cover image Isako Isako

Isako Isako

Mia Ayumi Malhotra. Alice James, $15.95 trade paper (90p) ISBN 978-1-938584-94-7

“Behind barbed wire all question run to one,” writes Malhotra in a chilling debut based on the linked lives of four generations of Japanese and Japanese-American women. Documents and firsthand accounts of state-sanctioned terror ground the poet’s deeply personal inquiry. Opening with a reproduction of the U.S. Army evacuation instructions to “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien” in San Francisco on May 3, 1942, the book is haunted by wars in Japan and Vietnam. The work spills into formally inventive poems of prayer, elegy, witness, and tribute to Malhotra’s “many mothers,” both issei and nisei (first- and second-generation immigrants). Paradoxes abound: “is it possible to be empty and brimming// at the same time,” Malhotra wonders, later imploring, “Will you help me remember what I have forgotten.” By turns delicate and anguished, the poems ask how one can recover—and recover from—experiences that are not one’s own. Donning an ancestor’s kimono a single time, Malhotra acknowledges its strangeness: “I rewrap the garment believing a new/ grammar may be necessary.” The book is most successful when the poet accedes to this imperative. In attempting to straddle the gap between familiar and alien, Malhotra writes toward what one cannot know and unravels that which one cannot believe. (Sept.)