A cup of fine tea: Amy Uyematsu’s “August Green”

Amy Uyematsu’s “August Green” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #7 of Cha)

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback.

Amy Uyematsu’s “August Green” is a kind of extended haiku which seeks not to capture a single moment but to distil an entire month through its flora. Perhaps ‘haiku’ is the wrong form altogether and Uyematsu is using a poetic structure we are not familiar with. Regardless, what is clear is that the work is a nature poem that fits well within a larger Japanese and Asian tradition. By describing various types of seasonal plant-life, presumably the ‘Green’ of the title, the poem provides a portrait of August in the northern Japanese region of Tohoku.

Uyematsu claims that the piece was inspired by a trip to Tohoku in 2008. This seems fitting as the poem often feels like a series of photographs or recollections. There is no obvious narrative in the piece, but read together, its moments add up to, if not quite a story, then a description of a region in full bloom. Take, for example, the opening lines: ‘Rice fields in an endless sea. Leaves of ripe pear and cherry trees / in season. Crisp cucumber, pickled cabbage, shiny sheets of dried kelp’ (L1-L2). There is a beautiful wave-like repetition in these lines—the /s/ and /sh/ in ‘endless’, ‘sea’, ‘leaves’, ‘trees’, ‘season’, ‘shiny’, ‘sheets’ and the /k/ in ‘crisp’, ‘cucumber’, ‘pickled’, ‘cabbage’, ‘kelp’—which links these different forms of life together. They are also linked by a sense of colour. Even without specifically mentioning the green of the title, Uyematsu evokes it in her descriptions. We realise that apart from signifying plants generally, green may also indicate a certain shade of that colour which appears in Tohoku in August. Or perhaps it is actually ‘greens’, as we see more and more of them as the poem advances, like: ‘bonsai’, ‘leaves of Japanese maple’, ‘jade’, ‘Forest pine’, ‘fern’, ‘Damp moss’, ‘sugi cypress’ and ‘Lotus leaves’.

The poem, however, is not only a list of plant-life, but an evocation of the wider environment and its interacting parts. This is perhaps most obvious in the blending of human crops and nature. We see a subtle mingling of Japan’s cultivated landscape (Tohoku is a major rice-growing region) and its wilder spaces, reminding us that humans both control and depend upon plants for their existence. It is also suggested that not only do we live among plants, or perhaps they live among us, but that they are actually in some sense part of us. Take, for example, the subtle anthropomorphism of ‘The threaded five-fingered leaves of Japanese maple’ (L4) or the beautiful ‘Giant sugi cypress at the temple gate’ (L6) in which the tree almost seems to be trying to enter the holy space.

As the poem nears its end, however, human elements begin to fade and we see that nature is persistent and exists without us. We realise that ‘Damp moss’ (L6) will grow on its own and that ‘Lotus leaves’ (L7) have been blooming in ancient ponds from before our time. August greens are seasonal but they are also eternal.

Amy Uyematsu, a sansei (3rd-generation Japanese American) from Los Angeles, has published three collections: 30 Miles from J-Town (1992), Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (1998), and Stone Bow Prayer (2005). She is a former co-editor of the widely-used Roots: An Asian American Reader. Uyematsu works as a public high school math teacher and finds an oddly lovely harmony between math and poetry. Her poem, “August Green”, discussed here, resulted from a trip to Tohoku, Japan in Summer 2008.

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6 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Amy Uyematsu’s “August Green””

  1. Asian Cha Says:

    Papa Osmubal says:

    “Amy Uyematsu’s piece is a single short poem with a thousand poems in it. It breathes with life, pictures and words. It breathes. It whispers. A simple but powerful verse– what and how all verses should be. A poem disguised as prose– exactly what we need in our time to keep poetry alive and appreciated (a bait or come-on to those who have a sort of dislike of the lined poems). When you start a piece with something like “Rice fields in an endless sea” and end it with “Lotus leaves opening in an ancient pond”, anything can go in and be filled in in between them, and it will surely end up to be a very beautiful work. Purely Asian, purely Oriental.”

    ***

  2. vivianding Says:

    Reading Amy Uyematsu’s poem reminds me of the early Ezra Pound-the seemingly random yet delicately conscious combination of images and sounds. e.g. In the Station of Metro by Pound:

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Pedals on a wet, black bough.

    In both cases, the lack of verb conveys a ‘present’ meaning of ‘absence’. For me, it is interesting to explore the question of ‘subject’ in relation to the lack of action. The reader can scarcely sense an omni-presence of the writer, or even the natural agency in the poem; instead, more freedom is given to the reader to make associations between various images and fill the blanks in the refreshing picture of the August Tohoku.

  3. t Says:

    Good observation. The lack of verbs gives the poem a feeling of an extended moment.

  4. Yamabuki Zhou Says:

    I feel ambivalent about this poem.
    The imagery and pacing are beautiful
    The choice of words is subtle
    Even the underlying feeling enchants.

    And yet, and yet, and yet.
    In some ways it’s too perfect
    For my taste anyway

    I am reminded of looking at perfect pictures
    Seen in quick succession on a screen
    Be it computer or digital camera screen

    I have suffered through many such screenings
    Almost every picture is beautiful
    One after another, after another.
    But something gets lost when there are so many
    We become numb to what we are seeing.

    One picture in beautiful detail enchants
    One hundred pictures shown close together
    Just overwhelms the eye

    I feel this way too about the poem
    There are:
    Rice fields
    Leaves
    Cucumber
    Cabbage
    Kelp
    Needles
    A ginkgo branch
    Japanese maple
    A lake
    A pine
    A fern
    Moss
    Stone
    A cypress
    A temple gate
    Lotus leaves
    A pond

    Sometimes less is more.
    The poem is beautiful
    The words enchant
    But for me, it’s too much
    I would have preferred a haiku
    Or even several haiku
    A short powerful green
    Instead of endlessly numbing perfection

    yamabuki

  5. Asian Cha Says:

    Amy says:

    Dear Tammy & Jeff,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and generous analysis of my poem. I’ve seen some of the comments on the blog and found them most interesting.

    Since your blog is called “A Cup of Fine Tea,” I thought I’d share a poem I wrote about tea when I saw/heard Thich Nhat Hanh several years ago:

    Tea

    How many years of suffering
    revealed in hands like his
    small and delicate as a child’s

    The way he raises them
    from his lap, grasps the teacup
    with sure, unhurried ease

    Yet full of anticipation
    for what he will taste in each sip
    he drinks as if it’s his first time

    Lifts the cup to his mouth,
    a man who’s been practicing all his life,
    each time tasting something new.

    I wish you both a creative and light-filled 2011.

    Namaste,
    Amy Uyematsu

  6. “August Green” by Amy Uyematsu | August in Poetry Says:

    […] [Published in Issue #7 of Cha, "August Green" is discussed on A Cup of Fine Tea.] […]

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