March 2016

Laura Michele Diener

nonfiction

The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964 by Joanne Kyger

Joanne Kyger has published over twenty books of poetry and has established herself as a long-term presence in the California poetry world. In 1960, at twenty-six years old, she was part of the circle of Beat poets in San Francisco, yet she herself hadn't begun to publish anything. The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964 recounts her early days struggling to find her poetic voice. She spent those five years living in Japan. Immediately upon her arrival, she married Zen scholar and poet, Gary Snyder, himself on the verge of becoming a cult figure. The diaries chronicle their marriage and their ex-patriot adventures. They end with the couple separating and Kgyer returning to San Francisco.

Kyger writes in a space somewhere between Lady Murasaki and Betty Friedan. Her journals recount mainly domestic matters -- gardening, dinner parties, flower arranging, but they possess a core of yearning that reaches out through the matter-of-fact chronicles of train rides and market excursions.

Her entries are rarely more than a paragraph, and sometimes only a few lines, but as she wrote an entry almost every day for five years, a reader can slowly realize a picture of her life and its ordinary annoyances -- shoes that are too small, houseguests who have loitered too long -- as well as its more profound longings. The tensions of the Snyders' fledgling marriage are articulated in sparse telling phrases -- "Quarrel with Gary this morning" -- as is Kyger's youthful insecurity: "He has loved others but now he says he loves me."

Kyger and Snyder appear to have reserved their greatest tenderness for their cats who punctuate the pages and provide the conduit for marital intimacy. Numerous cats and kittens escape, break their paws, get pregnant, and howl through the night. In shared worry over the steady flow of aging cats, we see glimpses of the intimacy that must have held them together over their five-year marriage.

In 1962, Kyger and Snyder traveled for over five months around Asia, to China, Vietnam, India, and Tibet. Fans of the Beat poets will enjoy anecdotes about Alan Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who accompanied them for part of the journey. Ginsberg comes across as characteristically brash and annoying, the travel companion you wish you had never invited. He keeps offering the Dalai Lama mushrooms and tries to regale him with accounts of his own experiments with drugs.

In many ways, the journals are very much of their moment in the early sixties. Kyger and Snyder participate in the requisite parties with free-flowing drugs. Their friends unite and divorce and experiment with free love. At the same time, the journals ask the questions of every moment: What does it mean to be married? What does it mean to be a poet? How do you write? When do you write? We watch Kyger struggle with these questions as well as attempt to emerge as the protagonist of her own narrative.

The journals are haunted in some ways by the question of her own subjectivity. Kyger betrays an overall sense of detachment during her travels. It is difficult to tell if she truly engages in the exotic locales she visits. She never indicates if she even wanted to come to India. There is a similar sense of ambivalence in her relationships to Buddhism and Zen and meditation. Does she care? Is she interested in them or does she only think that she should be? Her own will remains as elusive as Penelope's, the Homeric figure to whom she returns in poetic fragments scattered tentatively through her daily accounts. Her one articulated longing is to write. "I want to write the world upside down," she declares in 1960, and this wish is the thread that weaves all her questioning ex-patriot years together. The wisps of dreams found in her diaries eventually converge into one true vision with her return to America, where she publishes The Tapestry and the Web and embarks on her long contemplative poetic career.

The Japan and India Journals: 1960-1964 by Joanne Kyger
Nightboat
ISBN: 978-1937658434
296 pages