Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Yellow Door - Amy Uyematsu (Red Hen Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Yellow Door.  Amy Uyematsu.  Red Hen Press.  Pasadena, California.  2015.

The first thing I would tell you about Amy Uyematsu's very smart collection The Yellow Door is that this narrative is not going to be what you think.

Uyematsu has endured a life of being the "yellow other" with her eyes wide open.  These poems tackle her journey as she explains the world to herself.  Uyematsu is a not-quite-invisible minority living in a society that was quite willing to forcibly encamp her family and every other person she knew.  Joy Kogawa admirably tread this water in her unforgettable novel Obasan which was published in 1981.  Amy Uyematsu adds to that necessary conversation with the interceding thirty-five years experience in the dominant culture.

These poems take us from then to now, share both the lessons we need to remember and those we need to forget.


    for Roger Shimomura's "Eighty-Three Dirty Japs"

this is not buttercup happy sun poem no yellow happy faces to paste all over my room
I still pay attention to yellow light warnings my young life unfolding along that yellow peril trail
just like you, Roger, always the foreigner the ugly jap strange how ugly can still mean invisible
the slitty-eyed general the snake with thick horn-rimmed glasses the eunuch commie spy
charlie chan and fu man chu are just the jekyll and hyde of the same yellow bellied alien
and piss-yellow terror can be seen in the eyes of that white trucker in redwood city
who tells me there's nothing worse than a pregnant jap but at least he's better
than the yellow fetish freaks who can't get enough of us sexy geisha and china girls
no matter if we're from vietnam korea or san francisco we lotus lovelies are all the same
just listen to that blue-eyed boyfriend who swears I look like hong kong-born Kathy
though she's 5 inches taller with eyes pointing down and mine slanting up
yellow lurks in hordes like the 83 of us dirty japs mugging for the camera
but sure as the law which put Roger and Grandpa and Auntie Alice in camp
there's no way to tell the good yellows from the bad and I'll be ready the next time
we're misnamed the enemy yes the first to line up with my fellow
genghis and samurai invaders raising our yellow devil fists


Today's book of poetry gets the sense that Uyematsu is not bitter but there is plenty of righteous anger underneath a hard, hard line of polite poetic civility.

As you will remember, Today's book of poetry is a complete sucker for the list poem and Amy Uyematsu hits this one right out of the park.

At Least 47 Shades

The goldfinch in its full spring molt.
The bee pollen of sticky and thick.
The quince to perfume a new bride's kiss.
The ocher yellow in Vermeer's pearl-necklaced woman.
The opal cream floral on a kimonoed sleeve.
The zest yellow of a Nike Quickstrike in limited numbers.
The imperial yellow embroidered robes.
The Aztec gold sent by Cortes to Spain.
The Zinnia gold favored by butterflies.
The iguana who keeps watch on Mayan ruins.
The straw hat a cone woven with young bamboo.
The rising sun of Japan's Amaterasu leaving her cave.
The sand dune that swallows the film's lovers but keeps them alive.
The coast light of sun lost in fog.
The chilled lemonade from the fruit of bitterness.
The Manila tint to sunny the laundry room.
The blond and boring heartthrob.
The yellow flash before the grin gets too tight.
The lemon tart with a mouth to match.
The starfruit which can mean two-faced in Tagalog.
The fool's gold of sojourners and farmers.
The golden promise that still lures us here.
The sunshower which turns my tawny skin brown.
The banana split of Asian outside white underneath.
The Chinese mustard stirred with a dribble of soy sauce.
The yellowtail tuna father cleaned and sliced thin.
The yolk we ate raw with sukiyaki and rice.
The pear ice cream we licked that Tohoku summer.
The moonscape suffusing a rice paper screen.
The theater lights which make the audience vanish.
The electric yellow called Lake Malawi's yellow prince.
The daffodil that doesn't match these mean streets.
The marigold for night sweats and contusions.
The summer haze which splits open the sky.
The slicker yellow bands on those 9/11 jackets.
The dandelion that bursts through sidewalks.
The blazing star we still can't see rushing towards us.
The yellow rose legend of a Texas slave woman.
The atomic tangerine of Los Almos, New Mexico.
The Jasper yellow of gemstone and James Byrd.
The flame yellow as bone turns to ash.
The wick moving in time with my measured breath.
The first light an eyes latches on to.
The whisper yellow as a pale strand of moon.
The yellow lotus that's nourished by mud.
The poppy spring returns to the Antelope Valley.
The wonderstruck even in these old eyes.
The Chinese lantern riding a night sky.
The sparkler a child waves in the dark.


Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee, Madame Butterfly, Suzy Wong, General Tojo, Genghis Khan and every other stereotype march through Amy Uyematsu's The Yellow Door.  As a matter of fact I am listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto's "The Last Emperor" as I'm typing this up.  Stereotypes abound - but so does Yuji Ichioka and all he represents.  Yuji Ichioka was an American historian and civil rights activist who coined the term "Asian-American."

Uyematsu isn't trying to instruct her audience in anything but she is willing to share her insight into what it is like growing up inside a dominant culture endlessly amused by the shape of one's eyes.

Uyematsu is able to work her painful decades of assimilation into this narrative without rancour, her absolution comes with accepting and rejoicing in the parts of her ancestral culture that give her a stronger sense of belonging to something that loves and celebrates that which she cherishes.

Zen Brush

      it was like holding a piece of straw
      above an endless ocean
      --Monk Song Yoon

I am dreaming of fields
before the harvest

where everything moves
to sun and wind

wave after wave
a sea of golden yellow

embracing the ground
with seeded eyes--

what rain will fatten
this piece of straw

which warm beam
of morning light--

with a single stem
I wake once more

to know how far
I've come to taste you.


The Yellow Door sure made for an interesting morning read today.  We were all humbled by the words we could not pronounce, the names we mumbled through, and we were deeply moved by the rest of it.  Amy Uyematsu's journey to a better understanding of her life experience is a chance for us Gaijin, those on the outside of Uyematsu's Japanese experience, to get a look inside.  She has given us an opportunity to better understand her perilous trek.


Amy Uyematsu

Amy Uyematsu is a third-generation Japanese-American poet and teacher from Los Angeles. She has published three previous poetry collections: 30 Miles from J-Town (Story Line Press, 1992), Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (Story Line Press, 1997), and Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Her first book was awarded the 1992 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Her forthcoming title is The Yellow Door (Red Hen Press, 2015). Amy was a co-editor of the widely-used UCLA Asian American Studies anthology Roots: An Asian American Reader.

- See more at:

"The Yellow Door is both an exuberant and heartfelt dialogue between the poet's past and present. Amy Uyematsu, now a grandmother herself, now stands in the middle of five generations, pondering decisions made by her immigrant grandparents as well as her younger self. The role of yellow in forming and reforming Uyematsu's ethnic and political consciousness is explored ferociously without apology. Once viewing herself as an outsider, Uyematsu has found freedom to truly dance. A pitch-perfect collection by one of LA's finest poets."
     - —Naomi Hirahara, Edgar Award–winning novelist

"The Yellow Door is a mature and ambitious book, unapologetic about identity politics and peopled with literary friends of the Asian-American movement and other vivid 'historicized' apparitions. Charlie Chan, relocation camps, Executive Order 9066, sansei brides . . . all the familiar movement monikers will make the reader nostalgic for her activist past. . . . Sigh, those were the days when social protest really mattered! A thoroughly compelling read! An enthusiastic 'thumbs up!'"
     - —Marilyn Chin

"Amy Uyematsu holds nothing back in this insightful, compelling and poetic narrative that gives a personal voice to the history of our nation's Asian-American citizens. Indeed, there are poems of struggle and pain here, but also of humor and joy, for at the heart of this work is the love, honor and rightful pride of a Japanese-American poet whose commitment to freedom and justice combines with dignity and compassion as she unflinchingly engages the world that brings itself to her door. I am terrifically moved by this work."
    - —Peter Levitt, Recipient of the Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry

"Amy Uyematsu is one of LA's best poets, one of our most necessary voices. The Yellow Door takes us on neighborhood walks and beach walks along the Pacific and across generations, enjambing eras and pungent seasons in a phrase, granitic continents and the salt of history folded in the creases of caesura. I'm grateful for this book, which I receive like a bowl offered redolent and steaming with both hands."
     - —Sesshu Foster

Amy Uyematsu
Reads her poem, "Three"
@ Beyond Baroque, Venice, California
December 7, 2013
Video: Askew Poetry Journal



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.