Janine Oshiro’s “Pier” reviewed by Wendi M Lee

Alice James Books
by Janine Oshiro
ISBN: 9781882295883
Reviewed by WENDI M LEE

Janine Oshiro’s first poetry collection, Pier, is a haunting masterpiece tinged with fantasy and the shifting landscapes of nature, decay, and creation. Oshiro writes of family histories: a deceased mother and ailing father, growing up in Hawaii and living on the Mainland. This is far from narrative poetry, however. Strangeness lurks on every page. Spoons swim through the ocean, dancers twirl without the use of legs. The possibility of dark magic is imminent. Oshiro’s beautiful, off-kilter images are often tempered with large segments of white space, revealing to the reader what cannot be expressed with words alone.

Everywhere is a potential
exit, except the door

I drew a high wall at the skin;
at the bottom I drew a gutter. 

I was eleven.
These are the words I have for it.

Creation plays a central role in this collection. In “Praise,” the speaker “is clapping my hands” in anticipation for her siblings to “invent the world” via the stage, a world closed to her by normal means. The elegiac “Move” is composed of very short stanzas, hinged upon an image reminiscent of a biblical creation story. “On the first day,” is the recurring phrase here, as we move from “sea squirts” and “frogfishes” to the slow and steady disintegration of a beloved father.

In “Anniversary,” a kingdom is erected piece by piece, the protagonist carefully inserting houses and daughters into a landscape of wildness, willing domesticity and nature to collide. Order is of utmost importance here, perhaps to soften the chaos of everyday life, but so is the bated apprehension of disaster.

I kept an eye on the animal and nothing happened.
The mountain blistered and popped into its plural.
I kept an eye on the animal.
The sky remained where it was, distant.

The obedient daughters kept their houses neat.

Creation then is uncertain, a metamorphosis always on the brink of occurring, a disappointment when it does not arrive. Sight and language also produces unease and uncertainty. Potentially traumatic events occur without the awareness of the protagonist, yet nonetheless accepted as factual. Sometimes these experiences can be named. Others are so mysterious they remain shrouded in the spaces off the page, referred to only in passing.

Having not seen it
happen but knowing
it happened 

a black snake
crawled down my spine. 

Even sight ultimately proves to be unreliable as what is proven to be “fact” crumbles. A mother’s likeness is caught in a passing cloud formation. Ghosts walk unbidden into rooms, to reassure grieving daughters. Nature itself becomes a landscape of startling revelation.  

Before I saw snow, I saw
pictures of snow and believed
in it. And so of bears.
Snow blinded I am. A bear
is nothing like its picture.        

The dichotomy of what is seen/not seen, witnessed/believed resonates. What gives these poems so much power is Oshiro’s ability to transform the landscapes of her experiences. I also grew up in Hawaii, but the world she presents to her readers exists in the twilight of unreality, where grief and beauty can be fully explored. Her words illuminate and mystify in equal measures. Pier is an impressively startling first collection, and well-deserving of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize. I am fascinated to see what she has to offer next.



WENDI LEE was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and currently lives in Pittsburgh. She has a chapbook, Knotted Ends, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and poetry and fiction published in Karamu, Portland Review, Oyez Review, weave, Passages North, and Hawai’I Pacific Review.