Tim Murphy reviews Sing Me Down from the Dark by Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana (Salt Publishing, 2022)
Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana’s debut collection Sing Me Down from the Dark recounts her personal story over a period of time that included two international marriages. The poetic style throughout the book’s six untitled sections is strongly confessional, a style that is blended successfully with strong narrative threads and plenty of formal diversity, including innovative prose poetry, a ghazal (‘Ghazal for my husband, on International Women’s Day’), and a pantoum (‘ダーリンは外国人 “My Darling is a Foreigner”’).
The first section contains four poems about returning home after the poet’s decade-long sojourn in Japan through the duration of her first cross-cultural marriage. In ‘Coming Home’, against a background of the poet’s nostalgia for such things as sushi, miso soup, Asahi Super Dry beer, and “the word for a hangover: / futsukayoi (second day drunkenness)”, the narrator’s sister tells her that she “needn’t speak slowly / and make exaggerated movements”. Her son dreams of sashimi at the fishmongers (‘At the Fishmonger’s with my Son’), while the poet reflects on her separation from his Japanese father – the conclusion of ‘写真 Photos’ is stark: ‘Yes, my stranger husband. Once we were a fit’.
The collection’s next three sections chart the poet’s initial experience of Japanese culture as well as the rise and fall of her relationship with her Japanese husband. ‘A Personal Glossary’ offers descriptions of eight Japanese words, including “kobe niku: marbled beef / from cows fed beer and massaged” and “sumimasen: sorry, thank you, excuse me / repeated insincerely”. This glossary resembles ‘10 Years; 10 Places’, a poem that reflects on specific locations, including “Yumigahama: a bow-shaped beach, barbecued mackerel, got engaged” and “Fukuoka: fu, not fuck. Karaoke till 5 a.m. and hangovers in a hot spring.” There are several other references to karaoke, including in ‘Happy Happy Happy!’, in which these words, inscribed on pink hearts superimposed on a photograph of the poet “singing Titanic”, remind her of the messages “on fizzy Love Hearts sweets / children love to share and read”.
The poems succeed in drawing the reader into the poet’s world with quotidian references such as these, and the same applies even when the references are to Japanese customs
The poems succeed in drawing the reader into the poet’s world with quotidian references such as these, and the same applies even when the references are to Japanese customs. In ‘Japanese Bathing Etiquette’ the poet is ejected from the baths for breaking the rules “because of the tiny snake tattoo, on my left buttock”, and the sense of being a gaijin or “outside person” is even more strongly felt in ‘Sensei’. The poem begins with jokes and excitement about traveling to teach in Japan, and also refers to the strange reality of a new flat and the novelty of a welcome party; but when these are done,
Sweat, in the small of my back.
They say a foreigner
smells of butter,
has different ear-wax;
guess my blood-type
for hints about my personality;
tell me dairy makes me kakkoii –
tall, with sharp features.
Alien Registration cards
must be carried
at all times.
The beginning of the poet’s relationship with her husband is the subject of ‘The Road to Ippon Matsu’, a touching love poem about “[biking] through the seasons” until ultimately committing to each other, and ‘Bow Beach’ alludes to the birth of their son, with “slim brown hands” like his father. But other themes include her husband’s status as “chonan, first son, / with filial / obligation” (‘Bride Face’), which among other things persuades him to suggest cutting their Italian honeymoon short and returning to Japan.
Some of the couple’s marital difficulties seem trivial, like the issue of the poet’s habit of “hanging laundry / on the balcony / without wearing / outdoor slippers”, while others sound seriously challenging, like “the need to push // our son’s head down / to teach him / to bow / before he can talk” (‘Cross-Cultural Communication in the Homeplace’).
Although there are some notable exceptions, poetry in general does not allow much in the way of audi alterem partem [“hear the other side”], and the poet’s ex-husband does not come out of this book well
The emotional pain caused by the couple’s split is presented poignantly in poems like ‘Heart of a Japanese’, in which the poet, just prior to the couple’s divorce, watches her mother-in-law’s “stroke-ravaged / face crumple, to cry, into her donburi rice bowl”.
Many of the section titles of ‘Unpacking our relationship’ tell a lot of the relationship story from Corrin-Tachibana’s point of view: “Love Bombing”, “Mind Games”, “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”, and “Gaslighting”. Although there are some notable exceptions, poetry in general does not allow much in the way of audi alterem partem [“hear the other side”], and the poet’s ex-husband does not come out of this book well. ‘Bellinis with Mary’, the closing poem in the sequences concerning this period of the poet’s life, seeks perhaps to explain her cathartic need:
I tell Mary Mum’s domineering.
She says, maybe you married your mother?
Years of stuff is seeping out:
him leaving me, leaving me
breastfeeding; pretending to throw away
his wedding ring; not speaking.
Another Mary — Mary Jean Chan, has a cycle
for poetry: rinse & repeat, rinse & repeat.
But there are some things that can’t be washed away.
The final two sections include poems about the poet’s other international marriage, this time to “G.”, to whom the collection is dedicated, and involving Spanish rather than Japanese reference-points. There is much more positivity in this relationship. Desire and a healthy type of jealousy feature respectively in ‘In my King-Size Oak Furnitureland Bed, at 2.27 a.m.’ and ‘When I WhatsApp you in San Lorenzo de El Escorial’.
As in any relationship, however, there are issues, but in this case these are not so much cross-cultural as old reliables like the poet’s concerns about the age-gap between her and her older husband; the haunting presence of his ex-wife (or ‘Her’, as one poem is titled); and the resistance of his “Go-Bra-Less, radical feminist daughters” (‘This is a Confessional Poem’) – which, thinks the poet, “won’t do their boobs any good”, and whose “crusade against the patriarchy”, the poet writes to their father, “is undermined / by the fact you pay the rent”.
Overall, an engaging and memorable collection that will leave the reader wanting more of Corrin-Tachibana’s poetry
These latter remarks reflect Corrin-Tachibana’s “Julie Andrews’ Honesty” as per G.’s description in the poem of the same name. So too does the poet’s declaration that she wants a committed and enduring relationship in ‘The day I tell you I had no knickers on when the Sainsbury’s man called’:
And more of exploring
the East Lothian coast, of getting lost
in the dunes of Gullane Bents
among marshland snipe
and disused tank defences.
Yes, I want more of us.
Overall, an engaging and memorable collection that will leave the reader wanting more of Corrin-Tachibana’s poetry.
Tim Murphy lives in Madrid. He is the author of four pamphlets, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019), The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019), There Are Twelve Sides to Every Circle (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2021), and Young in the Night Grass (Beir Bua Press, 2022). His first full-length collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022).