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June 26, 2007Bryant Park Reading SeriesFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

Kimiko Hahn was born on July 5, 1955 in Mt. Kisco, New York, the child of artists, a Japanese American mother from Hawaii and a German American father from Wisconsin. She received an undergraduate degree in English and east Asian studies from the University of Iowa, and a master's degree in Japanese literature from Columbia University in 1984.

She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton, 2006); The Artist's Daughter (2002); Mosquito and Ant (1999); Volatile (1998); and The Unbearable Heart (1995), which received an American Book Award.

Her work often explores desire and death, and the intersections of conflicting identities. She frequently draws on, and even reinvents, classic forms and techniques used women writers in Japan and China, including the zuihitsu, or pillow book, and nu shu, a nearly extinct script Chinese women used to correspond with one another.

About her own work and its place in Asian American writing, Hahn has said: "I’ve taken years to imagine an Asian American aesthetic. I think it’s a combination of many elements—a reflection of Asian form, an engagement with content that may have roots in historical identity, together with a problematic, and even psychological, relationship to language."

Hahn is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize, and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award. She is a Distinguished Professor in the English department at Queens College/CUNY and lives in New York.

The Sweetwater Caverns

Kimiko Hahn, 1955
Curious to see caverns,
we detoured in Tennessee
to ramble through Fat Man's Misery,
past a ballroom and gun powder machine
till we reached The World's Second Largest Underground Lake—
on which my husband had promised a ride
in a glass-bottom boat.

There, a kid hunched over a hot-rod magazine.
Dan, I think his name was,
radiant, in clammy, artificial light.

I asked Dan, college-break?
He nodded inside his hoodie
then helped me into the glass-bottom hold.
I peered into the milky water
and watched the seeded trout swim up for the chum
he dumped overboard on our account.

He was milky white, himself,
from months of cave sitting.

I wondered if he'd write a poem
on a summer spent underground.
Thought to suggest it—how foolish—
then wondered if what I really wanted was Dan,

as I stepped into his boat, to take my arm and ask me something—

at this middle age, probably for a couple coins
then give a promise of safe passage
as he ferried me to the realm of the dead

that I've been thinking about for several years
not because of a girlfriend's cancer
but because my body is no longer young.
I mean, lovely—
and that there's no turning back to that water's edge.
There's only the couch
every afternoon at four o'clock
and not wanting to ever move. Not wishing to die exactly—
just not wanting to rise
because the light feels so pressured. And I can't have 
that ardent glow reflected back while brushing teeth
or fastening a necklace. Now there's this

casting around for other stuff—
the daughters' secrets—the pathetic urge to write about their secrets—

or a crush on Charon. Not an old man as it turns out
but a youth, colorless and tired of his i-Pod.

No, he's not really of interest to me.
And this is my secret: that I wish he were—
as with those arms
reaching through clouds of cigarette smoke
to lead me into reeking dives.

I'm past that. And he, Dan,
not the poetic Charon—
will probably climb out of the caverns
into the six o'clock evening sun. Stretch. Change his shirt,
eat his mother's meatloaf and head off in a rusted Honda
for the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot
with a six-pack and a girl,

those hand-sized moths flitting in the light
as the sheriff chases the kids to another dead end spot—

those enormous dusty moths my husband caught
for me to hold in my hand
because he knows, in the afternoon light after the dank caverns,
how fluttery the furry wings will feel.
Which is more than melodrama can bear.

To have wished for Dan to ask me something?
I know the passage is not what you wanted to hear.

From Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn. Copyright © 2010 by Kimiko Hahn. Used by permission of W.W. Norton.

From Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn. Copyright © 2010 by Kimiko Hahn. Used by permission of W.W. Norton.

Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn was born in 1955 in Mt. Kisco, New York, the

by this poet

poem

After skimming the Sunday Times, Dad turned to the back of the magazine
and tore out the crossword puzzle for his mother in Wisconsin—

as routine as my calligraphy class on Saturdays, flute practice
exactly twenty minutes on school nights

and astringent twice daily. I loved