Reviewed by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa
Note from the Editor: As the reviewer underscores, below, “recurring themes in this book are the shocking, grisly death of humans and animals as well as or including gender / feminist issues.”
Drowning in the Floating World by Meg Eden is in large part a kind of documentary of some of the events surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster and Tohoku tsunami. The book opens with “a beach/covered in whales” and “fifty bodies, like tea leaves” (p. 3) and then “people floated, crying/for help” (p. 5); subsequently “Try to remember friends’ names, & what/they looked like before they were found” (p. 6).
At times Eden breaks from convention with lines like “My eyes are dusty & split/down the middle” (p. 7) which for me is a relief from her more predictable metaphors/narrative or as on p. 11: “his daughter perpetually dying/inside my mouth”. Animals resurface such as in “I understood that smell/from the local power plant . . . . And the emaciated/dog that followed the silence” (p. 8).
In a series of short poems (p. 12) is whimsy, mystery, and depth sometimes absent for me in some of the other poems; for example:
potential buddha is
aborted buddha is
someone comes by
and gives all the stone fetuses
red hats for winter
a daughter buries herself in her mother
the mother buries her under the house
the water buries the daughter in a new body
the mother drinks from the daughter
the mother is buried inside the daughter
the mother and daughter inhabit the same body
every fall a mother apologies
gifts for her stone daughter
another molding doll
These more imaginative treatments of her subject matter for me are preferable to many of her more journalistic sounding narrative poems, which can sometimes run the risk of just being not much more than prose with wide margins. Conventional narrative poems do not always fail but they need something special to become art. So as I read this book, I wanted Eden to take more risks with language and form to create something very distinctive, beautiful, and deep, to have more of an abundance of unusual metaphors and the strange. When she takes those risks, I think the result is good. As in lines like “I clip the ends of my hair to fill/her empty eyebrows” (p.14): complex treatments of her subject matter, poetry that makes us think, too, not just see or feel. I felt that maybe she could try to pare down some of her poems further, editing out what might be unintentionally banal, but keeping details like the following one, perhaps where a body is being cremated: “it” is the oven (p. 15):
She is fed into it, quickly,
before anyone can imagine her burning-alive
hair, the gnashing of that poppy dress
A list poem titled “All Summer I Wore” (p. 17) has some unusual lines such as [I wore] “dead girls” dresses/I wore dresses I found on the shore, in now-empty homes/ . . . “I wore the laws of my father./I wore the smile girls are expected to wear./I wore the dead girls whose dresses I stole.” and on page 20 we find a poem where the lines effectively run together, a rambling about dead bodies found in mud. So when Eden experiments as with Japanese short form poetry, list poems, etc. the experiments seem to work. I’d encourage her to do more of this (experimenting): poet Charles Bernstein once said that what poets need most is chutzpah and I have come to agree with that observation. Eden certainly has the ability to create original lines and metaphors as in “the old woman who visits me for tea is dead but I don’t have the/heart to tell her” (p. 21) or on the same page “my daughters were lined up like bowling pins outside the school / waiting for the earthquake” and “it’s come to the point I can’t even go out in the rain anymore that’s / when I see / puddles like the eyes of dead people what can I do put them in a cup” or “the [mountain] base covered in debris / like a bedroom floor” (p. 52). Her poem “Tsunami Debris Found Poem” (p. 51), an assortment of phrases contained within boxes in a chart, is another example of her willingness to experiment.
Non-human living things also include stranded cattle (p. 32-35) and another emaciated dog (p. 24), a horrific image:
My mother is dead, my father
is dead, & my dog is emaciated:
tied to a pole, dried out like a fruit skin.
In the wind, he moves like a flag.
and in a villanelle (p. 26):
I found my daughter
in the middle of the ocean.
Even without her head, I knew her.
in “Radium Girls” (p. 40):
my mouth is a room that lights up in the dark
my manager says a little radon puts the sex in your cheeks
some girls hate the taste but i love it it tastes like eternity
Recurring themes in this book are the shocking, grisly death of humans and animals as well as or including gender / feminist issues (p. 48):
at training, a girl taught me how to move my body
against a client’s to create an orgasm without being entered.
Although it is not only women that are the focus, as in the first line of the poem (p. 50) titled “evaporated people” which is “a fired man pretends to go to work” (due to being unable to tell his family, apparently) or the issue known as “burusera” in a poem with that title (p. 53):
Beside his bed, the salary man keeps
a collection of pink panties,
bows and glitter on the elastic band.
Sniffing the crotch, he imagines
what living thing is building
inside her, like an orchestra,
like a surging forest. (…)
Overall, I find much to like in this book although some poems or some parts of poems appear to me much stronger than others. I also wonder if the focus on details might be balanced with a search for causes or other types of intellectual rigor.
I think this book may appeal to many, including but not only Japanophiles.
Title: Drowning in the Floating World
Author: Meg Eden
Publisher: Immersion Poetry Series (edited by Christopher Forrest)
About the Reviewer
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently Poems: New and Selected (Isobar, 2018) ,<<terrain grammar>> (theenk Books, 2018), and, as editor, women : poetry : migration [an anthology] (theenk, 2017). Her poetry book Plan B Audio, which in part depicts Jane’s struggle with disability and her non-normative body, is forthcoming with Isobar in 2020. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.