Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964
By Joanne Kyger. Berkeley, Calif. North Atlantic Books, c2000.
Reviewed by Linda Russo (12/1401)
Strange Big Moon: The Japan & India Journals: 1960-64 brings back into print an important poetic document by one of the most original and inventive poets of the "second generation" San Francisco Renaissance - Joanne Kyger. Originally published in 1981 as The Japan & India Journals: 1960-64, in Bolinas, California, by Tombouctou, these journals - a ceaselessly engaging chronicle of daily details and extended considerations of writing poetry - witness a respite from the energetic Bay Area poetry scene and Kyger's intimate involvements there, to which she had arrived in 1957, and to which she would enthusiastically return. The years 1960-64 comprise her married life with Gary Snyder, living primarily in Japan, but a small section, 52 of the book's 280 pages, chronicles travels in India (December 24, 1961 to April 21, 1962) and offers a critical and apocryphal glimpse at their companions, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky while also serving as an excellent model of how to survive for months with little more than a black drip-dry dress. Throughout her chronicles, there's gossip of the usual sort, mostly about drunken dinners with American visitors like Donald Allen and Clayton Eshelman, written in Kyger's witty, endearing, and often searing way. But the chat in these journals is merely scattered about and between what's really of interest here - a candid record of the circumstantial and purposeful changes in the life of a young woman writer. Written in tandem with the poems that would compose Kyger's first book, The Tapestry and The Web (1965), The Japan and India Journals document the intensities and flows of self-searching, ranging from the poetic to the personal and lingering intensely, too, on the intervals between.
Like her early poetry, the journals, by bringing the female self into closer view, sought to see that self as "a human self, with all attendant identity anxieties," as Kyger has put it, and, by extension, as "poet" rather than "woman poet." These anxieties emerge forcefully, touchingly depicted in the pages that record her early months abroad and ensuing struggles, desires and reticence clashing with a culturally-scripted sense of acceptance and defeat. On the boat to Japan, for example, Kyger decided to stay only a short time and not to marry, but soon after arriving the young couple wed, as expected by the Zen Institute where Snyder was studying. She felt at times "trapped," "overpowered," wished she hadn't married, and was reticent towards both his chosen method of self-discipline and his matrimonial prerogatives. "I refuse to be forced into sitting until I freely choose to do so," she writes, " . . . He seems to have plans for me, although he claims no - and I will not fit into them." Unflinchingly recording her typically fluctuating feelings toward Snyder, these pages depict the marriage, where it is a struggle, in gendered terms that also articulate a conflict between her sense of obligation to him and to herself:
It is conceivable that one could be in love with a person yet not able to live with them. About half the time my mind is concerned with getting away from him, he drains me. It seems to me half the time our relationship is involved in a battle to see who is going to get the upper hand. But when we balance, all is beautiful, then I forget how dreadful living with him can be. Is his own masculinity threatened that he must fight so hard to assert himself & show no regard for my desires or identity. As far as I can recall he has always treated women this way, at least that is what I have been told. If I leave, as it seems to me soon I'll have to, what will happen to his plans, I want him to be happy & have what he wants, a family etc. But I must live too, I see no solution. I wish I could just pack up and get out for a day or so, then perhaps I could see things clearer, perhaps the faults are all mine - he leads me to think so.
The wish to be alone was inseparable from the need to write; in writing, in being alone, came the possibility that her identity was not overly determined. The journal seemed to provide the only possible solitary space. She records, at one point, requesting relief from doing the dishes for a few days "if I was involved in doing something & . . . want[ed] to feel the freedom of acting that way should the possibility arise." But Snyder was inflexible: "He would not grant me that, he said." The pressure to be a good wife often led to self-doubt, expressed sadly as "I wish I had never known writing and then I'd be more content with what I am doing now instead of wishing I was proving myself by writing."
While these journals record encounters with her less-than-encouraging circumstances, they are also occupied with productive poetic notions. The journal serves also as a space to reflect on and construct her conceptual life, what she sought to explore in poetry. On July 26, 1960, she wrote: "To penetrate (Penelope) the depth found within, the actual feeling, go into. Not idealistically, not ideas of psychological sort." Mythic themes forge multiple relations to the biographical and Penelope (of the Odyssey) enables her to poetically innovate upon sexist dictates that appeared immutable. To begin exploring how her identity was distorted by her defining and rather unsettling marriage, Kyger mingled Penelope's mythic life with her own in two epic-based sequences both published in Tapestry. The first series she referred to as the "Penelope poems"; the other, titled "The Odyssey Poems," written between April and December 1964, equally disrupt the figure of Odysseus, collaging together details mythic and ancient, fictional and contemporary, with little regard for the epic chronology. These poems figure in her journals alongside an emerging sense of independence and discussions with Snyder over the possibility of divorce. Both The Japan & Journals and Tapestry and The Web anticipate the self-speculation and the descriptive reclamation that characterizes a feminist poetics shaped by the second wave Women's Movement. Yet, writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, prior to the women's movement and in the absence of any supportive community of women writers, Kyger wrote singly, not to demystify "Woman" or to understand her writing as specifically "women's." The critique she was to render in her treatment of The Odyssey in Tapestry was a proto-feminist consequence of her own sense of women's culturally instituted subservience which had been made starkly apparent to her outside of its naturalizing context.
The Tapestry and The Web, primarily by intervening upon the structure of The Odyssey, constructs a new poetic space in which to explore and challenge received notions of gender, female figures, and poetic authority - particularly notions fostered by the Cold War culture and reinforced in poetry by the masculinist rhetoric of the New American Poetry. These she would confront in later journal entries, perhaps in preparation for her inevitable return to San Francisco. Here, Kyger turns her dual-compositional process (poems and journal-writing) away from self-speculation toward a process of taking in and reworking the discourse of poetry that was going on around and without her - both in the sense that, in Japan, she was removed from what had been for her a center of poetic activity, and that, though she corresponded with poets like Philip Whalen and John Weiners, as with many other women of her generation her input was simply not sought out. Still, she would seek after her own opinions in her own space. In one journal entry, she copied these lines from Charles Norman's 1960 biography of Ezra Pound: "The poet's line reveals not only his manner of expression, hence the way he thinks, it reveals his identity - almost, it might be said, his way of breathing. And this individual structure is all that can be called different in the poets." As if to confirm her own aesthetic choices, she also copied "thus no matter where the discussion starts, it is always necessary to return to the line and its structure." These might have been reassuring at a time when her own discussion started at a point of striking dissimilarity to her male peers, taking up as it did the reinvention of an epic female figure. Olson's "Projective Verse," a persuasive contemporary document addressed to an undoubtedly male audience, ventured a new use of the poetic line as a measure of "the man who breathes as well as his listenings." Apropos of this, Kyger remarked that "Projective Verse" hit her "like a whallop."
Though abroad - and a few of the poems in Tapestry are marked by the objects, language and landscape of Japan - the journal was very much a way for Kyger to maintain correspondence with, and continue developing, her California self. At the same time, though, The Japan & India Journals are marked with Kyger's estrangement from both Japanese and American cultures. As she comments dryly in her journal, "what woman ever writes a poem 'America I Love You'." Her journal writing served as a space in between, where the poet could address the very issues that would serve as connective tissue to her poetic practice; you might say that these journals made her capable of finding her own way to be a woman and a poet, despite the prohibitions both cultures meted out toward this end. But her journals serve as a space of immersion as well, into the poetic self that would continue nonetheless. Zen-inspired questions persist; "For my fractured consciousness," she writes early on, "Zen Buddhism seems to me the only path out of the 'nothingness' of Western philosophy. I need to find that discipline, that art form." Striving for Zen-like clarity, she reminds herself to "[a]im for a whole new way of using language. There should be no artificial abbreviations (of sentences etc.) in poetry. Closer to the mind it comes out how? Or the mind close to the poem, comes out with its own good poetry."
The Japan & India Journals are important not only as a work of poetics that reveals one woman's struggle to "make" herself a poet and to make a poetry that suited herself; like her Penelope poems, the journals contextualize intimate and personal interactions with concerns of poetic authority and form. Despite her frequently-issued self-directives, there lingered doubt as to how she could ever be a great poet, to "write an epic the way [Charles Norman] says a great poet must," that is, to "have the command of a world/universal view." For Kyger, a woman's craft seemed contradictory to epic, dealing with "parts" and "particulars." Women, like Penelope, have only small parts, in that they attend to particulars, like the tapestry maker who focuses on the fragment. Next to what she had read of the celebrated achievements and comprehension of Pound, Kyger's own achievements appeared to shrink to inadequacy: "What can I know without reading & observing all of mankind," she wrote, "[m]y own mind but a risky & perhaps lopsided direction." At the same time, as if to counterbalance Pound's egoism, Kyger was reading Dickinson, Stein and Millay. Though daunted by Pound's purview, she nevertheless undertook a poetic treatment of history: her own history and the fact of epic as a part of her historical, poetic inheritance.
The journals also bear witness to a movement out of this mythic frame of mind. On New Year's Eve 1963, she resolved, in order to rise as a poet," to spend "hours each day . . . scanning poetry sheets and volumes of the past" and to execute "new conscious ground expansion for poems and ordinary proficiency . . . daily." With the closing pages of The Japan and India Journals, Kyger is about to part from Snyder and return to San Francisco where she will, finally, live out her resolutions and continue to write, publishing to this date over 15 books of poetry, and continuing to write, hopefully, The Bolinas Journals.