Poetry Review by Kevin Irie

Roy Miki, Flow: Poems Collected and New, edited by Michael Barnholden (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018). Paperbound, 640 pp., $29.95.

FlowIn “A PRE FACE,” the opening poem in his first book, Saving Face, Roy Miki describes his former childhood home in Haney, BC “with its orchards, garden and creek out back,” all imagery of a lost Eden. That this archetypal Western-literature image of loss was generated by the Canadian government’s forcible internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II due to their “Eastern” race, underlines the paradoxes in Miki’s work. “We are Israelites on the move,” wrote activist Muriel Kitagawa, describing that time in the 1940s when Japanese Canadians, Miki’s family among them, were literally driven into the wilderness of the Rockies, or further east, to inland farms and work camps. The Internment proved central to Miki’s personal life as well as his poetry. He became a leader in the successful Redress Movement while maintaining a career as a literature professor, editor, mentor, and prolific poet whose work is now gathered in Flow: Poems Collected and New, featuring his five books, lightly revised, plus one new collection and a summative author interview.

In a 2008 interview, Miki asked, “Where was a place for a creative voice in this language?” “This language” was English, “the medium of power,” he calls it, with the ability to disenfranchise, dispossess, and define others as enemy aliens (“We could be / other so fast”). If, as Etel Adnan has said, “your identity is your prison,” then Miki explores how a poetic identity offers ways of escape. Like William Carlos Williams, Miki views a poem as “a field of action” that allows him to create found poems using files from the RCMP (“Aerial Ports”) or letters from the Secretary of State (“Higher Learning”) concerning the Internment. Also evident is his admiration for and attraction to the wordplay of bpNichol, both a friend and an influence. In Tracing the Lines (published in honour of Miki’s retirement), he discusses the “letteral” movement in bpNichol’s poems where “an apparently simple process like a letter shift can also shift the entire edifice of meaning,” and one can imagine how important the shape-shifting potential of language can be to someone who experienced the aftershocks of a suddenly shifting political ground. More than just confused, Miki writes of being “conned and fused,” simultaneously subdued and strengthened by words. The lines “do nt le t me and er to o / lo ng so lo ok at he re,” reflects the multiple identities and options available through words, the space where it is “ok” to meander solo here among letters of the alphabet, in contrast with the written government decrees that forbade the very same options in the actual lives of Japanese Canadians.

In a central, and disturbing, poem, “THIS PAIR OF DICE,” Miki links the Nisei Mass Evacuation group, which consisted of young Japanese Canadians who protested the government’s splitting up of families, with the sudden realization that they are “the NME.” He writes of “being struck in the face” at the realization and there is “no luck to be borne under that alphabet.” There is no “saving face” in this poem. A black line straight as an Asian hair plummets from the almost haiku-like stanza at the top of the page down to the italicized realization that is written on the bottom in a surging flow of prose, as if poetry broke, or was broken, from its restraints, as if that line is a visual equivalent of the trawling line evoking the West-Coast Japanese fishermen, or the rail line that bore them away, the distance between the contained surface at the top and the turbulence born(e) below joined by a mostly empty page, a visual white silence. (And this mention of silence also invites another thought, another East/West divide: despite his Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, his many books, his manifest fusion of poetry with political activism, how many times has Miki been included in any mainstream anthology of Canadian poetry—beyond the ethnic?) Miki has described the toll he personally felt following the completion of the Redress Movement and acknowledges how there is a danger for a poet when “memory formations are restricted by … foundational historic events.” Much of the appeal of Flow is in how it demonstrates Miki striving to avoid that, how the books that follow chart his engagement with the present around him. In the exuberant opening lines of Surrender, he writes

i have altered my tactics to reflect the new era
already the magnolia broken by high winds
heals itself
the truncated branches already
speak to me

Whereas before, words were sought for regeneration, now the natural world is seen as regenerative. He records poems inspired by various locales (Lisbon, Japan, Taiwan, Berlin), but remains driven by a need to know and engage, since “distance only figures a desire for more intimacy.” “I entered the data bank,” Miki wrote with startling prescience in 1995, foreshadowing the recurring images of technology, cell phones, pathways, and industry that become common motifs in his books. With his continuing critical engagement, Miki explores how “Isolation is a commodity,” and the double-edged meaning of that phrase works its way through the book Mannequin Rising. In the sequence “Scoping (also pronounced ‘Shopping’) in Kits,” storefront mannequins become the latest “model minority,” at the linguistic mercy of language, their identities shifting from “mannekins” to “mannikins” to “manikins,” as “each casual spell tossed in,” proves that “our nature as commodities precedes us,” the variations of spelling even going global as the sequence continues into poems set in Japan. Miki pairs these poems with his own photocollages that become a new facet of his art, visual poems where actual mannequins peer out, stand apart or are partly hidden amid urban and natural scenery, the vibrancy and fantasy of his coloured collages juxtaposed with the poems, one releasing images that the other does not. These visual poems exist as separate entities, multilayered, where you do not follow line by line but are free to explore the entire image all at once, without restrictions on where to start or end, a liberation for a viewer/reader, or writer. Miki’s visual poems, with their recurring motif of clouds and birds, those symbols of ascent where “weight has the feather as its value,” let him finally be free of language where “sparrows mock the maker / of poems going nowhere fast.”

It also seems apt in a collected volume that Miki’s closing book, Cloudy and Clear has echoes of his first, almost a call and response from the poet he was to the artist he became, where, at first, “the slender voices / crowd into the narrow / margin of the page,” but are now “motes in the margin”—a sense of ghosts, time passing. “The slip knots” of his latest collection follow “the long unravelling, one knot after another” of his first. The Internment remains a central concern, with its talk of “who went where,” just as it was in Saving Face: “intricate family ties / spun off with no beginning or end.” In that first book’s Relocation piece “SANSEI POEM,” Miki had written “pry the clouds loose / to float again,” and now here they are—beautiful photocollages of blue clouds mingling with scenes of modern Vancouver, the urban locale of a mannequin rising, archival Relocation photos emerging through, or ascending beyond, the collected cumulus. “They say you can’t forward your memory to a previous landing site,” Miki writes, but that is exactly what he does “as if time was no longer beyond deciphering but more / forgiving more willing to let letters pass through.”


—Kevin Irie

As in The Malahat Review, 210, spring 2020