Reviews / September 2015 (Issue 29)


The Constant Shift of Impermanence: Terry Watada's The Game of 100 Ghosts

by Huiwen Shi

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Terry Watada, The Game of 100 Ghosts, TSAR Publications, 2014. 112 pgs.

 

night
           crept like
   smoke in a forest fire
 
at sundown
                       the evening
            settled and everyone sat
            in
                        a circle
around
a circle of candles.
 
[...]       
 
between the mouths of the grieving and sorrowful
and
       the thoughts of the
    beloved dead     secrets are
 
revealed.  ("A Game of Ghosts")

This book's essence lies in its title, The Game of 100 Ghosts: it is ritualised, playful and haunting. Terry Watada models his poems after the long-lost Japanese parlour game of Hyaku Monogatari Kwaidan-kai (A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales), in which 100 candles are lit and 100 ghost stories are told. Imagine yourself in a spacious room as the sun sets and the darkness invades: you sit down to listen to people sharing stories of the dead; every time a story finishes, a candle is blown out. As the game nears its end, the room grows dimmer and you begin to expect a visitation from a real ghost when the last candle is extinguished. Initially a game of courage, Hyaku Monogatari Kwaidan-kai has now been transformed into a series of intimate elegies for family and friends in Watada's magical hands. His poems neither generate fear nor test courage; instead, he lets the ghosts tell their own stories: their grief and regrets, their disappointments and frustrations, their greed and ignorance. By the end of the collection, you will be consoled and enlightened, paradoxically, after first having been haunted by the deceased.

Watada attains form in formlessness. The first thing the reader notices is the playful, mercurial quality his poems possess through creative punctuation, lack of capitalisation and word and line spacing. One often has to read for pages before she gets a full stop. Conventions for formal writing are not followed either: "i" outnumbers "I", a lower-case "c" stands for "christian," "christ" and "chinese government," "a Black Man" is capitalised; a word is broken across lines; business-like listing is employed:

seems like yes-
terday
             she
met and fell in
love
       with
 
a Black Man
a refugee from the
war for Civil Rights
 
    ● a taboo embraced
    ● a disgrace born
    ● estrangement sworn
 
a baptist wedding:
$1000       with a potluck
dinner     yuki &
yukiko were the maids-
of-honour
with Rev (small "c" christian)  ("Lisa")

Throughout the book, enjambment is the key poetic technique. Watada is taking risks here, because, as is the case in much contemporary poetry, too much enjambment can be off-putting and tedious1. I was, therefore, alarmed by Watada's extensive use of it when flipping through the book for the first time. Nevertheless, he is so skilled that his poetry proves it is well worth the risk. Words drip unpredictably like rainfall: sometimes as scanty as a spring drizzle, sometimes as abundant as a summer storm. Either way, these "worddrops" stir ripples in the puddle of your heart:

the sizzle   of
the steady      rainstorm
sub-
        siding into a drizzle
and sputter of
whisperings    of
 
long-ago dead
abuse:
           ghosts speak
 
but
the mouths of rain remain silent  ("The Silent Mouths of Rain")

At first glance, the stanzas look fragmented, but this initial messiness is replaced and steadied by the concluding line, a complete and relatively long sentence that holds everything together. Visually, the three stanzas also merge into one, which keeps the flow going. Musically, the lovely repeated /s/ sound links one line to another while intricately echoing the restless sound of silence. Watada does this all the time: on the one hand, he shifts the diction and syntax constantly to maintain a sense of impermanence; on the other hand, he also ensures that the meaning comes across effortlessly and naturally despite the interruptions. The broken lines are not randomly crafted but rather a form of "controlled mutations."2

I do not read or speak Japanese, but I think Watada's insistence on fragmentation might be an unbending effort to mimic the voice of his ghosts, who happen to be mostly Japanese immigrants, presumably still speaking under the influence of their native language. Could the technique be designed to reproduce the effect of Japanese-sounding English? One thing is for sure: the prominence of this fragmentation is indicative of Watada's struggle with the incomplete memories he is eager to preserve.

Thematically, Watada's poetry engages with several crucial issues that are going to stay with me for a long time: those of immigration, education and cultural inheritance. The poems become extremely powerful and poignant when the most personal stories are shared. In "A House of Crying Women," for example, a grown-up describes his childhood in a first-generation immigrant community, which was "struggling to un-  derstand / the language" of English. The "un" and the hyphen become a focal point of the poem. The punctuation mark also bears significant symbolism for the immigrants: "no one was / Canadian," "no one felt comfortable / with the hyphen."

Elsewhere in the collection, we encounter the monologue of an "oniisan" (father), in which I am reminded of the voice of Asian parents and their pragmatic and problematic way of paving a safe path for their children.

You're in grade 10 for christ's sake:
doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer
you need a 90 average
                        to get into
university
 
Drop music,
art,
       literature,
take important subjects
they can be hobbies  to make friends
 
You don't have to like what you're doing
just do it  ("impermanence," IV. the 1960s)

The last line, "just do it" recurs towards the end of the book. It becomes a parental voice that haunts the younger generation.

As the game gets closer to the end, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the speaker's subconscious, whereas the poems themselves enter a confessional mode. Just as one begins to worry that the poems may become too clichéd and sentimental, Watada pulls them back into playfulness. We cannot ignore the fact that it is through the revival of a dead game that the poet realises his intimate relationship with the dead. In the original game, it is the gathering of 100 stories that brings together the ghosts; in this book, it is the ghosts that help shape the speaker.

 



1 In a poetry workshop I participated in on July 3, 2015 in Ithaca, New York, Anastasia Nikolis asserted that contemporary English poetry relies predominantly on enjambment.

2 I owe this phrase to Okla Elliott, which he used at the same workshop.

 
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