Kimiko Hahn’s The Unbreakable Heart is a remarkable book of poems, at once moving and cerebral. It deservedly won a 1996 American Book Award, the prize accorded by the Before Columbus Foundation to outstanding works of contemporary American multicultural literature. The book and its author amply merit this recognition, for Kimiko Hahn is a Japanese American woman poet with a profoundly sensuous apprehension of women’s experience, a penetratingly analytical intelligence, and a remarkable gift for ceaseless experimentation with language. The accomplishment of these qualities comes as no surprise: It had already been anticipated in Hahn’s two earlier books of poetry, Air Pocket (1989) and Earshot (1992), the latter having garnered the Theodore Roethke Poetry Award in 1995.
The event that occasioned the gestation of The Unbearable Heart was the sudden death of the author’s mother, Maude Miyako Hamai, in an automobile accident on Long Island. As described in the shocked, terse details of the book’s title poem, Maude Miyako died instantly when her car was broadsided by the vehicle of an Arab youth fleeing another car loaded with white youths armed with baseball bats—a sad, frightening image of sudden death and random violence that is all too common during the waning of the twentieth century in America. From such a personal genesis evolved the cycle of elegiac poems that became Hahn’s book.
Insofar as The Unbearable Heart is a book-length elegy, it brings to mind (with all due regard for proportional differences) Lord Alfred Tennyson’s classic In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850). Tennyson’s elegiac cycle not only expressed the grief of an irreplaceable personal loss but also ranged through many of his century’s central intellectual preoccupations: religious faith and skepticism, Darwinism and Christianity, the march of industrial progress and empire. Likewise, Hahn’s experience of her mother’s death becomes an emotional and intellectual point of departure and reference for poems that mourn a death but also meditate on womanhood and woman’s body, art and language, her Japanese heritage and American orientalism.
Hahn’s book, then, begins with several poems of brilliant, impressionistic images that capture the stark fact of the accident (“mother’s body/ may be retrieved at our earliest convenience”) and the viscerally wrenching pangs of grief (“my body shakes,/ I cannot catch my breath”). Yet mingled with these immediate sense impressions and reactions are a wider range of associated memories, feelings, and thoughts.
One such group of associations have to do with the body, especially and fittingly the female body. For it may be said that death, like disease, heightens the awareness of the body, increases humans’ consciousness of corporeality. In the title poem of the book, for example, it is both logical and surprising that Hahn begins with a bare detailing of her mother’s death and ends with a lesson in sex education given to her six-year-old daughter: “to explain what the man has to do with babies.” It is also intensely appropriate that she uses a funeral lily as a prop to explain fertilization to the child:
So I chose one perfect lily from that vase
and with the tip of a paring knife slit open the pistil
to trace the passage pollen makes to the egg cell—
the eggs I then slipped out and dotted on her fingertip, their greenish-white
translucent as the air in this blizzard that cannot cool the unbearable heart.
Hahn thus transforms the funeral lily that signifies the onset of death into the teaching lily that signifies the beginning of life. Then with another associative montage Hahn ends her poem on an allusion to another flower, the lotus of the Buddhist funeral Sutra; this in turn brings to mind the Buddhist connotations of the lotus as a plant whose beauty and spirituality of its flower grows out of the ugliness and mire of its roots. Hahn’s use of the flower to explicate the body thus introduces a richly associative image into this poem. Yet more than that, it also becomes a recurrent leitmotif in Hahn’s book as other flowers appear in other poems: for instance, the cherry blossoms in “Forecast,” the peonies in “Cuttings,” or those poems simply entitled “The Iris” and “Wisteria.” (Another imagistic motif that infuses Hahn’s text is that of odor—from incense in hair, to cold cream on skin, to garlic on fingers.) Needless to say, the use of such recurrent motifs lend unity to the book—and is analogous to Tennyson’s use of the recurrent hand and watery images in his work.
In a poem that foregrounds body imagery, the female body as a site of sexuality is the initial subject of “Cruising Barthes,” a long and far-reaching piece in which sensuality and theory intersect at speculations on language. The poem has a dialogic feel to it as its speaker quotes and questions the literary theorist Roland Barthes’s...