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Round About Seeing

Meredith Quartermain reviews

Around Sea, by Brenda Iijima

103pp. O Books. U.S.$12.00. 1-882022-51-3

We begin the voyage with a distinct image of a ship at sea. Thereafter the reader becomes a ship at sea, pulled back and forth with wave-like insistence between seeing seaside images and seeing wordscapes. We are washed into the Seychelles Islands, round the Cape of Good Hope, into the north Atlantic and then through the distant Bering Straits, almost circumnavigating the world, but the world we are in and the locations we visit are linguistic and perceptual. Though in section I we meet branches, trees, doves, flying fish, a black woodpecker, a white tufted flycatcher, blue butterflies, beetles, caterpillars and many other images of the “natural” world, this is not nature poetry. We are constantly aware that “nature” is fabricated for us by assumptions, attitudes and discourses —  the “weather” of our consciousness —  with which we “see” nature or see anything. Indeed, with careful crosscuts to scientific, critical or other linguistic styles, Iijima keeps the weather hovering threateningly over the animals, birds, earth and water. Thus

                         Chronology chains

conical hills or jagged mountains beyond the despondent
town and margin green

Iijima is a master crafter of soundscapes. Waves of sound work quixotically but insistently through echoes, internal rhymes or quirky half rhymes: “of weather/   Further” for instance. Or “plunging, plundering necks in foam/ thrust with wing’s wet.” Or “They all thought they were/ organic volcanic!” “Rubbery bumped up waves” evokes wonderfully both the sound and shape of waves hitting the beach.

Section II of this four-part series moves away from the open wave-like scatter of lines across the page, to prose and left-justified stanzas of two to five lines. With the repetition of “unlike,” the first piece makes us aware of a much more focused and directed seeing: “Unlike the scattered seamount, unlike the ridges, unlike the bed of the sea, unlike a typical volcanic cone. Unlike winddriven currents, unlike the continental masses . . . .” Which brings to mind the perennial tendency of our brains to see things (metaphorically) as like something, and thus close them down. Whatever’s out there, it is unlike anything we can say. Our saying is a matter of gestures and translations.

Then we are back at sea:

mobile waters of the ocean                           runnels of opaline light
               (light becomes water way, little rivulet)

stand by                 whispering                     last of the day

notorious careers             immense bulk             mast        canvas

                                                                  human motionless momentarily

The skipper was there and, in a cantankerous mood

The discussion continues to focus on the skipper, the human in its surround, in which it is submerged, grasping at the sea with a zero or a spade:

exploration — destiny
conflated. Each river
runs towards
the sea. All ashore. All
aboard. Will be built.

What does it mean to make a guidebook to wildflowers? The evangelists (iconizers, idealists) move in.

this flower

is sacred
they sing

and think
it will cure
the sick.

Much of the play in this delightful piece, as well as many others, cannot be extracted and summarized. We ride the crests of the phrasing, awash in textures. “If the creative writer pushes far enough into language, he finds himself in the embrace of thought,” Lorine Niedecker said. Iijima probes deeply into the language that’s thinking us — which is our “Inescapable/ Landscape.” She also makes clear that it’s a landscape/ languagescape of global capitalism, suggesting market fluctuations are a sort of “pure organism” in a world of “growth/ decline” and “Steel/ Iron/ Plastic/ Concrete.”

“The rock and water grow human,” Iijima offers us, as the motto to Section III, where she pushes even further from waves of water and onto the land and its uses — stating the human condition rather starkly:

suburb and city
merge and unoccupied land
is long overturned as cores of trees
make way for boards
genetic points to spring
off of. To field. Gigantic crops
feed a brutal population
as it expands beyond
each chainlink fence.

The potentialities in language are never forgotten, however, as her ingenious play with “spring” and “field” reminds us. The problem of human destructiveness is as much as anything a linguistic one: “Names abstract each destruction/ Bright creatures of indifference . . . . Each message confesses tolls.”

Some pieces occur as entries in a traveler’s logbook, where

For a mile and then some and four hours spent.
We marched good-natured remarks
but then exasperation put them on their mettle
thickets annoyed.

We examine city planning, stop signs and parking lots with the eye of an alien. These are not remembered places, but abstracted ones, located in the one-size-fits-all “Civic ideal” of western capitalism. We visit a state penitentiary (though not without humor: “You must know of this pent-up feeling”) which turns out to be The System (capitalism, language, culture, whatever) that’s imprisoning us. Water re-emerges as an issue in a system with built-in inequality of access to pure water; a few have dishwashers and most have a town pump or a hole in the ground. This is a system that leads to a general thirst for some other civil mode:

Brackish, contaminated impossibility for lavish prosperity
or purity. Moreover, the townspeople
who drink this water
who drink no other
water than this
run the risk
of epidemic
Of general

The wonder
of a whirlpool

The section ends with a nifty encyclopedia passage entitled “Home for manhandling/ Bone,” on how to bend bones into various shapes. Placed next to a Thesaurus entry showing various shapes and forms of “Rock,” the piece leads us to consider human culture as manhandling. In a ratio of expanding connections Iijima juxtaposes this with the means and result of manhandling: “Nerves: Learning: Social repertoire: Migrating herd of wildebeest.”

Section IV takes us off the land and into comets, galaxies and constellations of stars. As we step into our space-ships, she reminds us that when we think we are going out, we are actually going into the framework of our beliefs, our language, our habits — that we are linked like cyborgs to our perceptual prosthetheses:

a cyborg and a teleological telephone

these tectonics cover us with a rooflike structure.

Heading upwards through thinner and thinner atmosphere before a “membrane crash:/ deep within the gizmo” brings them back to earth, the pieces in this section glimpse bits of ancient history and mythology from a vehicle (which is always the word itself) haunted by the gas-guzzling automobile:

Dead in an empty
car called universe,

in reverse: alive in
some sky or vastness,

ocean but other substance,
buoyant spirit, beyond the


Deadness is being trapped in a word or a book; aliveness is navigating something as open as sky or ocean, or even language itself.

The book ends with two further pieces, one entitled “0” and the other entitled “. . .”. As the titles themselves indicate, Iijima’s wit and ingenuity are never far away in these pieces.

Around Sea is a very talented first trade publication by a poet who is also a visual artist and publisher. Witty, thoughtful, playful and soundful, these poems are a pleasure to read. I’ll be watching out for more of Iijima in the future.

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