(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In addition to being the author of half a dozen remarkable books of poetry, Kimiko Hahn is a scholar of East Asian languages and literature, and she elucidates the tide of her present collection of poems by noting that “Mosquito and ant’ refers to . . . nu shu . . . a now nearly extinct script used by Chinese women to correspond with one another.” Beyond this allusion to an Asian feminist practice dating from the tenth century, the title poem of Hahn’s book also suggests that the qualities she wants for her writing are the “tenacity not seduction” of ants and the relentless annoyance of mosquitoes. In this purpose Hahn succeeds eminently. The imagery and language of her poems are grim and gripping rather than sweet or dulcet, and their rhetoric tenaciously and bitingly rehearses the woe rather than the weal of being a woman in urban America during the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Winner of the American Book Award for The Unbearable Heart (1995) and the Theodore Roethke Poetry Prize for Earshot (1992), Japanese American poet Kimiko Hahn is at the top of her form in Mosquito and Ant.

The opening poem of Mosquito and Ant, “The Razor,” harks back to the death of Hahn’s mother in an automobile accident that served as the subject of The Unbearable Heart. “The Razor” aptly captures the way ordinary life (which, it is said, must go on) grows calluses over the tenderest and deepest of emotions. The ashes of the mother of the poem’s speaker are casually “dropped off” at the Buddhist temple in “some old shopping bag,” and “the reverend pull[s] a robe/ over her jeans and blouse” to chant a sutra. Trembling with grief, the speaker ends by recalling that “at times the loss felt like an organ/ one could excise with a razor,” an excruciating image that can resonate on many thresholds of association—possibly as a razor that rids unwanted hair, or one that slices away an unsightly mole, or one that circumcises an undesired genital part.

The body of the book is fictionalized as an epistolary exchange of verse and poetic prose letters between two women poets and Asian scholars named “M” and “L.” The great majority of the pieces are contributed by M, a thinly veiled persona for Hahn herself (as M’s daughters and her Caucasian husband share the same names as Hahn’s), while L very much resembles the poet Carolyn Lei-lanilau, who is acknowledged in the front of the book. These letters are grouped into three sections followed by a section of author’s notes. A single Chinese ideogram (or kanji) demarcates each section. These ideograms may be romanized (Hahn does not do it for us) as shuo (a radical or prefix indicating “speech/speak”), nu (female/woman), xin (heart), and yu (rain). The sensibility that presides over this epistolary exchange, as may be expected, is feminist, Asian American, and aesthetic.

The poems of the shuo (speech/speak) section deal mainly with communication—especially the difficulty of communicating between women and men contrasted with the fullness of communication among women. These poems, therefore, introduce the correspondents (the first poem, “Wax,” is subtitled “Initial Correspondence to L . . .”), sketch their characters, situate them, and adumbrate themes. M is characterized as a sensual “middle-aged” woman of the baby-boom generation:

I wanted to f[——] my professor
(Chaucer 8:30 am M/W)

. . . Nixon

was still President.

Even as her youth wanes and her age waxes, she faces a personal crisis of “how to stay a woman,” wishing to preserve the “tremulous . . . beauty” she had as a college coed and wanting to feel again her hormones rage and bring her to “pulse at the boiling point.”

The next poem, “Morning Light,” expresses effectively the doldrums of a career woman resentfully waking to the round of job and family. It also establishes that M’s husband is a teacher or college instructor (a later poem reveals that M herself is a creative writing instructor who, like Hahn, translates from the Japanese and Chinese). In this poem, M’s marriage is far from ideal. Her husband’s affection is more vested in their daughters (aged about ten years old) than in her, and the channels of communication between the couple have dried up as he chides her for interrupting his reading and for asking if he loves her. Indeed, M “feels buried . . . no feeling left in her body only the idea of feelings,” and “sometimes she wants to tell him: why don’t you just pack your trashy novel and toothbrush and . . . leave.” After M irritably gets her daughters off to school, she departs for work late, only to realize that she has forgotten her house keys. Through these quick, unsparing details, Hahn captures the grit and grind of the...

(The entire section is 1999 words.)