01 January 2010

Slide Shows by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Slide Shows
Finishing Line Press
ISBN: 978-1599245010

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Claire Keyes
You could read Ann Fisher-Wirth’s chapbook of nineteen poems in fifteen minutes. It’s like a box of chocolates. Read one, you can’t resist reading them all. Yet they are not bon-bons.  These nineteen poems composed in ten lines apiece provide an amazing snapshot (ok, slide show) of the post-World War II American occupation of Japan as seen through the eyes of two young sisters, the daughters of a U. S. Army officer. The children see what they see; it’s the task of the adult reader to supply the significance.
 
“On the Road to Camp Zama” provides an excellent example of Fisher-Wirth’s technique. In straight-forward narrative, the scene is presented by its little girl perceiver:
We drove past a low mountain
where halfway up
a red quilt hung in front
of a cave.  Children played
or sat in the clearing.  A woman
poked at a fire. 
What are
they doing?
I asked
my mother. 
Why are they
sitting in the dirt?   They
probably live there
, she answered.
The child-narrator can not comprehend what she sees: “a red quilt hung in front of a cave.”  The children playing, the woman poking a fire—they inhabit another world the American child can not place. The adult Fisher-Wirth captures post-war Japan in its desperate poverty, cities and villages destroyed. They probably live there, says it all.
 
“Spring,” despite its hopeful title, presents a less-than-pretty picture of a spring ritual in Japan of the 1940s:
Eeewww, we said
holding our noses
as the schoolbus lumbered
past fields where farmers
staggered beneath
yoked honeybuckets,
or tipped them to pour
all-winter liquefied shit
on soil prepared for
forbidden strawberries.
To be shifted from 20th century urban American to the Japanese countryside puts the children portrayed in this poem into a world difficult to imagine, impossible to like. Those “honeybuckets” weren’t transporting honey but human and animal waste, the only  fertilizer available to the Japanese farmer of “forbidden strawberries.” Did they eat the strawberries anyway? Most likely, but the poems don’t tell us. Fisher-Wirth maintains a kind of poetic decorum in which she refuses to step over the line of adult knowingness—or irony.
 
Two poems set face-to-face about mid-way through Slide Shows provide the reader with a sense of the artfulness of Fisher-Wirth’s collection. First, “The Japanese Boy” conveys the innocent perspective of its child-speaker:
What was he doing, the boy
with the skinned weasel
slung around his shoulders?
He stood by the road
outside Zama, wearing this
dead animal, his chapped
cheeks scoured red, eyes
beneath his bangs
bright as the eyes
that glinted near his armpit.  
“What was he doing?” Clearly, the boy is both poor (“Chapped cheeks scoured red”) and hungry. Those “bright eyes” are eager for a paying customer. 
 
On the facing page, we have “You Are Cultural Ambassadors”:
All the fifth graders
went by rickety Army bus
to a mountain school
where for children
who spoke no English
we put on our plays.
In white satin with panniers
and a fake ermine collar,
I acted the part of the
Princess with Rose-Colored Glasses.   
The narrator in her “fake ermine collar” is a doppelganger for the boy with the skinned weasel. She and her classmates have the luxury of putting on plays, not to mention their beautiful costumes “in white satin.” She sees no irony in the American children performing their plays in English. Pleased with herself, she is “The Princess with Rose-Colored Glasses.”  
 
The pleasures of Fisher-Wirth’s slim chapbook come from the interplay of the child’s innocent perspective versus the adult’s knowingness of the ugly devastation of war, any war. One could do worse than pay attention to Fisher-Wirth’s Slide Shows.

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