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