Topaz: Ancestral inheritance in the poetry of Dempster 

Topaz

Topaz

TOPAZ
By Brian Komei Dempster (New York: Four Way Books, 2013, 110 pp., $15.95, paperback)

Members of the Japanese American community may be familiar with the life and work of Nichiren Buddhist Archbishop Nitten Ishida, and his wife, Chiyoko Ishida. Nitten’s singular works of calligraphy, completed during and after the Pacific War, remain major works in Asian American art, and adorn the homes of many Nikkei families (including a piece on my parents’ living room wall, inherited from my grandmother). Brian Komei Dempster explores his inheritance as Ishida’s grandson in his first book of poetry, “Topaz.”

This remarkable collection comes from a poet who labors across the spectrum of writing, editing, and teaching. “Topaz” follows the publications of “From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps” and “Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement,” both collections of Nisei narratives detailing histories of wartime incarceration, which emerged from Dempster’s intergenerational writing workshops.

As a collection of poems, “Topaz” complicates Asian American master narratives focusing on tensions between immigrant parents and their American children, yet it simultaneously affirms familial themes in exploring historical relations between grandparents (and uncles) and their grandchildren.

Dempster’s poems take us on a journey from the perspective of a “mixed blood grandson,” a multiracial, Sansei male, husband and father, but also the inheritor of ancestors, his grandparents and uncles to whom he dedicates the book.

His title poem, “Topaz,” uses the image of a gemstone to suggest the way in which the poet conjures a living relation with his ancestors. He writes, “I am the prism/refracting/your prison …” Thus, Dempster grounds his poetic mediations within the legacy of America’s wartime concentration camp, Topaz, where his grandmother and infant mother were imprisoned (initially separated from his grandfather).

But the topaz gem also suggests a struggle with the rigidities of self across the shifting terrain of language memory, body, and desire, the (multi-)racial and gendered encasing from which Dempster emerges as a poet. He writes as a kind of medium for the voices of his history, to whom he turns for guidance, healing and transformation.

With a pious technique and a diversity of poetic forms, Dempster overlaps the past and the present, the personal with the historical, revealing the discrepant space of intergenerational relations to be a rich site of poetic reflection.

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