As far as a bird can fly: A review of Laurel Nakanishi’s Ashore by Tiffany Troy

Laurel Nakanishi’s debut poetry collection Ashore (Tupelo Press, 2021) directs our gaze to the “patchwork island” of Hawaii where “aloha” means not “hello” but the “feeling, a recognition of the divine.” “Aloha,” regains its meaning from long term misuse by the tourist industry through elegies of the island and its human and animal inhabitants. Featuring Nakanishi’s “wahi pana,” or “knowledge of the place” the collection shape shifts from the fable drawn from Japanese myths and local hauntings to the historical and the familiar. 

Particular striking was the relationship between the speaker and her elder brother, a recurring role model figure who weaves stories of a “money tree” “for a sister who would/ believe anything of him.” The elder brother figure is built up through a series of vignettes in “My Brother, in Eight Panels,” which turns like a sonnet crown, where the last line of the stanza turns the page and become the first line of the next stanza. This buildup—from an impersonal perception of the brother by the public as the “foreign” mix breed to the speaker’s intimate personal knowledge of the brother bowing “Gochisosama” (“Thank you for the meal”) before running off to the yard—is characteristic of Ashore, which centers itself around belonging and community, and which features a keen contemplation of the name of places, characters, and things in Hawaiian and in Japanese.

Much as Hawaiian storytelling centers not around a universal, linear narrative but around the particulars of geography, the bildungsroman of the speaker’s elder brother does not feature a pontificate or poet. Here, the essence of the “self” or of “home” is distilled not through the erudite, but the answer to the question “And what would you do? If you only had twelve hours.” In the answer, to ¨tell off everyone who has been an asshole to me” we recognize that street smart friend or family member. It is him and not the speaker (the poet) who “plucks just the right words” for his estranged sister.

 In a similar vein, the familial and mythological figures of the collection breathe life through their insistence to be understood. In “Portrait of my Brother as a Bulwer’s Petrel,” for instance, the iridescence of the brother’s feathers catches the speaker’s attention. Through the brother, the speaker sees the seemingly inhabitable island of Nihoa (“Tooth”) beyond its “course char,” or “the mere/ fragment of a volcano swept back to sea.” That is, beyond the surface, into the divinity of its black sheen. This divinity, of the man as an animal who can see nature as it is, is impossible in the same way deifying oneself to immortality is impossible. the speaker imagines her in tandem with her brother as the twins Kauawa’ahilia (“Rain”) and Kuaki’owao (“Mist”), “run across the valley/ accompanied by rainbows.” 

Yet, it is in this leap toward the fantastical that makes the collection so poignant as a portrait of loss and gathering together. Nakanishi reimagines the startling tale of Nanaue, the mythical half-human and half-shark. That she chooses to reinterpret the story through the point of view of Nanaue’s human mother in “Shark” is illustrative of her attention on strong female figures that link the collection together through their yearning for home. In that poem, the speaker’s tender yearning to be anchored somewhere is not in the abstract but could be felt viscerally, as she “rubbed the skin off [her] fingers stroking” the dead body of the hammerhead when it has dried up from lack of hydration. The speaker’s skin, in turn, is not only the vehicle through which perceptions of “mixedness” could be perceived, but the site of transformation. It transforms by feeling the “water whooshing in all directions, over every surface.” The physical water thus transforms into a metaphysical water, of dreams as my little shark comes to life, only to surge in the height of terror as the human mother sees Nanaue “gumming strips of raw steak” in its mouth. 

This cannibalism and defiance of dreams to assimilate, to be the same creates a broader sense of entrapment that permeates the collection. Much as Nanaue becomes cannibalistic after being fed meat, Hawaii’s land and waters become polluted at the hands of tourists and colonizers eager to consumer Hawaii’s natural beauty. In “Three Views of O’ahu,” where the sale of the sea view becomes elided into the sale of the sea, the impossibility of the sale of nature becomes clear. At the same time, the “sale” of the sea through pollution, created by the “Pacific Trash Vortex,” rendering a riddle: the whale gone back into its blue depth and here/ bobbing, its meager apology.” Like a bound book of square-sized origami paper waiting to be folded, this book contemplates apologies through contemplation of remnants of what was and what was felt.

So much beauty remains, though, and the speaker calls attention to how Hawaii is the locus of the stubborn dreams and roots that were brought to Hawaii. In “Hills Above the Rattlesnake,” the grandmother’s move away from her house into a nursing home engenders great resistance and confusion. The lucidity amidst the loss of the speaker’s grandma’s personal memory and amidst the speaker’s ancestors’ identities in a new place suggests that they never left Japan. Instead, “they carried that floating island with them, an anchor home.” The metaphor of boats thus transcends time and space: as the actual boat by which the speaker’s Japanese ancestors traveled in, for weeks, from Japan to Hawaii as well as the “withered boats” of leaves hanging in winter.  They seek for a “homecoming” on immigrants who have left their home, much as the speaker, in Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, sings an elegy for her Montana grandmother alongside her longing for the patchwork island.

The gorgeousness of what was left behind, these “trinkets and misunderstandings woven by the narrator alongside her tresses allows the readers to follow along, and see the elder brother, as a bird, flying as far as he could fly, and still return. 

Tiffany Troy is a poet, translator, and critic based in New York.