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Isako Isako by Mia Ayumi Malhotra
Alice James Books, 2018; 103 pages.
Review by Luisa A. Igloria

Remembrance, Persistence

Recent articles on epigenetics and intergenerational trauma tell of how children, as far as three or four generations down the line, show predispositions to anxiety and illnesses manifested by their forebears. Who doesn’t have family members who’ve experienced suffering through wars, exile or mass displacement; violence, incarceration, or losses incurred through some type of calamity? Considering, too, how cellular threads are shared from gestation and birth between mothers and daughters, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to consider how each fragment of memory and language mirrors the history of child back to mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and vice versa:

…/ tell me / white

of flag / red of woman / truth that spreads / dark stain

on asphalt / tell me I’m gonna be whole again / pattern bit into skin / rubber teeth

That fix and will not let go …


And so, reading Isako Isako, we walk alongside four generations of Japanese/Japanese American women in Mia Ayumi Malhotra’s family, honoring them and tracing in poems the threads of their connection—


in work pants and suspenders who worked like dogs

in the packing shed, up to elbows

in rose clippings. …O goddesses

of goulash and green beans, of Sunday dinners

wrangled from the coop….”

“To My Many Mothers, Issei and Nisei”

Isako Isako includes pantoums, persona and prose poems— deceptively quiet, they are meditations on the persistent ways in which the past continues to score itself upon the skin of the present. As the speaker in the first “History of Isako” sequence puts it, "Behind barbed wire all question run to one."

Readers locate the timeline of the book under burning skies that forever altered the land and whole groups of people—World War II, when Malhotra’s maternal grandmother lived in Japan; and also, at any of the locations in the American desert where, by virtue of Executive Order 9066, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly evacuated from their homes were held in internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But don’t all timelines eventually bleed into each other?

“I do not remember where Isako is during the war. Is it Osaka or is it Ohio.”

“A History of Isako”

What Malhotra underlines in this book is the importance of trying to remember, trying to get at the stories of others, especially those most closely connected to us. The task is daunting—either because we did not live through these stories ourselves, or from the knowledge that they have the capacity to devastate us anyway. And yet because Isako, at the heart of these poems, is all our mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, beyond the glimpse of survival, this book must offer its hopes for a wild, uncontainable persistence. It calls out to the future:

“Little are-you-there,

seen-through body touched by a pulse so faint

it’s a glow about the chest

are you there?

“Elegy for the Unborn”


Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com