out of things to look at–” is the opening line of “The Sun Moving across this Particular Earth” and an impossibility for this poet. Nothing in sight is lost upon Nakanishi. The poet magnifies the minute and mundane “when you’re done wondering at the dust:/how each fine layer has simplified itself into rust-tinged rock”.
Nakanishi scrutinizes locales as a path to identity. Place and identity are interwoven here much as a vine is braided. Race is one of the threads woven into this braid and associated with place. The poet deals with that strand directly in “Mixed” referring to her “prairie ancestors” and “Japanese blood”.
The book is structured in five sections; four sections of poems and one of notes. These aren’t the brief notes offering background information one may find in the back of a volume of poems. These are mini-essays that provide the reader rather in-depth historical and cultural background for several of the poems.
Nakanishi invites the reader into the book with “Invoking the Bodhisattvas’ Names in Honolulu” wherein she calls on predecessors, countries of origin, countries of colonizers, ancestral and contemporary. This poem gives views of Honolulu distinguishing urban from natural landscape. Throughout these poems, the poet calls on relatives, but, most frequently, on the living green that carpets and curtains Hawai’i.
Four poems in the book bear the same title: Mānoa. Three are short poems in the first section, each in labeled prose poems that could be definitions or the poet’s recollection or both. The poems are balanced equidistant from one another. The fourth “Mānoa” is a long poem that constitutes the fourth section. The braiding motif appears here several times in this complex, four-part meditation. It is an exploration of Hawai’i, its essence and place of identity, that makes use of the speaker’s experience and of Hawai’ian origin stories. From the 1st section:
I am braided among the coral heads
the angel fish
the open-mouthed eels Anemones sway
parrotfish sway tufts
and rays and jellyfish sway
bite the hook
they say take it in your mouth
“Living Away” is mysterious in its hints at disconnection. White spaces are fissures, hesitancy.
I lived in threes
eating dust molasses the wrong side of wonder
I knew better I would make that walk everyday Reaping steps and then
Two relationships are central to several poems; the poet’s brother and her grandmother. “My Brother, in Eight Panels” is a group of eight prose poems. The closing image and phrases of one panel begins the following, reminiscent of a crown of sonnets. The mood is elegiac. There is no mention of death, but of separation of distances: “the happy distance that oceans make”, “years of silence, then just the right words, thrown down to me like crumbs” closing with “we moved deeper in, farther away, tending the silences in our own feral minds.”
The concerns of the second section are identity, the poet’s grandmother, and the mainland. The images here are drier, the parched landscape of Montana and prairie. Nature appears in husks and memory, in dying. Still, there is a softness in its rendering in “After the Stroke, She Remembers”.
Fawnlight, oak, roost, and den.
Fluttering in the tamarack boughs:
the word for raven and the raven.
In “Portrait of My Brother as a Bulwer’s Petrel”, Nakanishi lyricism is very powerful:
I was mistaken
To say your black was a lava field
cooled to a coarse char. You are
the beetle’s back, the magpie’s wing,
the black of Pele’s tears.
“Elegy with Whale Song” is a tender poem addressing an unknown “you”. The mystery of the relationship and identity of the deceased is subtly underscored in the closing lines:
until all that is left
is the spume of your breath
across the skin of the sea.
Ashore is truly an introduction, not merely as a first collection but as a meeting place. In re-visiting subjects (the four “Mānoa” poems, for example), Nakanishi risks, but avoids, repetition. Instead, she mines fresh images and insight. This poet writes her search for identity and belonging. Ashore is a whole, an embodiment of a living human being, a living place.