Brynn Saito’s Power Made Us Swoon, Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
In her poem, “One Day at Dawn,” Brynn Saito writes:
As if the mind were a lion–capable of taking you down
by the river, where silt turns to blood-salt
where stones begin their speaking
where stories roam like wild bees— (60)
The journey of memory can be terrifying, requiring a guide, a “Woman Warrior,” with “her back like a poised metal sword.” Saito’s second collection, Power Made Us Swoon, has six sections, each section opening with an invocation to this woman warrior that enables the speaker to tell her own history of heroic, flawed men, ghosts, and internment camps.
The speaker’s father is introduced as a savior, pulling his daughters from a car wreck, “. . . my father’s sudden grip clawing/my left arm so I wouldn’t fall into the glass” (“Theory of Knowledge” 23-24). But, if the father is the hero, he is a troubled one whose daughter is also the rescuer, and who rewrites her own history, “Your father has not gone / to the bar tonight. You do not have to find him. . .” (“In the Other World” 1-2). Saito reminds us that this uneasy balance of love and destruction transcends more than one generation:
One hundred years later
and still she is skating, descended from the dark
river of women—women loving men
men loving bottled love
love like a cradle of needles—
mending, mending, mending. (“Intergenerational” 12-17)
Saito bolsters the female voice by dedicating some poems to her strong literary predecessors, Adrienne Rich and Muriel Ruykeyser (the original women warriors). For example, “Elegy with a Black Horse,” to Adrienne Rich, begins with “. . . a man’s dry fist. . . against the oak door. . .” and ends with “We are women. . . .We travel together” (3-4, 27). The history of male violence and power, exemplified in its most horrible incarnation in Saito’s poems of the internment camps, becomes integral to the process of finding a female voice.
Never tell a woman you’ve got murder
inside you, never let the bass overwhelm
the treble, remember how your voice
has a history. (“Poem for the Shadow of an American Boy” 1-4)
The speaker’s history is not only important as a biographical reference, but also for the speaker herself to discern “whose story / has taken up residence in my body, what ghost” (“Revision” 7-8). Throughout the collection, Saito re-defines time as “cursive, like smoke,” and tries to integrate the trauma of her lineage. While looking at a photo of her mother in her “white and frilled girl-dress,” she muses:
I know who she becomes and why
though the how will escape me
continues to escape me
even in my terrible need to know. (“Dinuba, CA, 1959” 11-14).
The chronicling of history is a redemptive act, but a painful one. As if to keep the pain at bay, Saito uses the voice of a stone found at the Manzanar Internment Camp which allows her to delve into this story.
Whispers at the barbed wire
no longer suffice. What works is singing
from the cave of the self
where memories of knives
and clouds shaped like tiger faces
live together like children
unaware of their potential. (“Stone on Watch at Dawn” 10-16)
By employing narrative and lyric forms, and by personifying an inanimate object, a stone, to tell the story of a shameful period in our country’s history, Saito chronicles her family’s internment in Manzanar, one of ten camps used to imprison Japanese-Americans during World War II. The stone is the keeper of secrets; listen to the gorgeous lyrical lines in the poem “Stone in the Desert Camp”:
Between the turtle rock and the crane rock
the children found me. I was shining
and smooth and silent about my secrets.
[ . . . ]
Some days no one heard the tears
but I felt them: they coated me like evidence
of a prior sea. (1-3, 18-20)
In stark contrast is the longer-lined, narrative poem, “Displorations in the Desert,” written in the speaker’s voice, which tells of her trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site.
I drive the first leg, to Weedpatch, My father drives the second.
[ . . . ]
In Manzanar, from 1942-1945, the U.S. Government incarcerated approximately 10,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry.
[ . . . ]
Summer temperatures rose about 100 degrees. Winters were ice. (3, 7-8, 10)
We learn of the indignity and horror of the camps, as well as the speaker’s biographical connection: her grandparents met there. By weaving biographical narration (taking turns driving to the camp, the dates) with the lyric voice of the stone who tells us how the speaker “drops me / into her left pocket / and slips into the night to [ . . . ] summon ghosts” (“Stone Returns, 70 Years Later” 4-6), Saito illustrates the enduring scars of generational trauma. The stone, like the Woman Warrior, is protection from this pain of examination. “I’m on the brink of becoming unrecognizable / to myself. [ . . . ] Lift the stone. There I’ll be found” (“Lifting the Stone” 7-8).
Power Made Us Swoon is the story of the development of voice through narrative and lyric form. In her poem dedicated to Muriel Rukeyser, Saito writes, “When I meet you on the page / there’s a tingle in my wrists” (“Ars Poetica” 24-25). The poems are heart-breaking and ferocious, challenging us to “go like a leopard chasing her longing [. . .] / learn to lie to survive / girl / learn to outlast the flame / learn the art of surprise” (“W.W. on How to Be Free” 70). By invoking the Warrior Women, Brynn Saito tells the story of how voice is lost and then developed again.
Saito, Brynn. Power Made Us Swoon. Red Hen Press, 2016.