By Christine Kitano
BOA Editions LTD, 2017
80 pages, $16.00
Reviewed by P.J. Dominiski
Many of the poems at the beginning, Christine Kitano’s Sky Country, out now from BOA Editions, read like historical diary entries – the kind of literature assigned to high school students to teach them how to empathize, to show how, beyond academics, we have a moral and deeply human obligation to the ordinary people whose lives have been caught in the violent tides of history. The first two sections of this collection tell stories of migration across the Korean Peninsula, to the United States, and through confinement in the internment camps where many Japanese-Americans were forced during World War II. These early sections tease at a work that is chiefly concerned with a sort of familial justice – a dutiful tribute to the narrator’s forebears and a claiming of their cultural experiences. However, only as I proceeded to sections III through V did it become starkly clear that Kitano is in fact doing something much more sophisticated and original.
While the first two sections’ historical diarist tones begin to frame the collection in a somewhat familiar way, it takes some time to acclimate to the shift that takes place during the third section of this collection, which feels essentially ahistorical and intimately personal. In this section, it quickly becomes evident that what seemed a conceptual bifurcation, was more of a thematic commentary. This is because, throughout, Kitano tries to tell us that history, even family history, is a rather flimsy concept, subject to lapses in memory and linguistic limitations. Yet in the very act of committing these stories to poetry Kitano assures us that despite their unreliable natures, the transmission of our personal and familiar histories is not an aimless endeavor. She makes the case for history as interpretive and experiential – something transcendent that adapts to our human limitations and has the ability to span, physical, temporal, and metaphysical distances.
Kitano’s work doesn’t try to minimize our human inability to engage in pure, perfect recollection; rather, it embraces this as a formational element in generating identity. For example, in the anecdotal poem “About the Trees,” which takes place in an internment camp in Utah, the narrator confesses:
sometimes I see the trunks skeletal
and bare, the branches hardened
to iron. Or, they’re lush as evergreens. How much depends on how
we’re willing to remember.
The narrator has no delusions about the unreliable nature of the memory. In fact, she interrupts the narrative recounting of events to make that very point. Later, in the poem “Insomniac in Spring,” Kitano writes:
to say it: I love you. Or, I miss you.
These words that fail their meanings.
For Kitano, “Love” as a word, is as insufficient in describing its own experience, as memory is as a means of conveying the truth of our personal and familial histories. In part 2 of the book’s title poem, “Sky Country,” Kitano admits that her interpretation of her grandmother’s stories may not be entirely accurate, explaining: “My Korean is weak.” Surely, something objective is lost in this transmission of familial history, but Kitano’s work goes on to suggest that something is also gained.
Here we arrive the most compelling aspiration of Sky Country as an entire work. This collection shakes off the notion that accounts of personal history must be considered factual, while emphasizing their role as essentially human experiences, both for the reader and within the universe of the book itself. In a way that is reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Kitano allows infidelity to the facts (intentional or otherwise) to take on a rich and captivating life of its own. Take for example one the most elegantly suggestive poems in the entire collection: “1942: In Response to Executive Order 9066, My Father, Sixteen, Takes.” In this piece, the title bleeds directly into an anecdote about the items her father does and does not take with him as he flees home before Kitano professes:
It is a story without an ending.
And when I open my mouth
to speak, it continues.
Kitano assumes an active role in carrying forward her family’s history, and allows herself full agency over the interpretation of these stories. Even the title of yet another poem, “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South”, speaks to the nature of what family histories are. In this poem, a jar containing “a woven cocoon, or perhaps/ the mummified remains of a rat” symbolizes the ancestral memories we collect and carry with us. By the end of the poem, when the narrator finds that contents of the jar have vanished, she surmises:
Confess that you’re sorry. Confess that you’re not.
The transparent jar glimmers in the dusty half-light.
You continue south.
Familiar memory may wither and vanish over time, stories told of people’s ordinary lives during times of great historical struggle may be altered or entirely lost in translation, yet Sky Country insists that this does not strip them of their value. For Kitano, these form experiential motifs that emerge with renewed meaning, guiding us throughout our lives, across oceans, continents, and time itself.