This wooden ball was found on the shore of Lake Champlain, I think one of the times that S and I spent the weekend in Chazy, NY when we were living in Burlington. We theorize that it’s probably an old croquet ball. But it’s also a meaningful, magical object. A discovery. A mystery. That’s why I love walking along a beach (doesn’t everyone?), because each pebble or bit of glass or trinket you pick up has been hidden by weather and water, and then is revealed to you in that moment when your eyes settle on it. I find that I always want these objects to act as symbols for me, to solidify the peace that I feel while walking along the shore so that I can carry that peace with me just by taking a few pebbles and shells in my pocket.
I’ve included this photo here as a preface to this annotation I’m posting, because the poem I focus on in the annotation is about beachcombing and a similar spherical find–one of these glass fishing floats.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre Annotation-Storytelling in Poetry
The book Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre by Lois-Ann Yamanaka consists entirely of poetic monologues in the voices of several different girls and women in a Hawaiian community. The poems are written in dialect, so that the cultural identity of the book’s characters comes alive through the language. In addition to this, many of the poems focus on racial characteristics and experiences, such as in the poem “Tita: Japs” where the character Tita describes the experience of using special glue to create a fold in her eyelid so that she looks less oriental. As the characters in the book came alive to me through these details, it got me thinking about characters within poetry in general and the concept of poetry as storytelling. As a writer, I’m more comfortable with, and therefore more likely to write, poems that fall more into the “contemplative” category. Is that what’s called “lyric” poetry? I’ve forgotten some of the vocabulary I learned as an undergrad. What I’m trying to describe is poetry that consists of just one intense moment. This is different from a story, whether in a poem or any other form of writing, where images and moments build consecutively and characters change and develop from the beginning to the end.
Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre falls solidly into the category of storytelling poetry. The feel of reading this book is very similar to the feel of reading a collection of short stories. Yet there are still elements and moments in this book that made me suddenly very aware that I was reading poetry. And I don’t mean that as a criticism of the book. Rather, I am referring to moments when I became aware that a poetic technique had enhanced my experience of the characters and story in a particular poem. I suppose that what I’m trying to describe here is the intersection of two genres, and the ways that techniques of more than one genre can work together to enhance a text. Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre isn’t a particularly avant garde book, but it does feel like somewhat of a hybrid to me. Actually, maybe it would be better described as borrowing from historical forms, like the storytelling poetry of the Odyssey and such, rather than creating something radically new.
Regardless of how one would classify this book, it is very good, and even though I read it a few months before sitting down to write this, it still has me thinking of ways to bring storytelling to my own writing. In particular, I have a project I’ve been contemplating for quite a while, something that I originally envisioned as a novel. I’m rather intimidated by fiction writing, so I never wrote more than a few sentences of the first chapter. But after reading Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre I realized that my project could work as a series of poems and I have a renewed excitement about getting started on it, and I’ve even done a little more writing.
My reflection on Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, after reading the book, has focused mostly on one poem that I found particularly powerful. I think that this poem serves as a perfect example of my thoughts about the intersection of poetic and storytelling techniques. The poem, “Glass” uses a technique that is familiar to me because it’s something I’ve struggled to bring to my own poetry. That is, endings that are open and expansive, rather than tightly closed. Someone once described my poetry as ending as if with the sound of a gong announcing the message. I was giving too much to my readers, rather than letting them find their own meanings and conclusions, or allowing them to carry a poem’s ending into their own thoughts. Yamanaka’s poem “Glass” certainly succeeded in allowing extended thought for me. I’ve been able to hold its final image in my mind and contemplate it from several angles, and I feel that I’ve had a very rich experience of this poem.
In addition to having a poetically successful ending, “Glass” also serves an important structural role in the storytelling category. “Glass” is the last poem in the third section of the book, making its ending the end of the story as well as of the single poem. This section of the book is spoken in the voice of a young girl with an unhappy family life. She describes abusive actions from her mother and a somewhat tense and rivalrous relationship with her sisters. She is befriended by a taxidermist, Bernie, and he and his wife become alternate parent figures for her. By the time I reached the end of this group of poems, I was quite engaged and concerned with the precarious happiness of the narrator. The tension between the positive and negative experiences in her life was very strong. In “Glass,” Bernie takes her beachcombing, searching for glass fishing floats washed up from the ocean. These are both beautiful and rare, and the narrator wants one badly. The fragility of these glass floats seemed to me to be a symbol of the narrator’s happiness. The act of beachcombing also helped to ground the poem in the landscape of Hawaii, reminding me of the specific geographical and cultural elements of this book.
In the end, the narrator does find a float for herself. This was satisfying to me as a reader, to have a search fulfilled by a discovery, but what was even more satisfying was that sense of opening at the end of the poem. Instead of tying up any loose ends in the story, or returning the narrator to her everyday life, Yamanaka focuses the poem on that moment of discovery, and lingers with the glass ball for a moment before letting the reader and the character go. The last two lines in the poem describe the reflection of the sky and the narrator’s eyes in the blue glass as she stands with the sphere in her hands, unifying an infinite outer world, the sky, with an infinite inner world, the eyes (as a window to the soul).