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Brenda Iijima
Animate, Inanimate Aims
reviewed by Thomas Fink
129 pp. Litmus Press. $15. 1933959029 paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Thomas Fink and Jacket magazine 2008.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Animate, Inanimate Aims


Animate, Inanimate Aims is a long poem with 23 titled sections and is flanked at beginning and end by a generous group of Brenda Iijima’s drawings and collages. Although I focus here on its treatment of the ecological crisis, this sinuously wandering poem has no single thematic center. Comparative mythology, war, slavery, chemistry, gender conflict, and deconstruction are all considered. And, the poet also spotlights the sheer acoustic verve of words circling each other musically. Late in the book, “Agalma,” the title of which is a Greek term for a work of art dedicated to a god, includes a passage that seems to clarify the poet’s overall political purpose: “To dress with perception each/ Rupture/ Each bit of dirt with meanings attached/ Pathway to achieve an alarm” (104). At times, however, warning is tempered with gestures toward lucid alternatives to the destructive energies of “rupture.”

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The opening section, “Puzzle,” begins with “Prostrating before the golden figure/ Against disinclination,” soon moves to “the extremely brittle foliage” remaining from the pursuit of such materialism, and then to a “highly explosive situation” later figured as “that play/ That combusted/ On stage” (19). That stage encompasses the world and beyond. “Fire” stands as literal evidence and cogent trope of environmental ills. “Panoply” declares: “A price of sky/ On fire/ The temperature is 77/ Degrees by this pond” (35). Directly after noting “biome distingegration,” Iijima implies a parallel between literal war among human beings and a war waged against nature:


Internecine feuds
Destroy arteries
What thrives in continually
Disturbed environments
Collective liquidation
Extinction debt geochemical
Immersion inversion spasm
No replacements to pet

Orifice of knots
A conundrum
Contrary to nature. (23–4)


This passage is typical of Iijima’s free-verse meter, which often features two to four accents or words per line but sometimes gets skinnier or stouter. The “arteries” destroyed here by war—think of air pollution caused by both Iraq conflicts of the last two decades and by industry—are the unhappy synergistic functioning of different aspects of the natural world and the biology of human beings and animals. The third and four lines above could be a question entertaining resistance to ill effects of psychologically and physically poisoned environments, but the question mark—a staple of another of Iijima’s long poems, “If Not Metamorphic”—is left off, and concise negative responses are offered in the next few lines. In multinational capitalism, violent ruptures causing instability in production, job security, and utilization of natural resources to be the debilitating norm encourage “collective liquidation.”


The abuse of a credit economy founded on burgeoning “debt” is a path to “extinction” of anything akin to global prosperity, and the endless “borrowing” of ecological resources without provisions for replenishment is a ticket to overall extinction. Indeed, immersion in the “geochemical” “inverts” Iijima’s beliefs in peaceful coexistence between nature and human beings, as exemplified by a later critique of a neighbor who thought of bamboo as “his menace/Nemesis” and “dug up all [its] roots” (53) rather than benefiting from its presence. While “nature” can be “used to implement nature,” it can also be “used as a tool/ To circumvent nature” (28), as in the pursuit of genetically modified food rather than an awareness of overpopulation: “Fornication/ A federation of farmers/ Farmers and flocks/ Coupling crops/ If only sex/ Fended off starvation” (92). Circumvention of nature engenders the nightmare that the poet intensely depicts with ample assonance and alliteration:


Child matures
Under militaristic heat inference
Heartbeat swelter
Hellion empire building discrimination
Smelting metallic pin-pointed
Nuclear lake and leak. (26)


“Heat,” covering both the influence of irate jingoism and the extremely strong “inference” that two-legged creatures are responsible for global warming’s “swelter,” is almost doubly included in “heartbeat,” as though it is a double threat. Proponents of nuclear power often celebrate how safe it is, but the poet’s juxtaposition of “lake” and “leak” casts doubt on the idea of containment of nuclear energy. Further, Iijima implies that empire is founded on racism/ ethnocentrism/ religious exceptionalism; earlier, she had referred to “slave ships” and slavery/ Metal etched in skin scorn” connected to “Piety so sullen a version” (22). After all, Christian missionary “conquest” preceded the British colonization of much of Africa.


Iijima offers a compelling history lesson about how the persistence of war (along with some natural disasters) not only produces tragic consequences but immense waste—due to the continual need to rebuild structures:


Mantinea, Theban dust
Collects, Rhagae, an earth-      
             Quake destroyed Rhagae so
Nicator restored its streets        
Calling there Europus only to be destroyed
Again in the Parthian wars. Along came Arsaces    
Who watched its comeback
A city named after his deeds Arsacia, until the Tartars
Sacked its prestige in the 12th century. See for yourself
What is there now
Southeast of Tehran
Rest in Sestos opposite
Abydos. Lover’s hero  
And Leander linger on a bridge built by Xerxes. (79)


From such a host of remarkable allusions to Hellenic and Middle Eastern civilization, one might affirm the aphorism, “’War won’t go/ Away’” (71), but Iijima is more likely making the case that reflection on history should help human beings change pernicious behaviors. While those in power like Nicator are able to name locales, these names do not last any longer than the namers’ authority. In the middle of the same section, the poet devotes another long strophe to Song Dynasty poet Su Shih’s celebrated voyage “up the Yangtze” to “Red Cliff,” during which he “and his friends reminisced/ About the transience of all man’s/ Affairs in contrast/ To the eternity of nature” (77). For the poet, this perspective is a crucial retort to warmongers’ and polluters’ arrogance, but she satirizes how it is twisted or ignored much of the time: “Tiny replicas of these ideas/ Pass down on a rotating basis/ They possess archaic elegance.” If the adjective “archaic” is pejorative for those who would discredit the ideas, Iijima seeks whatever primordial ecological wisdom can be recuperated from origins (arche).


At one juncture, the poet directly apostrophizes those who act as though transience is not an issue: “O pupils/ Of oppression/ Destroy your want of big things/ Inscrutable personal nothingness/ Or have a cheap machine” (47). Trenchant ambiguities stud this sentence. “Want,” of course, is both desire and lack. The addressees (“pupils”) not only study how to oppress but narrow their vision to do so, cutting out larger contexts. The adjective “inscrutable” could be taken as reflecting their “nothingness” as inaccessible to onlookers but (also or instead) to themselves: simultaneously, they experience and are consciously unaware of a profound emptiness. Finally, “a cheap machine” could signify sparing expense and promoting efficiency and cleanliness in the name of eco-thrift, yet it might refer to a problematic stinginess about needed efforts to promote environmental welfare.


Sounding her “alarm,” Iijima holds out some hope that collective human behavior can change: “End knell/ Is isn’t is isn’t” (52). Between stretches of lamentation and political anger, her desire for “leafy alliances” (41) and “Mother in proportion/ To father” (82), a feminism aiming for ecological balance, surface. There are two encomia to water: “Green circle for an epic square/ Daring of water, a heavenly lake” (32) and “Water spurts incredibly/ Clear up under simple feel/ And that is how/ We drank water” (33). The past tense of the verb “to drink” goads us to attain a present tense in the future.


Iijima’s word-play, which appears on just about every page of text, is itself a call to creative endeavor analogous to the imagination needed for an evolution of ecological thinking and action. Just as she wants human beings to cooperate with nature rather than dominate it, the poet strives to let the inherent sonic potential of language manifest itself. One simple example is a reversal of spelling found in an assertion that the so-called inevitability of the aforementioned sentence, “’War won’t go/ Away,’” is really an excuse “for war/ and more war/ raw” (71). When “Disturbance Categories” ends with the single-lined strophe, “Shed, flow, flower” (26), not only are opposing connotations of “shed” as gathering (noun) and dispersing (verb) present, but one is reminded of the fluidity of organic form in the “flower.” Elsewhere, speaking of “losses” in the leveling of trees, the poet adds: “A burden/ (to say the least)/ For birds” (35). The difference between the vowels “i” and “u” may have caused some of us, until now, to ignore how “bird” is “trapped” in “burden,” and the parenthetical cliché between the two nouns emphasizes the link between deforestation and extinction.


When Iijima plays the name of a German phenomenologist against a slangy noun, she pokes fun at the high seriousness of his intellectual quest: “Hustler/ Husserl out of the confines/ Of the regions of your mind I/ Hope you don’t mind” (54). Is Husserl said to “prostitute” his soul by idealizing the individual mind’s perceptual capacities and making intersubjectivity secondary? Or is the poet marveling at the philosopher’s mental agility and energy while questioning his tenets? One last set of examples occurs at the end of a discourse on future possibility, which includes what I take to be an alliterative and assonance-tinged mention of solar power—“Sun-dried fuel/ For a future”—and encourages the positive use of psychological energy:


He we are
Our or
Founded on
Energy curved
Acting on now
Combined with futurity
We as we ask. (87)


“Our or” could also be “our ore,” our most excellence substance, but the conjunction entails an ability to consider alternatives rather than to succumb to habit. Thus, a desirable future involves a collectivity that behaves in a questioning rather than in a dogmatic manner. The “k” added to time/similarity (“as”) and echoing “act” (in “acting”) signals a healthful curving of energy.


The title of “The Prooimion” (27–32), a section of Animate, Inanimate Aims, serves as indication of how the entire poem works. According to George Alexander Kennedy and H.B. Nisbet’s The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 1 (1989), this Greek term, akin to prologue or preface, situates the occasion of a prayer to a god at a festival featuring a “lyre-singer’s” “differentiated virtuoso singing” (53). Surely, Iijima’s intricate, polyphonic lyrical performance renders an appeal to those who constitute some semblance of a global democracy to “act [ecologically] on now” and “ask” vital questions in the name of “futurity.”

Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink

Thomas Fink is the author of A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP). Marsh Hawk Press published his fifth book of poetry, Clarity and Other Poems, in 2008. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.

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