The Palace of Contemplating Departure
By Brynn Saito
Red Hen Press
Reviewed by Tyler Mills
In Brynn Saito's debut collection, The Palace of Contemplating Departure (winner of the 2011 Benjamin Saltman Award) violence is stared down with a lyric energy and ferocity of image that sears place in our mind with its most powerful representative force: the name. While many of the poems throughout the collection meditate on place and history, a core grouping of poems in the first section name particular cities in their title: "Leaving New York," "Cambria, Late Spring," "Avignon, Early Summer," and "Winter in Denmark." Throughout this collection, Saito marks time by season, memory, and social violence. With a control reminiscent of Li-Young Lee and Czeslaw Milosz, Saito's poems thread identity through conceptions of place; her speakers filter the incomprehensible through an imagination that refuses to look away from the darkness place can hold. "Tuesday, 2 A.M." begins:
Then the monk became a hawk and the hawk became a clown
who counted on an abacus
the innocent dead
and I woke in my America
and read about the boy
who was killed while I was sleeping. He didn't have a gun—
he was brandishing a hairbrush—
but the cops thought he did
so they shot twenty times.
Such a poem directly faces one of the American tragedies of our time: that children continue to be the victims of prejudice and gun violence. In this context, Saito's speaker is not a Romantic dreamer. In fact, Saito refuses such a paradigm. The speaker is instead a self-described "waker" who opens her eyes each day to a morning of violence that is already haunted by the image of a heart with a circulatory system that is really a set of pistols:
I am a waker, blistered by morning
who, right before the ringing, was dreaming of a heart
surrounded by pistols
and the pistols pointed outward
and the muscle pumped blood.
Precision is a steel instrument in Saito's work. Throughout this book, image is often acknowledged as a device of illusion, the imagination's tempting masquerade. For example, "the monk became a hawk and the hawk became a clown" in "Tuesday, 2 A.M." What such a maneuver—definition and redefinition—does is enchant us with the transformative power of image, and more importantly, it dismantles the potential power that this strategy has for potentially occluding its subject.
The Palace of Contemplating Departure is daring—daring in that its voices push what is beautiful to the edge of that which is beyond comprehension. The voices in this collection will stay in your head; they are voices that refuse what is easy for what is real, and they create beauty out of illusion—as devastating, and necessary, as that illusion is. Here, for example, is "Winter in Denmark":
But it isn't the story of a woman redeemed, forgiving her demons
for throwing first stones. It's the story of the dreamer
on the road to Damascus, creating a savior from sand grains and light.
I admire how Saito handles the position of the speaker in her poems of persona. In this collection, persona not only provides a window into the past, but does so in a way that is honest about the mediation between past and present—and honest about the mediator. "Alma, 1942" presents a persona that mediates between past and present in a way that acknowledges how that mediation has been called forth: by a member of a younger generation who, "like a hungry ghost," hunts for—or haunts—the details of history in the privacy of the past. Such poems touch upon themes of leave-taking, heritage—as filtered through nation—and history. "Alma, 1942" begins:
To board the train without suspicion
I told the man I was Chinese
can you believe it?
You never have to lie
to survive, now do you?
This voice, the voice reminiscent of a relative, speaks for the purpose of both memory and even reproach:
You'll see it for yourself
when you go there roving
with your questions for the barracks
like a hungry ghost.
Loss and ruin are themes of this collection. The Palace of Contemplating Departure is a book that refuses to allow longing to become a kind of forgetting. In this way, the presiding metaphor throughout the collection is that of the "palace," where one's contemplation of departure becomes a conceptual space—one in which the self faces the power that comes with the grim act of leave-taking. The title poem of the collection begins,
You wandered through my life like a backwards wish
when I was ready for deliverance.
I was ready for release
like a pinball in God's mouth
like charanga on Tuesdays
like the summer in Shanghai
when we prayed for a rainstorm,
bartered our shame, tore open oranges
with four dirty thumbs.
Listen to the musicality throughout these lines, propelled by the pulse of an incantation and marked by the precision of naming place and time ("charanga on Tuesdays," "summer in Shangai"). You hear this pairing of rhythm and image in poems throughout Saito's collection.
The Palace of Contemplating Departure is a book of four sections—"Ruined Cities," "Women and Children," "Shape of Fire," and "Steel and Light"—each one presenting a different mode of perception in a broad range of lineation and construct of lineage. "Women and Children," the second section of the book, is comprised of six prose poems, each given a title that contains brackets to delineate a different family member as the speaker. The first of these poems, "Cottonwood [Mother]," begins:
My children as they wandered from me took on the shapes of beauty. I was proud of the way they suffered though I know they were undone by the sharpness of the earth's asking: Do you know hunger, do you know rage, do you know the color of grief? The color of grief is the bright amber of wasted honey.
Throughout this section, the prose poems are dramatic monologues. The brackets in the titles function as a kind of expressive grammar, where the speaker is at once named, but also summoned to speak. Each family member functions as a voice that conveys a universal knowledge, even a blessing. "My children as they wandered from me took on the shapes of beauty," the mother says in "Cottonwood [Mother]."
Saito's collection begins in, and often returns to, the mythic mode, presenting a creation story for the "I" of the poem, but also, I would argue, the collection. This "I" is a creative voice, and it chooses the fight for survival that is creative knowledge. The following is an excerpt from "First Incarnation":
There's a pack of dogs inside me
threatening to eat its leader who is wounded.
I said Let them.
The "I" that says "Let them" is the voice that will not let loss win. It is the voice that fights in the match where love and death duke it out. It finds a use for the fist after the fight. And, ultimately, as we see in "Spring, San Francisco," it is a voice that claims the will that exists in the act of praise:
You say the price we pay for love
is loss. I say the price we pay for love
is love. Sometimes you've nothing
save your hand in the glove and the glove
against the wind and you're jabbing at the sky now
in the match of your life but the sky
never fights back so you praise it.