Review: Robert Okaji’s “From Every Moment A Second”.

Okaji Image

Robert Okaji
Finishing Line Press


From Every Moment A Second, the latest chapbook by American poet Robert Okaji, is yet another meticulously crafted collection of observations, private austerities and hesitancies spelt out in verse. A small collection of twenty poems, each feels “warm”, like a cozy winter Sunday on your living room couch – to paraphrase Junichiro Tanizaki – lost in contemplation of flavours to come.

What makes it a five star collection is each poem is clear in its vision, each unambiguously a part of the greater gist of the book. Each line shows where lesser works ‘tell’, and thus this collection feels like a series of tiny one act plays. Part of this is how each line and stanza feels like it has been put exactly in its proper place, that any further edits would remove a character or vital plot point in the narrative. Plus, each poem evokes the feeling of the grammatical negative, asking shall we not see things as such? as opposed to “such are things”, revealing how uniquely he has allowed his Teutonic and Japanese heritage to play upon his creative sensibilities (for more analysis of Okaji’s creative approach click here).

In reading this new collection I was also reminded of how thoroughly non-Romantic it is; how it is neither speaking to how things might or ought to be, nor offering ideal certainty on what we ourselves must become. Through this Imagism – poetry that is so close to prose it might as well be – it is as if Okaji covertly weaves into his work the logic of Parmenides: hinting that Existence is the thing that exists.

I am also happy to report that this new collection remains true to the Okaji style: great restraint in metaphorical language, whose opposite in my mind is the bane of poetry (the sun buttering the clouds like popcorn, the rain falling like tears, etc.).  Okaji goes straight to the point and saves us all from common poetic abandon… thank god! It is in this fashion that he is either subconsciously or unconsciously a lodger in novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s sensibilities. Admittedly, this description may only be speculation on my part: moving from book review to random essay on what I imagine goes on in Robert’s head. But, after repeated readings of each poem, I am struck by what at least seems to be a covert analysis of the gulf between subjectivity and objectivity similar to Vonnegut’s narrative voice.

Through the work, and indeed Okaji’s general output, he both can and cannot explain what it is like to be Robert Okaji: like trying to understand the world by holding a mirror out through a window. But he never falls prey to the intrinsicism or fideism of a mystic; he does not just sit there and imagine whatever pops into his head is illuminating, true, reasoned, or even poetry itself! Thus in doing so he evokes the creative spirit of Zen monk Ryōkan Taigu, who stated: “who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. Thus, after you know my poems are not poems, then we can begin to discuss poetry”.

So Okaji writes in this place of objective things (birds, leaves, water) without opinion, having what philosopher Thomas Nagel calls a “view from nowhere”, and yet, his “not poems” create some rather powerful statements on existing. Having not fallen prey to attempting “great poetic meaning”, he existentially sidesteps poetry and does not get lost in words to the point where, as Wittgenstein put it, “one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound”, giving up on it entirely. Instead he exposes and makes real the contents of being Robert Okaji while never asserting that what is in his mind at any given time is inherently sufficient for our greater understanding, or our aesthetic entertainment. Thus, in “Mayflies”, he points out the fact that the eponymous insects have no functioning mouth, never knowing the pleasures of Italian white wine and such as he has, adding “who’s to say which life burns brighter; even knowing these facts, still I dream of flight”. In another instance (“Latitude”) he offers up the idea that “sometimes it’s enough to know that a chicken preceded this egg…”.

The best example though is in “If Ahead I See” in which he writes, “the house finch sings as if all air will expire at song’s end”. But if all air will expire when the song concludes, why would the finch sing in the first place? But the house finch sings, ergo acts in a way that makes the air as full of life (music) as possible, makes an effort in the face of potential finality. This is straight up Sartrean existentialism seeping through Okaji’s finch into our perception: life is how we act; giving purpose or utility to what inherently has none. The finch can do something, has choice, and with her breath, wastes no time and effort. Okaji’s finch exposes an undercurrent of a kind of pragmatic existentialism that, while tinged with a certain ill-fated austerity, ends in song, in action. And like his finch, Okaji writes as if all words will expire at poesy’s end. So why would Okaji, like the finch, sing in the first place?

The answer occurred to me while reading the poem The Resonance of No. As the narrator (Okaji himself) washes some dishes, a spider, Miles Davis, a guitar, a potato peeler, ale, and a John Coltrane saxophone solo all pass through his thoughts. Breaking through his soapy reverie though is the sudden slicing of his palm by a food processor blade, which brings him back to the present, ending in a meditation on the emptiness of words in the face of an upcoming visit to a loved one’s grave. Okaji moves from aesthetics to grounded Being in the space of a cut, a rending of flesh… and spirit. In Japanese swordsmanship this is the weapon of the highest order, the dokumyōken: the great “sword to cut oneself with”. This is the internal slash against the real villain: one’s own doubt and uncertainty, overcoming self in order to overcome what lies outside of self.

But instead… Okaji lays down the dokumyōken! The uncertainties remain; his words continue to be speculation rather than expression: what is “Robert Okaji” is not yet a certainty. The words (before and after the cut of the processor blade) remain as they are: the dokumyōken sits unused in Okaji’s heart. But he immediately acts, continues to write, to express that he can’t express, singing like the finch, though he is still not sure there is even any air to carry his song. Thus, we are left with a few dozen pages of shadows, remnants, vacant shelves, and half opened boxes of words; carefully expressed improvisations on contingencies. Without directly saying as such, Okaji’s poetry is aporetic: various purportings of doubt, as if each poem comes to some sort of impasse, like writing itself is undermining his attempts to write. But it is not catharsis either, as we are not left feeling incomplete, or that Okaji is particularly self-conscious (as Ryōkan himself put it, “the water of the valley stream never shouts ‘purify yourself!’ but naturally, as it is, shows how it is done”).

Thus, we learn how it feels to not know as Okaji does not know, and I can hardly think of a more profoundly poetic act, set in two-dozen pages of great American poetry. To order a copy click here.


27 thoughts on “Review: Robert Okaji’s “From Every Moment A Second”.

  1. “And like his finch, Okaji writes as if all words will expire at poesy’s end. So why would Okaji, like the finch, sing in the first place?”

    Thank you, Daniel, for this marvelous, insightful review. Okaji Sensei’s poetry, like the spirit of the man himself, come from a place of unadulterated generosity. His deft shifts from objective observation to subjective experience — whether of doubt, or of a reverence for “not-knowing” (which I agree never slips into mystic posturing) —
    always offer everything the reader needs to feel grounded in the given meditation and connected to the poet (and to all of nature and humanity) by virtue of human experience made sublime in song.

  2. Holy crap Daniel, this really does a good job of reaching toward what Okaji does. The choice of quotes in the review build a solid analysis & explain succinctly how Okaji’s poems work on us & get to the matter of his process: the quarrying of the subjective & objective in equal measure “to not know as Okaji does not know,” which expresses the humility of Okaji, which i have come to admire so much in the man & the poetry. ***** review Daniel.

            1. Captain? Ha! I was once on my way to becoming an officer and a gentleman, but realized, before it was too late, that I was not meant for that life. It was an interesting period. Seems I can’t manage blind obedience, and at that time I had a bit of a mouth and a matching attitude, which was not a good combination.

  3. Fantastic review – you’ve captured in essence what’s so strangely gripping in Bob’s poems. I love how the reader is invited (in a way) to contemplate on his own meaning in his poetry!

  4. I am looking forward to reading your book, as part of my re-immersion in poetry, after a long period of difficulty in appreciating it. The food processor of modern life keeps distracting me.

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