Narrow Road to the Interior, Kimiko Hahn, WW Norton
Although reading Kimiko Hahn’s intimate and revealing collection of poems, Narrow Road to the Interior, can give a small shock of voyeurism, the inward view she provides is no quick, easy glance. The constant speaker of Hahn’s poems presents to the reader a reflection of a woman faceted by more than gender and performance roles; she is an outsider bounded by more than race, language, or choice. The forms she chooses, often appropriated from the Japanese tanka or zuihitsu, parallel her blurrily outlined identity—with the tanka she can morph natural images into memories (as she seamlessly does in Cranberry Island, Late Summer), with the zuihitsu she can slide between scenes and topics.
A tension between specificity and uncertainty marks most of her poems—Hahn’s speaker seems to be earnestly searching for some, one genuine truth. Her drive for precision is evident in the second poem of the book, Utica Station. As the poem carries us forward in meandering thought like a train moving forward through various images, the speaker keeps returning to an analysis of her own heart. In trying to find the right metaphor for her heart, Hahn refines the ways it could be viewed: “My heart is swollen, large as newborn”; “My heart is swollen. As if a gland not a muscle”; “My heart is swollen, as if—a hot water bottle”; “As if a party balloon.” The end of the poem concludes the search: “That’s what the heart was—swollen—like a mother weeping for something.”
Aware of language’s nebulous lines of definition, Hahn denies isolated words the ability to capture specific truth. She calls attention to the dubious relationship between the construction of words and their sound—in Cuts from the Zuihitsu on My Daughter she gives “the steam” and “the esteem” sole places on consecutive lines. In Opening Her Text, the appearance of words contrasts with their meaning as in one line where she distinguishes between “sacred” and “scared.” This device, born from an attention that refuses to repose on one level, blurs the subject that little bit more.
In her approach to meaning and image, Hahn becomes expansive—if truth cannot be found in the singular, then perhaps it exists in the overlap of pluralities. Perhaps this is why in Sparrow she writes, “I always wonder about translations but can never recall enough Japanese to measure a text for myself…Now I rely on translators and have collected five versions.” In the first poem of her book, Compass, Hahn not only explains why she chose the zuihitsu as a form—it “feels encompassing”—but also expresses dissatisfaction with how it has been defined—no definitions “offered the sense of disorder that feels so integral.” In Compass, Hahn intimates the inadequacy of ordered images and words to capture a reality that exists outside the lines.