The Unbearable Heart

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE UNBEARABLE HEART, winner of a 1996 American Book Award, is a remarkably moving and cerebral book of poems by Kimiko Hahn, a Japanese American woman with a profoundly sensuous and intelligent apprehension of women’s experience. Hahn’s book is a cycle of elegiac poems evolved from her mother’s fatal automobile accident. It mourns a personal loss but also ranges through many contemporary intellectual preoccupations.

“Cruising Barthes” foregrounds the female body as a site where sensuality and theory intersect in speculations on language. Teasing Roland Barthes’ theory PLEASURE OF THE TEXT (1975), Hahn doubts his Freudian identification of the female genitals as “the site of loss,” preferring to think of “this split/ as the mother’s labia parting for conception,” and associates it with “orthographic orgasms” of writing, “pulsional incidents” of voiced ejaculations. Maternity, Hahn suggests, comprehends conception, expression, life, and death.

Several poems draw upon Hahn’s Japanese maternal inheritance. Some resonate Hahn’s experience with those of classic Japanese women writers—the mourning in Lady Murasaki’s TALE OF GENJI (1925), and the zuihitsu form of THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON (1928). Others, virtuoso dramatic monologues, breathe fresh life into Japanese folktales.

“The Hemisphere: Kuchuk Hanem,” considers how orientalism deforms the Asian woman’s body. Hahn plays off Edward Said’s ORIENTALISM (1978) against Gustave Flaubert’s FLAUBERT IN EGYPT (1972) to recuperate and re-humanize the Asian woman (even the Egyptian courtesan Kuchuk Hanem) from the mechanistic and reductive gaze of the hegemonic European male.

A significant accomplishment, Kimiko Hahn’s THE UNBEARABLE HEART begins by mourning one woman’s death and ends by affirming the lives of all women. Its intricate art, vigorous thought, and distinctive blend of Asian and American sensibility declare it an authentic gem of contemporary poetry.

Sources for Further Study

Amerasia Journal. XXI, nos. 1 & 2, 1995, p. 188.

Booklist. XCII, January 1, 1996, p. 778.

Bookwatch. XVI, December, 1995, p. 7.

Brooklyn Bridge. I, July, 1996, p. 26.

Poetry Calendar. XX, April, 1996, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 18, 1996, p. 51.