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Sunday, June 24, 2001

Nagashima provides balm for the caregiver's soul

THE GIRL WHO TURNED INTO TEA, by Minako Nagashima, translated by Hiroaki Sato. P.S., A Press, 2000, 56 pp., $12.

The frailties and failings of the human body and mind are not usually the stuff of poetry, but Minako Nagashima, a longtime social worker and aid to the physically and mentally handicapped, has found in them a rich and compelling subject matter.

Nagashima was born poor in 1943 and grew up poor, enduring life struggles that gave her tremendous empathy for others while providing her with a healthy dose of reality. Later, she married a man 26 years her senior who suffered an incapacitating stroke that left him physically and mentally diminished. She acted as an unfailing caretaker, feeding him, washing him, administering medications and above all loving him. Although her life was certainly full by anyone's standards, at 40 she decided to write poems that "gave her a real sense she was alive." She did this by chronicling the difficulties and rewards of giving -- and receiving -- care. Her fourth book, "The Bean-Bun Diary," about living with her stricken husband, was published in 1998 and received the Oguma Hideo Prize. Here, poems have been selected from five previously published books in Japanese by the poet and her renowned translator Hiroaki Sato, then translated into English.

Nagashima starkly re-creates the personal struggles of caretaking for someone who is no longer able to care for himself, and her no-frills imagery captures the reality of his suffering. We can almost see, hear, smell and feel the frustrations in both sides of the relationship. In the poems about caring for her husband, the profound sense of duty and shared history that binds the couple threads its way through the words with both sadness and irony. Though this man's life is now reduced to total dependence, he was a former army man who once embraced order. And for all the poet's professed distance, the poems are surprisingly visceral, such as "Love:"

The man next to me; face turned this way, is snoring comfortably. Because he's asleep with his mouth open, The smell comes. Human innards smell rotten. Fried chicken, salad, strawberries just eaten Change the moment they go down the throat. Where and how do they change? I'd like to stick my hand into his throat And pull the single tube of his body For verification. Where and how did we, Me and my man, change? I'd like to pull in the core of our consciousness For verification.

These verses chart the body's functions, weaknesses and breakdowns. From major injuries such as loss of speech to minor inconveniences like pustules or forgetfulness, these verses embody a kind of metaphysics of compassion, pathos and comedy while showing that growing old is not always such a romantic journey into the twilight years. In "Peeling Off," a man's skin sheds and a woman "sucks it off with a vacuum cleaner." In "The Map," a man is rendered mentally "lost" and the only path left leads to the caretaker, who becomes both Mother and Wife with no borderline between them.

Plumbing the depth of experience as Nagashima has, a certain wisdom and acceptance emerges. Her realism seems to imply that when we stop struggling and learn to accept our limitations and weakness, we show our essential true selves more honestly to the world. It's as if there's a transformative moment when the outer self peels away and the inner self is revealed.

In the preface, Nagashima says she watches her life from afar with the detached eye of stranger "as a third party." Although her poems exhibit a certain amount of clinical detachment, they are often laced with a dark, earthy humor that draws the reader into the intimacies of her daily life without sentimentality or pity. For example, the book takes its title from the Japanese custom of giving gifts to funeral-goers. "When you work with the handicapped, a mourning dress is a must," she writes. A girl the poet knew died and "returned as tea" (the funeral gift) prompting Nagashima to muse, "When my turn comes, I'll use ice cream" so that she can melt away without a trace.

The poet's brilliant sense of irony allows us to empathize and to find ourselves in these portraits. Sometimes the detachment, used to undercut a painful experience, is disconcerting. This us especially true when the poet turns an eye on herself, such as in "Borscht," a poem about an abortion. But the skillful weaving in of a natural image and the blood red of the borscht are striking devices that resonate deeply.

I went to have an abortion Ate borscht, and came home. A single ball of meat lay in it. The child I aborted: A sea horse. I feel neither good nor bad, I am neither cold not hot. My body readily gets pregnant.

Peggy Backman, an American psychologist who specializes in working with the mentally and physically disabled, writes of this book, "Although some might find the poems sad or frightening, those who work with disabled or the elderly will recognize the reality that is so beautifully expressed here. The poems provide insight into the realities of suffering through illness, dying and death." Indeed, these earthy, profoundly moving poems offer rare glimpses into the lives of people who are often sadly shut away from society at large. "The Girl Who Turned to Tea" flings that door wide open and is highly recommended for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of what it means to be truly alive.

The book, ISBN# 1-889087-06-8, can be ordered through the press at 169 Garron Road, Middletown Springs, VT 05757 USA or by fax at (502) 235-2844.

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