#997 Word Perfect
by Sachiko Murakami
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
$18.95 / 9781551528274
Reviewed by Michael Turner
In his celebrated Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Croom Helm, 1976), Raymond Williams presents a selection of English words used in “general conversation” to demonstrate not their misuse by a general public, but how their meanings have changed since their passage into English from the Latin and the French. The word that inspired Keywords is culture, a “complex” word Williams traces from its first appearance as a verb to its more popular use as an independent noun. Render, the title of Sachiko Murakami’s fourth collection of poetry, is a word that lives in both verb and noun forms, though more commonly in the former than the latter.
Render begins (after its dedication) with a short narrative comprised of the word’s various verb form definitions that, under the author’s assembly, read like an orientating statement on a culture reflective of our 21st century relational turn. In short: “to submit” … “to give or make available” … “to surrender” … “to yield” … “to represent” … “to perform” … “to arrange” … “to express” … “to translate” … “to deliver or pronounce formally” … “to cause to become” … “to reduce, convert or melt down.” Following that is a four-page prefatory poem (“Encounter”), followed by five chaptered sections containing between four and twelve poems each, and following that, what is common to many poetry collections these days, a “Notes” section, and then of course an “Acknowledgements.”
I bring up the sectioning of Render in an effort to apprise the interested reader of a work that should not be rushed through as if “in a fever,” as one endorsement reads on the publisher’s website, but rather to relish the breathing space suggested by these chaptered sections. I too attempted the fevered reading and, though I managed to get exactly halfway through Render’s 129 pages in the fevered state, suddenly found myself asking too much of poems whose rhythms were attuned more to the construction of their respective chapters than the general run of the book. This is by no means a negative criticism so much as praise for a poet whose decision to treat her chapters less as narrative rungs than as overlapping gyres is evidence of poet who, despite the many — and at times harrowing — personal injuries detailed therein, is in complete control of her material and can imagine a reality other than her own (namely, the reader’s). But for those predisposed to narrativization (aren’t we all?), it might be best to consider these chapters less as acts in an opera, to be experienced in a single sitting, than as weekly therapeutic sessions.
Although I referred to “Encounter” as Render’s prefatory poem, it functions equally as its unofficial “Index.” Much of what happens in this creation dream-poem (the poet’s birth? the birth of her own child? the birth of a cosmos always already?) recurs throughout the book, from the pairing of flesh and thought in the second and third lines of the opening stanza (“sweat held together/ by dream — the twined”) to a run of oppositions anchored in pronouns (“your sea my sea,” your anxiety my anxiety,” “your sinew my throat”), oppositions that, in this context (“when the adults’ argument/ drifts apart”), bring to mind Julia Kristeva’s distinction between the unfettered and primordial “semiotic” language of the mother in contrast to the divisive and conquering “symbolic” language of the father, but also, strangely, the oppositions (ostensible or otherwise) that make up the verses to Alanis Morissette’s song “Hand in My Pocket” (1995), whose penultimate chorus includes the lines: “And what it all boils down to/ Is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet.”
Also worth noting is “Encounter’s” visual composition, its first two lines hinged to the safety of the left margin before the indented departure of the third (“by dream — the twined”). While line breaks and indentations can seem arbitrary in much of today’s poetry, in Murakami’s hands they serve the poem, picturing its cosmos and, with those first two lines dropping like butchered fat onto a heated surface, allowing for a tallow of subsequent indentations (“in bathwater,” “drifts apart/ a wah-wah trombone”), deeper indentations (“ear canal awash with whoosh of escape”), a returning stanza of decreasing indentations (“or come back/ to the hum of today/ where you could almost feel”), then a range of placements, including medial breaks that contain those opposing pronouns. Not every chapter contains an open field composition like “Encounter,” but when they occur, the poem returns as a reader/explorer might return to her star map.
Rather than discuss in depth any of the many brilliant poems that make up each of Render’s five chaptered sections (“What Fist is This,” “You Have Memories,” “Dig In,” “Upon Making,” and “Still Here”), I would prefer instead to step back from the particular and speak instead of a collection that, though confessional in tone, both skillfully and inventively employs a range of formal devices that, for this reader, indicates a poet who has achieved something great.
Murakami’s previous three collections are known more commonly as issue-oriented — The Invisibility Exhibit (2008), in response to the “Missing Women” of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; Rebuild (2011), in response to Vancouver’s real estate mania; and Get Me Out of Here (2015), in relation to crowd-sourcing content, towards the construction of a choral present — yet in Render the focus is more interior, concerned less with social phenomenon than with the psycho-mechanical processes that has our injuries (abuse, addiction, grief, night terrors) as much a part of our constellation-of-self as our ability to overcome or transcend them, a dialectic that has us turning dying stars into new stars, as poems.
It is worth noting that the noun form of render is “a type of mortar,” “a first coat of plaster applied to a brick or stone surface.” This book is anything but.
Michael Turner is a writer of variegated ancestry (Scottish/ German/ Irish, mat.; English/ Japanese/ Russian, pat.) born, raised and living on unceded Coast Salish territory. He works in narrative and lyric forms, both singularly, as a writer of fiction (American Whiskey Bar, The Pornographer’s Poem, 8×10), poetry (Hard Core Logo, Kingsway, 9×11), criticism and music, and collaboratively, with artists such as Stan Douglas (screenplays), Geoffrey Farmer (public art installations) and Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Kinnie Starr and Andrea Young (songs). His work has been described as intertextual, with an emphasis on “a detailed and purposeful examination of ordinary things” (Wikipedia). He holds a BA (Anthropology) from UVic and an MFA (Interdisciplinary Studies) from UBC Okanagan. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies, Ontario College of Art & Design University and a workshop leader at Mobil Art School, Vancouver. Editor’s note: Michael Turner has also reviewed Isabella Wang’s On Forgetting a Language for The Ormsby Review.
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