Hawaii Pacific Review: HPR 2012 Book Reviews

Shadow Mountain
by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan

ISBN: 978-1-884800-84-9
Reviewed by Charis Faalogo

Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan was born in Santa Monica and raised in Los Angeles. She received her B.A in English from Loyola Marymount University and completed her M.A in literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Her collection of poems “Shadow Mountain” is a winner of the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. Kageyama-Ramakrishnan displays a stunning range of poetic forms: free verse, prose poems, a terzanelle and a sonnet.

However, it is also an impressive collection of poetry and folktales corresponding with Japanese American history. It also includes some poems written from personal experience with family situations and memories of her grandparents. Her technique seems very solid and obvious. For instance, her choice of words is straightforward and clear. Some people can appreciate most of her poetry because it is about family relationships.

This book is divided into four sections. They are not titled but labeled in Roman numbers. The first sections are poems that deal with love, from the relationship between a daughter and her grandma in “The Grandmother I Called Mama” to the woman in “The Denver Lady,” to the fairy-tale figure in “The Moon and Kaguya,” and sisters in “Amber Falls.” These poems seem to be the most important poems in the first section because the poet is speaking from personal experience. Her happy childhood memories inspired her to reminisce about her relationship with her grandmother: “I am the child she wrapped/ in a kimono” and “she sang songs: cowpatch and/ mortar saving the crab’s/ children, and Momotaro (“The Grandmother I Called Mama”). In “The Denver Lady” she recalls: “She sang to me one night, / Go ne, go ne ne.”  In this poem, we see a female speaker reminiscing about her mother and how she misses the feeling of hearing her mother’s sweet lullaby as she puts her to sleep. Perhaps “Go ne, go ne ne” is one of her favorite lines in the song.

Similarly, this love bond is portrayed through the mothering Kaguya who reassures her adopted “children…the platinum stars:” “I am the pickled moon of November. / Do not be afraid. / The terrible moon/ has gone away.” The mark of sisterhood and maternal relations continues with the sister in “Amber Falls” in which the speaker tells her older sister: “I name the tears of our childhood, / Amber Falls.” The speaker comes full circle, ending with the acknowledgement of motherly legacy.

Section two seems to be the bulk of the book: a series of nine sub-headed poems highlighting Kageyama-Ramakrishna’s visit to Manzanar in Owens Valley, California. This is where her family members were held captive during World War II. The series reveals the Manzanar Riot of December 5th, 1942; an orphanage for Japanese American children called the “Children’s Village;” and photographs of Manzanar taken by Ansel Adams including a photograph of the poet’s grandmother standing outside the Desert Chapel which were reproduced in pamphlets, then later banned and burned.

The third section consists of poems that are about the internment camps introduced earlier in the book. It is interesting how the perspective of the speaker shifted from a teenage girl to an adult woman telling the story of a boy in the tragedy of Ivan and Tvrtko. This reminds her of the boy in the internment camps mentioned earlier. The boy, who is the son of Tvrtko and grandson of Ivan, finds himself abandoned and rejected by the villagers in Croatia. The tragedy of losing his father with his grandfather’s involvement in the matter made him angry and in pain. The speaker identifies with this boy as someone who has been beaten down like her father. She is drawn to the way that both men have suffered unbearable trauma. Her love for these men is more like the love she has expressed for her grandfather in the poem “Papa,” and uncles in “Owens Valley, 1942,” which remains strong and true. Just like her grandmother, her grandfather and Uncle has been there for her too. The speaker is a person with a caring heart who loves not only her mother and grandmother but also the men in her life.

Section four concludes with playful poems about cats, a sonnet and the poem “Japanese Ceramics” which is a narrative that reads as a gift for the women in her family. The last poem of this section (also the last poem of the book) "Origins of Impulse" lists a series of ideas that triggers the writer's desire to write and offers a confession of love for her family and the story of their journey. We see this dedication in the last lines of this poem. "I gave up yellow, my favorite color, /started a lifelong love of lavender, wrote of/my mother's face in my face, staring at me, /her disdain when I dyed my hair red." This final piece is a message to a generation of young writers from minority backgrounds that are just beginning to practice the craft of writing.

“Shadow Mountain” is captivating in its imagery, enchanting in its sounds, and a must read for anyone interested in the history of Japanese-American citizens.  Kageyama-Ramakrishan poems are an expression that creates a voice for a generation of young writers from minority backgrounds that are just beginning to practice the skills of writing.