In these erasure poems, Collier Nogues presents oblique, redolent lines that contain and complicate the ghostlike traces left behind from original historical documents. Nogues has created a beautiful, haunting piece of work with The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground, winner of the inaugural Drunken Boat Poetry Book Contest.
You can read Nogues’s poems as simply the appearance of inviting, enigmatic words on a page. But you can also read them while moving your finger or your cursor over the offered lines, in this way interacting with the text as you reveal as well as conceal the primary texts on which the poems are based.
Nogues’s are erasure poems that both present and obscure the story of, as Nogues writes, “the development and aftermath of the Pacific War, especially on the island of Okinawa.” In these pieces, we witness the presentation as well as the simultaneous erasure of an entire period of Japanese history, beginning in the 1940s and continuing into our own time. Nogues has carved out a moving, elliptical account of race and colonization, of militarization as well as sentiment. In Nogues’s poem “Security” we read,
I believe I hear the heels of a man at
as a man of force, his shoulder grow-
ing into a point
into a flag.
In the apparatus to her erasure, Nogues tells us that
[t]his poem erases “Security in Northeast Asia: From Okinawa to the DMZ,” the transcript of a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific which took place in April 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s diplomatic visit to Japan and Korea. Seven months earlier, the largest local and international protests against the U.S. bases in decades had been set off by the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three American servicemen, a series of events that the committee members and presenters refer to obliquely throughout the hearing.
Nogues makes moving images from government texts that document troubling incidents, in the process allowing us to see what’s hidden in plain sight within official words. Nogues’s are poems that interrogate the Pacific War, implicitly asking who authored these events as well as who benefited from them and at what price.
In her affecting, suggestive lines, Nogues prompts us to ask what is there and what is missing, both in the historical documents she culls from as well as in the actual land and from the actual people she writes about. As we read the lines Nogues has crafted from found documents, we are encouraged to stitch together a narrative that is necessarily always open to interpretation, always fragmented, always incomplete. In structuring her collection this way, Nogues reminds us that these are stories that have been manipulated, recast, rewritten, partially forgotten, erased. Nogues’s lines do not seek to paper over these hard truths; rather, her poems remind us that subtexts and rereadings create other stories, new narratives.
Her poems picture forth scenes that prompt questions. These lines are not glosses on the erased texts; they offer new ways of imagining and seeing. We are encouraged to hover over her erasure poems to witness what girds them, what words are underneath, palimpsest like. Yet as we fill in the blanks that her poems elide, we’re often left even more off balance. In these poems, finding missing words does not always offer meaning, and that is, I believe, partly Nogues’s point. The missing texts don’t simply fill in gaps in our knowledge. As we float over the historical documents that are the understory to Nogues’s poems, we come to realize there is much more to these moments, to these scenes. Nogues’s lines fracture and reassemble others’ lines, and we can see the larger pattern she’s presented: a pattern that avoids easy summary or tidy explanation.
One of the more powerful erasures in this collection is a poem entitled “Dear Grace.” The long poem is created in eight sections, all stemming from the same clipped, single-page document that Assistant Attorney General James Rowe, Jr., wrote to President Roosevelt’s secretary, Grace Tully, in 1942. As Nogues tells us, “Rowe recommends that Roosevelt take action on the ‘Japanese situation in California,’ which Roosevelt did sixteen days later by signing Executive order 9066, setting in motion the forced relocation and internment of more than 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent.” This original document is fairly straightforward in its alarm at the deteriorating situation of the Japanese “citizens and aliens” in California. Nogues takes this tightly packed, even curt document and she excises feeling, manipulates intent, and alters emphases, all to unforgettable effect. She twists and reconfigures the original document in eight different ways, each iteration offering a more and more telling, spare elegy. Nogues take a matter-of-fact, even blunt, memo outlining the probability of Japanese internment, and she excavates meaning, unearthing emotion. She creates eight evocative poems, each one redefining Rowe’s words and twisting them across the page:
I look like
an alien —
James , Jr.
s e, Jr.
This collection shimmers. The erased poems are lovely and stirring, and the online version of the book is wonderfully wrought. On the web page we can see the entirety of the erased documents Nogues works with. We can interact with the erased texts by hovering over the missing lines and making the effaced text fade away or come into focus again. And the site houses a store of literary criticism, explanations of Nogues’s own creative choices, and scanned copies of the actual and often beautiful original historical texts Nogues is steeped in, as well as links to other writers on this period in Japanese history, other poets who think about or enact erasure poetics, and ideas and prompts for teaching this and other erasure poetry. It’s a truly generous, thoughtful site, and reading through it only deepens one’s appreciation for Nogues’s work, as a poet as well as an educator and activist.
Nogues’s breaking apart of these historical documents offers a new read on old material, and in the process of seeing and not seeing her sources, we come to understand the history of occupied and colonized Japan in a powerful new way. In her poems, Nogues offers us new emphases, new ways to view and understand these primary texts. Her poems allow us to perform our own rereadings, and they encourage us to see the past anew.
Collier Nogues is the author of the poetry collections The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground (Drunken Boat, 2015) and On the Other Side, Blue (Four Way, 2011). Her work has been supported by fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Fishtrap. She’s a PhD Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, and will be Lingnan University’s Spring 2016 Writer in Residence. She also curates Hong Kong’s English-language poetry craft talk series and edits poetry for Juked.