The Narrow Road to the Interior, by Kimiko Hahn

A few years ago, writer Christine Stewart led a workshop on applying the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi to the writing of poetry, wabi-sabi being the appreciation of the beauty of unfinished or transient things. I thought of that workshop while reading this book, which looks like a collection of fragments of poetry and prose. However, brought together these scraps create an ever-changing collage, one where there is space for the reader's imagination. I read this deeply moving book three times and interpreted much of it differently each time.

Hahn uses two Japanese forms for the poems in this book: tanka and zuihitsu. Most poets are familiar with tanka, though here Hahn presents them as a single line. Zuihitsu has no Western equivalent. It has been translated as “following the brush” or “stray notes expressing random thoughts”. It is the form used by Sei Shonagon in The Pillow Book, with her lists and random diary entries. Hahn intersperses thoughts and reminiscences with lists and emails and question-and-answer sessions. While they appear to be prose, there is no doubt that in their ambiguity and resonance these fragments are indeed poetry.

It takes a lot of guts to give your book the same title as one of the most famous books of poetry, Basho's famous travel journal. Basho wrote in a form called Haibun which combines short journal prose pieces with haiku. Yet for all these traditional forms and nods to antiquity, this is a thoroughly modern book. The ancient and modern elements create a dialogue between them that affects the meaning of each. Similarly the two poetic forms work with and against each other to lift everything to another level.

This is a gutsy book in other ways, too. Hahn bares herself in these pages as she departs a marriage and tries to balance the demands of lovers and children against those of the work. Referring to the classic Japanese symbol of transience, she writes:

The brown branches, the pink moments.

I was at a loss.

Was marriage my imagination? I look at photos of cheery tanned profiles from little family vacations and cannot know what I was thinking.

Hahn also plays with language, employing puns as associations: “pomegranate, poppy, pod—”. She says “I love words that confuse—” like “canon/cannon/cannot”. The disconnection, the stumble in the space between the so-similar words possesses the reader with its ambiguity. I want poems that unsettle me.

Far from the former husband, this rain-soaked marsh is where I know a downpour will last. And the lover's breadth.

In poetry I look for what Robert Bly calls “leaping poetry”, works with space in them, that make you feel like the earth has given way beneath your feet. Here the fragmentary nature and the energy of the work provide a particularly rich experience.

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