By Sean Aden Lovelace
There are many compelling reasons to admire the poet Lee Ann Roripaugh: her diverse academic education, impressive publication record, inclusion in several anthologies, and the number of prestigious national and international awards she has collected in her artistic career. Her recent book of poetry, however, Beyond Heart Mountain, confirms why readers truly appreciate her poetry.
While Beyond Heart Mountain initially presents itself as a narrative of Roripaugh's life in her childhood home of Laramie, Wyoming, the content quickly expands into a more profound and disturbing history. The book explores the often painful Japanese American history, a chronicle of the physical and psychological injustices of Hiroshima; ad of Heart Mountain, Wyoming, a "relocation center," or internment camp that once imprisoned over ten thousand Japanese Americans during World War Two.
However - and just as significantly - this is a book of language. With the poet's tools of attentiveness to detail and structure, Roripaugh builds a framework of words to support the historical weight of her subject. The intrigue rests within the poet's stylistic choices: eastern vs. western. Roripaugh combines the pictorial, naturalistic, and classical elements of traditional Japanese poetry (tanka, haiku, and kanshi) with the energy and diversity of American verse. Through such poems as "A Dance of Wooden Shoes" and "Ode to Sushi," the poet explores this juxtaposition of American as opposed to Japanese aesthetic, creating a microcosm of the tensions innate to the Japanese American experience.
The opening lines of the opening poem, "Pearls," firmly set language as priority: "Mother eats seaweed and plum pickles / and when the Mormons come knocking / she does bird talk." Seaweed and plum pickles, in the face of an intrusive "Mormons come knocking," produce the compressed disequilibrium of "bird talk." As in haiku, the poet clearly establishes a visual quality, although these are not images of harmony. Once again, the poem blends two artistic ideas, the traditional with the contemp[orary - the ephemeral quality of a Basho or Issa with the concrete detail of a Rita Dove or a Yusef Komunyakaa. Roripaugh, by placing these contrasting images, like a grain of sand in an oyster, creates an irritant, or unease, that results in a poem worthy of the name "Pearls."
It is no surprise to anyone who reads Beyond Heart Mountain that the Author not only holds an MFA degree, but also an MM in music history and a BM in piano peformance. The term lyrical has its origin in a musical instrument, the lyre, and Roripaugh's poetry certainly rises to the definition. As a writer, Roripaugh taps her musical reserves to produce lines that resonate with meolody. As readers, we are drawn to the acoustic quality of her verse, the meter as natural as the iambs and trochees of our heartbeat and respira tion:
My shift ends before dawn
and I go to the ice pond, skate
obn crazy, reckless blades
and sing into the wind:
Poison mushrooms, tularemia,
The man from maintenance crew
trails after me, cleaving away
the scars I leave behind.
Outside the language, Beyond Heart Mountain expands from peom to individual sections, from segments to a holistic witness of the Japanese American experience of the 1940's. The book examines the larger cultural implications of this time in American history, but never abstractly or from afar. Instead, Roripaugh uses characters, personal memories, and flesh and blood, to paint an accurate, painful portrait of lives forever altered. The poems speak of complex, difficult issues: a Japanese American's confused guilt concerning Hiroshima; the bewildered shame of U.S. citizens persecuted by their own government, stripped of their belongings and hered into barbed wire prisons; the social residue of racism and alienation that followd the war. The poems are of individuals: "Peach Girl," "Hiroshima Maiden," "The Woman Who Loves Insects." Human feelings - remorse and pain and tears - are outside of time, and Roripaugh uses the immediacy of her poetry, of these lives, to connect the modern reader to the past.
Several stanzas from the final poem, "Kakitsubata," read as follows:
I can tell you
poems so sad the tears will sting
your eyes like bees
and if I should accidentally
blind you, I'll cut
out the liver of my pet rabbit,
feed it to you
in slices thin as fresh sashimi,
and give you sight
again by sacrifice.
Poetry is a process of recovery, of the permanence of words, and Lee Ann Roripaugh uses her talent to witness, to remember, and to ask you also to remember. She wants you to see the truth, possibly blind you with its horror, and then she will "give you sight again." Yes, Beyond Heart Mountain is a book of loss and grief, but also certainly one of elegy and honor. By simply reading this language, these lives, by the reverential act of remembering, the poet, the reader, and the legacies of the thousands of U.S. citizens imprisoned by their own country, are elevated - and uplifted into the beyond of poetry.