Dragon Memories Like Stones: Documenting Self and Nation in Power Made Us Swoon by Brynn Saito

“Dragon memories / Memories like stones / Dragging memories like stones through southern deserts / Though I like the desert / Though the desert does me good / the silence cutting like comforting sword-winds /”

- “W.W. Writes a List”

“California sunlight like seaweed, streaming. I release thoughts in bubbles. / My body recognizes itself as the sea creature it once was. // Displore — to explore your own despair.”

- “Displorations Underwater”

Growing up in Berkeley, California, my family had no immediate relatives in our area, and my mother’s best friend stepped in as surrogate family, even including us in family holiday events. I grew up knowing that her family and many other people in the community that raised me are personally affected by the horrific experience and legacy of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, as well as by a history of race-based lines drawn on the housing map of the city. Depictions of this history can be found in the memoir Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, and the novel Journey to Topaz, by Yoshiko Uchida, who came to my school and other schools in the area to speak with us about her experiences and the history of the internment of Japanese Americans. As George Takai’s Broadway show “Allegiance,” has revealed, many people in the United States are not aware of the continuing impact of these deplorable moments in U.S. history, and Brynn Saito’s hybrid collection Power Made Us Swoon serves as a welcome multi-genre addition to earlier non-fiction and novels on this topic.

Saito’s haunting second collection of poetry channels the documentary, lyric, and personal elements of work by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Muriel Rukeyser, and Maxine Hong Kingston, fleshing out the intersections of self and nation, trauma and survival. Using the figure of the Woman Warrior, Saito constructs a hybrid lyric of intergenerational legacies which give voice and resonance to the continued political, community, and personal impact of the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and others, including the narrator’s Korean American mother, on the West Coast of America.

On a recent article concerning anthropological and archaeological studies being done on the internment camp sites, a commenter rightly pointed out that perhaps doing oral history work with the survivors would be a more fitting avenue of recording this history. This is exactly the kind of work offered by this collection, which presents the full complexity of the lives of survivors and the generations that follow, with carefully structured and textured multi-vocal harmonies and dissonances.

Stones from the Manzanar camp speak in poems including “Stone Chorus: Manzanar,” relating that, “In the desert between the mountains / the winds were luxuriant. // They were blue and carried rumors and little / yellow flowers from barrack / to barrack and disease. We were surrounded / I tell you.” Saito skillfully threads together a form of desert pastoral, oral history, witnessing, and sensory detail. Affect and the senses infuse the collection with the visceral wonder and horror of everyday life under internment and in its wake.

The narrators of these poems and hybrid works speak not only for and with survivors and the experience of survival, they also concern themselves with personal history and ars poetica, echoing Plath and Akhmatova in the poem “One Day Dawn,” with the lines, “take up the pen, press it to the veins — / draw bloodlines in cursive, like smoke.” The individual and the community intertwine with political and cultural memory.

Recurring throughout the collection, we find poems of the Woman Warrior, who functions both as archetypal, and simultaneously as a vehicle for first person experience written in third person form, in the manner of a writer’s bio. In the poem “Alone Time,” this figure, sometimes abbreviated in titles as W.W., “calls out from the cold water to the absent maker / makes herself take zero breaths / when going under / for a long time. / When she comes up for air / the vultures circle high above her like living stars.” This Woman Warrior has been both forced into and empowered by mythic spaces and stories of origin. She appears as a type of deity in lieu of the elusive “maker,” and as a living woman who breathes and appears as prey for vultures.

We get a similar sense from the poem “Stone Returns: 70 Years Later,” in which the speaker occupies a space somewhere between the stones of the camp, the survivors, and their descendants. Early in the poem, we follow the actions of a woman in the camp, “How to ask her to be so still // the desert flowers coalesce around her / like sky’s chorus at dawn? // She can’t. She paces the length / of the barrack blocks, // the dead weight of midnight like a sea / she can breathe in.” The woman in this poem serves as a prototypical ghost or former resident of the camp, and as a sketch of the mother of the narrator who speaks in the voice of the stones. Further on in the poem, the stones begin to sound like the children of survivors: “I’m worn. I’m tired / of their histories. When I dream // I dream of silence so vast and expansive / it packs tight the space // beneath the canopy of stars. / It bears down like hail. It threatens // to swallow. What I have of a heart skips beats,” — the stones speak of their heartbeats and embody sensory experience of residents of the camps and the ramifications for their children and grandchildren.

A second form of ars poetica, the poem “Revision” also navigates a space among ghosts, “How I believe what I can’t remember, how memory / is the engine of myth, how beer cans and laughter- / kings thread through the bloodlines of a common / American girlhood. I don’t know whose story / has taken up residence in my body, what ghost.” These lines bring up another strength of this collection — its strong ties to specific locations and landscapes in the face of an America which refused to recognize Japanese Americans as Americans. We see that even falling in love has a locational quality to it, as revealed in poems such as “Directions for Falling,” addressed to an interlocutor or self-image in the second person, “You, young. Waiting for thumbnail moonlight, married / to the sea. When sweet long love presents itself / wear the colors of your bio-region, make prayers / for west coast rain.” Ritual prayer, seasonal weather, and life events tie the speaker and the “you” to the bio-region and the West Coast.

Power Made Us Swoon draws much of its strength from Saito’s skill and attention to commemorating and honoring the individuals and communities affected most by the internment, while creating a space for a multiplicity of voices, ghosts, and mythical figures embodied. The narrators’ personal experiences and communal memory create a collection which both speaks to and for itself on its own terms and can offer lyrical insight for those of us who do not have this kind of first-hand knowledge and immediate understanding of everything that is at stake when a country views its own citizens as enemy aliens.