Tuesday, March 28, 2006

On David Mura's Angels for the Burning

Here is a book of dogged poems, totally intentional in its racial and ethnic politics. Evocations of "my/glass of RC with Pepperidge Farm," ("Astronomy"), "the Buddha/step[ping] forth, like those ballplayers/ in the Field of Dreams" ("The Last Days"), and "Bon-o-dori celebrations" ("Internment Epistles") consciously dwell upon the temporal and explore a particular time and place with a studied social realism. Many poems in this volume focus on Japanese-American experiences, in particular, experiences during the internment years.

It is also a very "American" book of poems in the way that it moves beyond the politics of the poet's own ethnicity and meditates upon worlds of different ethnicities and races. Examples of such poems include "Guests from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore" ("No Epic Song"), "the firehouse and Little Saigon Auto" ("First Generation Angels"), Chinatown and the world of early Chinese immigrants ("Father Blues for Jon Jang"), and Bosnia, Somalia, Puerto Rico, and a whole host of other races and nations ("Minnesota Public"). There is a daring attempt to render these "others" a cognizable part of a heterogeneous though unified polity.

Both substantively and stylistically, David Mura's Angels for the Burning (Boa Editions, 2004) is a throwback, echoing many of the poems of Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Wing Tek Lum, James Mitsui, Janice Mirakatani, and Nellie Wong, whose work constructed a poetics around matters of "race" and "ethnicity." Substantively, the poems are direct with their primary subject matter -- race and ethnicity -- and primary agenda -- to meditate upon the discrimination and racism that racial minorities and Asian Americans in general, and Japanese Americans in particular, have experienced in America. Another important theme is multiculturalism and the recognition of the idea that America is a complex, multicultural society. Stylistically, the poems, with a few exceptions like "Internment Camp Psychology" and "Dahmer and the Boy," are fairly formal with well-controlled, left-justified stanzas of the roughly the same number of lines and lines of roughly the same length. While there is variety in word choice, language in and of itself is not the most important feature of the poetry.

I do not think that this book of David Mura's represents the future of Asian-American poetry, and I do not know if that is a good or bad thing. For example, "Father Blues for Jon Jang" is a critique of Charlie Chan, Flower Drum Song, and Stepin Fetchit. These figures clearly were concerns in many Asian-American poems of the 1980s but not so much in the poems of "political" Asian-American poets today. I can't think of a poet under the age of 40 who has written on Flower Drum Song, for example, because such references are just less likely to resonate with a contemporary audience. This is the age of Better Luck Tomorrow. Furthermore, the "Japanese-American" poems like "Relocations," "Hyde Park, 1950," and "Internment Epistles" evoke a historical memory that does not appear to have a prominent place in the works of many of the Asian-American spoken word poets and is not a central project of the Asian-American poetic avant-garde.

In this sense, one might say that the poems are dated. But look, you have to remember that to say poems are "dated" is not to say that poems are "bad." In fact, I think that part of the power of Mura's Angels for the Burning resides precisely in its uncompromising "datedness," its adherence to anti-discrimination precepts that grew out of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

It may be that this book of poems represents one of the last great gasps of an era of poetry that consciously delves into historical memory to find political meaning rather than a past that should be thrown aside for the sake of "progress" in poetry. There is a passion and narrative here often absent in many of the poems written today, for all the talk that we live in times of great urgency. All in all, I accepted and liked the book for what it is and believe that it well exemplifies its liberal project and carries out its mission of encouraging greater tolerance and understanding.


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