Janine Oshiro
Alice James Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-882295-88-3 


Elisabeth Whitehead

                                                         In the wrist is a bone like a boat.
                                                         I have been a long time out of water.

If you ever decide to walk out as far as the pier, you might see the white-weathered boards set shoulder to shoulder like soft-worn piano keys.  For a while, you might imagine that this is a road through water, where you will be held, momentarily suspended.  Water and air, earth and arc, interior and surface, permanence and ghost, you watch the water below the boards churn.  Sometimes, if you stand still enough, you can see the center point.

One: Adrift 

                                                         The hem let its water down.

Janine Oshiro’s first collection of poems, Pier (winner of Alice James Books’ Kundiman Poetry Prize), follows the quiet navigation of a child through the landscape of great loss.  At the center of this book is the speaker’s grief over the death of a parent (a mother) at a young age and the beginning realization of one’s own impermanence.   Our houses are made of paper, Oshiro says.  One: Adrift: A child struggles with the boundaries between death and life, the blurry line that distinguishes mother from young daughter.  Sometimes the daughter stands in between rooms, in a slender hallway, wondering which way, and sometimes she searches for a still, white resting place.   

Two: Tack

After loss, in its anniversary of days, one walks carefully through wounds, hyper-alert. There is the impulse, the need to reinvent / reconfigure / hold down the world and our place in it. And so, in Oshiro’s poems there is a new world envisioned that dreams its players, performers and audience alike.  Worlds are fashioned, acres created, stages set, choruses sung, daughters orchestrated and set in houses.  There is a new logic of loss, with all its new rules, reflected in the sleeper’s eye.  There is sometimes a man who dances. 

                                                         his hands move like white blossoms.
                                                         I take the branch
                                                         and shake it. What happens next, it
                                                         is said, is like the rain.

Three: Wake

The speaker is poised to wake, though it is not yet spring.   A dock, even though silenced in ice, will not split.  A bird, half in water, half in ice, will struggle alive.  It is not sleeping, although perhaps at first, it looks to be so.  We wake into part prayer, but its hold is still tenuous.

                                                         I lift my hands
                                                         to bless before
                                                         I blow away
                                                         at night as
                                                         white ashes

Pier is a beautiful book. As I was reading, I found myself thinking of lectio divina, or contemplative reading, a practice of engaging spiritual texts common in monasteries, because in Oshiro’s language there is space created for us as readers to rest.  At the same time, this is a voice of honest search.  By seeking to know itself, it will know itself, and from this place, we trust and follow.  The poems are pulled by tight connections in sound and word. At times, its crisp edges drive us forward.  In the next moment, we are asked to slow down and listen more closely to its resonance. Though each stands individually, the poems are locked up within one another. There is a certain amount of inevitability, as though we are always where we need to be. The poems create a thread, tightly woven, but also expansive, held in their rooms of breath and breadth.  It is space on the page.  It is water: stillness and motion.   

Elisabeth Whitehead

Elisabeth Whitehead grew up in the Washington D.C. area and in Japan.  She currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she teaches writing at Wake Forest University.