Crossing the threshold in ‘The Yellow Door’


By Amy Uyematsu (Pasadena, Calif.: Red Hen Press, 2015, 112 pp., $15.95, paperback)

Journey through a post-war Japanese American landscape with Amy Uyematsu as she defines race, unpacks the family incarceration experience and discovers a confluence with Japanese culture in “The Yellow Door,” her latest book of poetry.

The power bursts forth in “Riding The Yellow Dragon,” which sets the scene in the 1960s as Uyematsu reflects on “being a curious, sometime furious yellow.” She was awakened to protests of the Vietnam War and the reclaiming of Manzanar in an underground newspaper ‘Gidra,’ where she and revolutionary poetry cohorts — Lawson Inada, Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, Cathy Song and Janice Mirikitani — found voice as part of the movement. Delving deep into yellow, Uyematsu paints “At Least 47 Shades” from “the fool’s gold of sojourners and farmers” to the “yolk we ate raw with sukiyaki and rice” to “the flame yellow as bone turns to ash.”

Raised in the suburbs, Uyematsu navigates the ethnic terrain to “carnivals in Little Tokyo, Obon festivals in Gardena, dances in central LA, where Buddhahead boys show off in Nehru-collar preacher jackets and slicked-up three-inch pompadours, strutting like gangster peacocks.”

Having viewed the Buddhist Obon festival from outside the circle, Uyematsu decides to join in “Tanko Bushi, LA Version 59.”

“So the big night is here, after four decades
of foolish yearning, I dance inside the circle. . . .
And the view inside is more
than I can imagine. I’m surrounded
by dancers I don’t even know
but normal boundaries disappear.
This is all that matters,
even the steps and missteps get
lost in something bigger.”

Familiar and close with one grandfather whose “Gardening Shears” left a mark in Southern California, alongside other Issei, and whose pride reflected in his own small garden surrounded by family, yet she seeks to connect to the grandfather whose stories she never heard. In the section “Our Light Yellow Boats,” she finds traces in the juniper he planted. “It’s twisting branches carefully trained to grow like a graceful bonsai, this grandpa could never say more than an awkward hello.” And as she gravitates toward Japanese art, she inquires, “How could you guess this yearning I hold for a language I was never taught, this delight in putting woodblock prints on my walls or this reverence for stones?”

The tempo changes in Uyematsu’s final set “Kodo/Heartbeat,” a meditation of beauty and aging, a contemplation of nature and reflection of loss, as vibrant and still as a Japanese painting.

Uyematsu is a third-generation Japanese American poet and teacher from Los Angeles. She has published three previous poetry collections: “30 Miles from J-Town” (Story Line Press, 1992), “Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain” (Story Line Press, 1997) and “Stone Bow Prayer” (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Her first book was awarded the 1992 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Uyematsu was a co-editor of the widely-used UCLA Asian American Studies anthology “Roots: An Asian American Reader.” “The Yellow Door” celebrates her Japanese American roots and the profound changes that have occurred in her lifetime.

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