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A Re-Inter-View on Hiromi Itos Wild Grass on the Riverbank

Abby Hagler

The only reason a corpse came up was because we were talking about Hiromi
Itos book-length poem Wild Grass on the Riverbank (Action Books, 2015).
Two others responded in kind: the first corpse they saw was their grandfather.
Me too. My friend Adam had a different story, having grown up in a funeral
home.
To the 21 year-old, I said, Wild Grass is one of those stories of movement
from ignorance-to-knowledge, innocence-to-experience told from the
perspective of an 11 year-old girl who travels a lot with her mother, brother,
sister. She has two fathers, both corpses.
To someones mother, I said, Wild Grass is about this mother and her three
kids told from the perspective of the daughter. The mothers husbands keep
dying and then coming back as talking corpses, and the children live like that
for a while. The plants take over the house and the mothers body. She never
takes care of her kids, so they leave her.
Someones mother wanted to know why all the fathers kept turning into
corpses why all the corpses surrounding these children in general. Because I
wanted to know too, I asked Adam about the experience of coming up around
the dead. He told me:
There was nothing in the atmosphere of the funeral home to make it a
frightening place, just pews and these heavy yellow curtains. My
grandmother would send me to the basement to get a gallon of milk
from a little auxiliary refrigerator in a pantry next to the embalming
room, and in passing I would see a dead, naked old man and it was like
passing a couch.
In Wild Grass, corpse fathers are treated much the same like a couch or other
household objects. Marriage begins to look like this:
Mother took care of the corpse while taking care of the vines, like the
vines that grew tangled up in one another, fathers corpse got tangled

with mother, mother got tangled in fathers corpse, mother grew new
shoots and the vines proliferated
Bodies are dying. The inanimate feed off them throughout the story. This
reminds me: Plants are those inanimate creatures many forget are alive until
theyre dead. Corpses, similarly, straddle the worlds of the living and the dead.

What Adam said made me think a corpse is also a body incapable of producing
or sustaining life, like writing. In the funeral world, a corpse is not a corpse. I
asked Adam what I should call the dead in this book: Cadaver? Corpse? Body?
Cadaver is a clinical term, Adam said.
You donate a body to science and that act transforms the body into a
cadaver. Corpse is too gruesome, has too much horror movie
connotation, to use in any professional context. Body is a neutral,
human term.
I liked that he connected a corpse to the terror of death. A body seems to be
ambiguous, as if it could still hold life. There is something comforting in that.
About corpses, Adam said: There can be this visceral This is not the person I
know; theres no spark anymore, this is just an empty vessel moment when
viewing the body that can be incredibly beneficial to someone in mourning.
To live in a funeral home is much different than to live indefinitely with the
dead. I want to make that distinction clear. What these perspectives share is
how they reveal the way people normalize certain fearsespecially the fear of
death. Normalization occurs if the bizarre happens first. A corpse is everyday if
one never knew to be afraid in the first place, like all of the children in this
writing. This gives a corpse possibility beyond death. A corpse can also
symbolize or help grief. It serves as the vessel for the passing of emotions.
I went on to tell someones mother that vessels related to travel are everywhere
in this story. A mother is a vessel. To be a mother is a role, too a space to
occupy, to absent, or corrupt. Because Wild Grass is written from the
standpoint of a child who must care for her mother, a new role is created: the
mother/child.

Someones mother disagreed. She said she did not understand why the dead
wouldnt stay dead, nor why a mother would refuse to mother. I told her: The
mother/ child is not my idea. Julie Carr wrote about it in her essay Dear
Fred posted on The Volta. The role of the mother is the one who holds,
carries, bears, and releases without ever really losing the other, she says. This
implies it is the child who is held, carried, born, and released. Meaning roles are
vessels. They are plot points. A mother/child is one who performs both roles.
Itos narrator is a perfect example of this: a child who must care for her parents,
her siblings, and herself.
In Wild Grass, a mother grows feral, less human, literally sprouting plants.
Corpse fathers speak. But they are only patriarchs because As long as he was
the father, it didnt matter what kind of father he was/ After he became a
corpse, he was still head of the household. Anyone who can be both/and shows
that roles are vessels to be occupied, rather than determined by demographics.
When multiple roles are occupied (and they always are), its possible for a child
to stop being a child, or for an adult to become a household object. It makes it
possible to be alive and dead, or dead before death. A role unfulfilled may still
contain a body, after all. Ito means a parent refusing to parent, or a failed
parent still attempting, is the same as a corpse refusing to stay dead.
The 21 year-old didnt want to know any more about the dead. He wanted to
know why this fairy tale-sounding story is poetry. I told him old tales in many
cultures used to be in poetic form. What I didnt say was: Like the definition of
a poem, the corpse also means something different in every piece of writing. In
Little Red Riding Hood, a corpse can be a suit to hide pernicious aims. In
zombie flicks, the insatiable corpse is part of an army equal to social fears often
driving politics. Jeffrey Angles, in his translators introduction, lets us know
Itos story is composed of bits of news, autobiography, the Japanese-English
inter-language her own children speak, pre-modern forms, and folklore. It is
hard to tell what is real and what is fiction, what is Itos and what is borrowed.
No reader can try to read this without attempting to parse the two. And, yes.
How frightening to read without a solid sense of what is real a confusion
similar to a character coming across a prone figure, unable to tell if it is a body
or a corpse. This is the fear of a reader reading a poets prose.
I never mentioned to any of the interviewees that there isnt a single word
wasted in this poem. I kept to myself the idea Angles brings up regarding Itos

fluid shifts between poetry and prose. He says Ito wrote this book attempting to
write poetry after a long period of depression resulting in prose. I heard a
shadow of this idea mentioned once before on the first day of a writing class.
We were given a questionnaire and asked to say whether we were writing
mostly in poetry or mostly in prose. The teacher said, If you write mostly in
poetry, you have a sense of control. If you write mostly in prose, you are feeling
at sea. There was no answer for those who are in between, so I thought both
must be indicators of growth.
No one asked me how the book ends. I havent yet read a review that talks
about the end and for good reason. Everyone wants to have the ending to
themselves. Even I know this rule, and others, such as: A corpse dropped in any
conversation will eventually turn talk to life. Life lurks death that way.
However, talk about life does not necessarily bring up death. It may never come
to mind. Meaning corpses point toward learning and survival, not stagnation
alone.

Abby Hagler lives and works in Chicago. Other work can be found in Black
Tongue Review, Alice Blue Review, and Boog City.

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