Firmly grounded in the personal experience of the poet, Kimiko Hahn’s poetry has a remarkably wide range of reference and experiments with many different formal approaches. The personae, or narrators, of her poems are generally modeled on the poet, and the subject matter is drawn from her experiences as a person of mixed ethnic and cultural heritage and as a daughter and a woman who becomes a wife and a mother. At the same time, the poet’s political point of view, which began on the far left and subsequently became more differentiated, is reflected in her poetry, which passionately interacts with current and historical cultural and political events. In her later poetry, Hahn has begun to respond imaginatively to scientific themes.
Most of Hahn’s poetry is written in free verse without any rhyming pattern. She often uses the formal technique of pastiche, or collage, inserting a few lines from newspaper reports, literary criticism, reference works, or the works of other writers in her poems. Characteristic of Hahn’s later poetry is her revival and use of the medieval Japanese genre of zuihitsu, a kind of poetic diary or scrapbook that has no real Western equivalent, as well as her use of tanka, a traditional Japanese poetry form.
The Unbearable Heart
The death of the poet’s mother, Maude Miyako Hahn, in a car accident in 1993 is reflected in almost all of the poems in The Unbearable Heart. The poems, an outpouring of grief, express a struggle to make sense of what appears to be a senseless loss. The persona must also relate this death to her two preteen daughters. The poem that drew the most critical acclaim and analysis, “The Hemisphere: Kuchuk Hanem,” uses the mother’s death as a starting point to reflect on historical Western imperialist and Orientalist attitudes toward the body of a non-Western woman. The poem mixes quotations from the writings of nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert and twentieth century American literary critic Edward Said with the imagined voice of the nineteenth century Egyptian courtesan Kuchuk Hanem and that of the persona herself, a modern-day Asian American woman. All four voices show different attitudes toward the body of the Egyptian woman, with Flaubert’s view considered demeaning by the other three.
The poems in Volatile express rage and despair, but also maternal tenderness. In “The Glass Bracelets,” the persona is outraged by violence against women, especially when it is sanctioned by religion. Her outburst is triggered by the 1907 story of a seven-year-old girl who enters a life of sexual servitude at a Hindu temple in India, which she links to a contemporary incident involving violent incest perpetrated by an American in Florida. Hahn deliberately uses obscene terms in her poem as a metaphor for the obscenity of the sexual violence against children.
Many more poems in Volatile speak vehemently against present and past social injustice and violence toward women. In “Blindsided,” which was anthologized in Making More Waves: New Writings by Asian American Women (1997; edited by...
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