Wednesday, March 1, 2017



Pier by Janine Oshiro
(Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine, 2011).

Janine Oshiro holds degrees from Whitworth University, Portland State University and the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. She is a Kundiman Fellow and the recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from Oregon’s Literary Arts. She lives in Hawaii and teaches at Windward Community College. Pier is her debut collection. It won her the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize.

This collection of 24 poems, written over a period of seven years, is divided into three sections headed Adrift, Tack and Wake. In an interview published in the Lantern Review Blog (2012) Oshiro says that the simplest way for her to explain these three divisions is that in section one there is a problem; in section two, she is trying to act out various solutions to the problem; and in the final section she attempts to resolve the problem.

Oshiro’s poems inhabit a strange world. It is a world that is difficult to pin down with any precision. Specific places are rarely, if ever, mentioned. “Spit” is merely a narrow strip of land that could be anywhere. The location of the “Three Capes” will remain forever a mystery when the only description given is that one of them is scenic. In “Rest” we find ourselves in what Oshira repeatedly refers to as “the white place.”  The cover, too, is otherworldly.  For me, it calls to mind this opening passage from “Praise”:

Heaven is a prop that the stage-
hands erect on stage before
my brother and sister descend
from it to invent the world.

and a single line from Move:

This is the end of the pier.

Strangeness abounds in the imagery. In one poem we are told that spoons swim through the ocean and in “Duck Hunting” we are given the image of a cow in a marsh:

The cow’s body appears above its head, but it is not upside down.

In “Eleven Dancers” the dancers have no legs, in “Audience” there is a play in which there are no actors, only chairs and in “Conspicitursus” there is mention of a sow with a see-through stomach. The poem “Snow Logic” reads like an off-beat re-run of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Oshiro clearly finds inspiration from the dictionary and enjoys exploring the meanings of words. “Spit” is a case in point. Words that are close to it in the dictionary (strip, spindrift, slip, and spiculate) are placed in the poem more by design than by accident. In “Three Capes,” the cape is seen as a geographical feature and also as an article of clothing. The notes at the back of the book inform us that “Next, Dust” borrows language from medical texts about scleroderma and the poem “Conspicitursus” takes its title from the mention of the two possibilities of meaning in a manuscript without spacing – conspicit ursus (a bear espies) and conspicitur sus (a sow is espied) – in Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West by M.B.Parkes.

Oshiro’s poems inhabit a world of decay. Both animate and inanimate objects are described as being in this state.  In “Relic” she writes:

An astonishing number of
harmful things can happen
to objects made out
of paper: foxing,
excreta of insects,
lux –that is to say,
our bodies rust.

There are visions in these poems: the vision of a mother in the clouds, of a man dancing in a pavilion, of a mountain as a sleeping giant. These are coupled with stories of creation, of sadness and ultimately of loss. Time and again, Oshiro “speaks” through the medium of mammals: frogs, bears, sows and sea squirts. There is, at times, something theatrical about her writing – a hint of a stage, of props, of dancing, of music and a chorus…but these are only hints and nothing more than that.

The sparse notes at the end of the book, while helpful, could have offered more by way of explanation.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014),  The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).

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