I was a natural reader for W. Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies, a book that examines the pageantries of professional wrestling to access and discuss his relationship with his father, and display memory and immediacy at once. Kaneko’s latest, This is How the Bone Sings¸ still confronts the past that surrounds him, but does so through the myth of America and the generational trauma that comes with it. These poems gesture at once, in past and present, to the speaker, his loved ones, and to the lives they’re entangled with. They are memories embodied and show us what a shared history is by way of their music.
In “american sentences” Kaneko unlocks the form as a means to move the reader through generational trauma: “Minidoka is a Dakota Sioux word meaning “spring of water.”/ My grandparents were captives too, animals stranded in the badlands./ Some call it relocation, internment; we just call it Idaho.” (4-6). The tension in the juxtaposition of these lines is heartbreaking: the dehumanization of the speaker’s grandparents, the appropriation of Sioux culture, and the irony of “water” in the form of nationalism tucked away in the badlands. The beauty of the line work—how fast the information is delivered in the third line because of its absence of caesura and the way the following lines pause and control the information —forces the reader to consider the braided narratives of the disenfranchised.
Another stand-out form is the “reading comprehension.” The shape of these poems is exactly what you would expect from the name: a collection of language with a quiz below. But Kaneko is an artist who understands that form needs surprise to function. Consider the opening of “reading comprehension 44: the hungry ghosts”
When the women unfold into gorgeous birds, when the
men peel back their downy pelts, when the children cloak
themselves in hides of long dead antelope—it will be supper
time and your ancestors will emerge from photographs in search
of new clothing. (1-5)
Several things to take away:
First, this is one complicated sentence—clauses are added one after another into a syntaxis that mimics the transformation the words seek to embody. Second, the poem is lyrical. When this sentence comes to a close, it is revealed that the incantation laid before us is a response to the photographs mentioned. The lyric here, as it always is, is a moment in which the knowledge of the poem and its language becomes recontextualized; the ancestors are memory, they are locked within the boundaries of the mind and of the photograph, yet we do not know that until the sentence comes to a halt and forces us as readers to join the speaker in a re-examination of the past.
Third is the inclusion of the quiz:
Question: What do hungry ghosts whisper?
a) All the orchards are plagued by hunger.
b) Tear down the orchards to build houses for ghosts.
c) There are no such things as ghosts. (15-9)
Most obviously, the quiz refers back to the poem’s content and asks that we again re-examine it. What does it mean for the ghosts to say they do not exist? Is the hunger in the orchards that of the ghosts asking for rest, or does it echo the supper of the family in some absent sense? What are houses for ghosts, and how is it different from ritual, memory, or artifice? The poem does not answer any of these inquiries in part because its form does not permit it, but also because to do so would make too strong a claim as to what these words mean. To say the same thing differently: The choice to forgo strong definitions and answers further makes the point of how painful and mercurial it is for the speaker to be who they are—they have no answer but grief.
Less obviously, the quiz here functions similarly to the quizzes in Srikanth Reddy’s recent Under World Lit. In both books, the imposition of western academic standards (in the form of the quiz) asks us how and why we categorize knowledge, as well as if these structures are fair to those who have lived through the knowledge we harvest. Kaneko, like Reddy, has yet again shown us how closely the lives of the privileged and the disenfranchised mesh in ways we try not to consider.
W. Todd Kaneko has crafted a book of poems that all at once asks, demands, and shows.
Read these poems.
Read them again.
W. Todd Kaneko
is the author of the poetry books This is How the Bone Sings (Black Lawrence Press 2020) and The Dead Wrestler Elegies (New Michigan Press 2020). He is co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic 2018), and Slash / Slash, winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Chapbook Prize, which will be published in 2021. A Kundiman Fellow, he teaches at Grand Valley State University and lives with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
is phoebe‘s assistant poetry editor and a second year MFA candidate in poetry. He lives, writes, reads, and tweets (@dadsdogfood) in upstate NY.