Tuesday Books No. 9: Totem: America

Aloha, time for Tuesday books! Totem: America by Debra Kang Dean, author of five collections of poetry, reminds us how poetry opens us to feelings that are often too complicated to express and gives us the words we need to heal and live. Born in Hawai’i and of Korean and Okinawan ancestry, Dean is a serious practitioner of taiji, a master of lyricism, and writes of grief, connection, color and story. She guides the reader with narrative and sharp descriptions that oblige the reader to reframe the ordinary. 

She lets us in. What sensory moments linger with us when faced with the fading of people and memory? I thought a lot about how the very sharp fragments are often how we make meaning and the choice becomes this: which moments do we move closer to in order to make our lives cohesive?

We go to poetry to ask: what should I note? WHY? As with all writing that moves one to a space of deep contemplation, Dean obliges us to ask this question (as I’d be inclined to casually say): HEY, YEAH, SO WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

Apples, Elvis, sky and words. Grief. And the HAN comes through—this is the Korean word that has no direct translation—of resilience and pathos, memory and loss—a binding to a feeling rooted in sorrow.

Kang writes poems we read once. And then decide, (in my case) a day later, to read again!

I also appreciate the references of place and experience. Poetry is both universal and specific, and for me personally, having grown up in Iowa, but having come to HI for family, there are certain cultural aspects that resonate. This is also very teachable poetry, and so teachers out there–I would pick up Totem: America or Dean’s other work. Dean writes her truth, and we nod in agreement;)

From ‘An Open Eye’: “I know that Death, like God,/wears many faces,/ but the heart, indiscriminate,/ only hammers out its/one note.”

Debra Kang Dean will be visiting Women’s Creative Writing Workshop on Wednesday 10/21! So excited to have her zoom in!

~teaching women the power of narrative~

Women’s Creative Writing Workshop begins 10/24

Register here.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *