by Kenny Fries
216 pages, University of Wisconsin Press, Pub date: September 19, 2017
In the Gardens of Japan: A Poem Sequence
by Kenny Fries
Drawings by Ian Jehle
30 pages, Garden Oak Press, 2017
Kenny Fries’ newest memoir, In the Province of the Gods (University of Wisconsin Press, September 2107), is an achingly beautiful and intricately-woven personal narrative. It is, also, a book of active and insistent interrogation—a book that engages the very notion of uncertainty even as it seeks to answer its author’s evolving and increasingly urgent questions. Fries has traveled to Japan on a research trip aimed at exploring the treatment of disability in Japanese culture. When he’d written the grant for the trip, he’d planned to travel with his then-boyfriend, Ian. Instead, when he arrives in Japan he is by himself and newly single. Navigating a foreign country alone with a disability that impairs his mobility, Fries floats, making new friends and following the various threads of his own insatiable intellectual and artistic curiosity in search of a sense of purpose on his journey. Before long, his initial anxieties of “How will I manage in Japan?” give way to “Why am I so comfortable here?” Though he returns to the U.S. when his grant runs out, he applies for another, wondering, “This time in Japan will I be of the ‘right mind’ to see what I need to see?” But just before Fries leaves for his second trip to Japan, he learns that he has tested positive for the HIV virus—news that splits his life, in an instant, into a “before” and an “after.” When he returns to Japan for the second time, his questions have reached fever-pitch as he asks himself, “What survives? Who survives? How long will I survive?” and, ultimately, “What is the book I most need to write?”
Fries travels to Japan to write a book about Japanese attitudes toward disability. But once there, his own experience of his disability begins to change. In Japan, he is surprised to discover that people stare at him solely because he is a gaijin, a foreigner; they “keep their feelings about my disability to themselves and do not accost me on the street.” In the absence of the staring strangers to which he became accustomed in the U.S., he realizes that “I have internalized everything the world threw my way about my different body to the point where the feelings seemed my own.” But in Japan, his disability is simply “a physical fact,” as his friend (and briefly lover) Masa puts it: “Watching the Edogawa move very slowly down its path, I realize in Japan that because my body is dealt with by those I have met as a physical fact, the phrase Masa gave to me soon after we met, I have learned to do so, as well.” Fries’ changed outlook toward his own body is a crucial first step toward a greater shift that takes place in the book—the gradual rejection of the Western tendency to view through a single fixed viewpoint in favor of “a new way of seeing,” one that can “see ‘the seamless whole,’” engaging uncertainty and shifting perspective while acknowledging that “what is unseen is just, if not more, important than what is seen.”
Japanese gardens present a powerful physical embodiment of this new way of seeing and Fries, after visiting the iris garden of Meiji Jingu, finds himself visiting more and more Japanese gardens and writing poems about them, a fact which startles him as he hasn’t written a poem in nearly five years. He ends up penning In the Gardens of Japan, an eight-poem sequence, one for each garden he visits. At first “these compressed imagistic poems” embarrass him for their potential “Orientalism,” but his friend Mika, “a singer who is not afraid to make any sound that the music requires,” shoos this fear away and embarks on the project of performing his poems as songs. She introduces him to a calligrapher who designs the poem sequence as a tenugui, a traditional cloth towel. In the Gardens of Japan has now also been published as a chapbook by Garden Oak Press, paired with drawings by Ian Jehle and timed to appear with the release of In the Province of the Gods. The poems are simultaneously spare yet lush, remote yet immediate, haunting yet brilliantly alive. Each one forms a small but masterfully complete world. The third poem, “Kikugetsutei, Ritsurin Koen,” for example:
Borrow the hills. The algae-filled pond
is the sea; three stones
its islands. To recreate the world, first
take it apart. Swallowed
in green, the water scooped
in your hands is the moon.
Fries returns to the experience of the gardens and of writing these poems again and again throughout In the Province of the Gods, reflecting on the ways in which the Japanese garden is “ a microcosm of what it means to be alive in an ever-changing mortal world.” As such, it provides a fluctuating yet always-fitting analogy for body, for identity, for personal narrative. “The Japanese garden, like Japan itself, is more a process than a result,” writes Fries.
Like the poems of In the Gardens of Japan, Fries’ prose shines with a honed and brightly polished clarity—each phrase hangs heavy with meaning, reduced only to what is necessary, a world in of itself. We see this trait in the vibrantly detailed yet distilled descriptions of nearly everything Fries encounters in Japan: a Noh performance that leaves him feeling “as if time had been suspended and I can’t tell if I had been awake or asleep;” a butoh dancer who dances “as if he has unearthed his own body;” GB, the cozy, cramped basement gay bar he frequents in Tokyo; the haunting and parabolic stories of the Hiroshima survivors he interviews. But we see this condensed richness, as well, in the often step-by-step simplicity and quiet yet unrelenting nature of the book’s introspection, which takes on a unique, almost hypnotic cadence—each question leading to another investigation and another set of realizations and questions in a primal dance of rupture and return until the asker finds himself back where he began, yet utterly changed. Or, as Fries puts it: “Somehow my time in Japan has brought me back to a place I had not been in a long time. Just as many Japanese gardens lead you from their entrance, through various meanderings, back to where you began, my encounters with Japan have led me back to a life that, like a garden itself, seems to hold within it an entire world.”
Though such insights seem to rise to the page with nearly effortless grace as the result of Fries’ deft narration, there is deep and difficult work going on here. The complexity of this journey back to the self cannot be dismissed. Fries carefully binds and braids numerous narrative threads—too many to name in a single review—until they appear to move seamlessly as one. And this fluidity carries itself through cataclysmic changes that many would be unable to surmount in life, let alone on the page: the loss of a partner and journey to a foreign country, a health crisis that results in Fries being diagnosed with the HIV virus days before he returns to Japan, the beginning of a new relationship with his now-husband Mike, the start of retroviral drugs and all the terrifying side-effects that accompany them, the sudden death of Mike’s father, and their preparations to return to North America together. “The changes in my life are as strong as the virus that hides in my body,” writes Fries, but he has come to embrace uncertainty, observing too, that “all bodies, at one time or another, for one reason or another, or no apparent reason at all, mutate, alter. The body, like Japan, is a process, not fixed in appearance, ability, or time.”
In the Province of the Gods is not, ultimately, a book about disability, though it is certainly informed by Fries’ disability experience in many ways, the largest perhaps being that “being disabled, where change is the norm” has “taught me to find a way through difference.” Rather, this is a book about change, and especially as it pertains to the creative process. This is a book about learning to see differently, and about the ways in which that change in perception must necessarily alter the telling of one’s personal narrative. As the book’s “I” yields to become “more subject than researcher,” Fries finds the “seamless whole” he has been searching for: “And now I finally understand there is no need for a big picture connecting all I have learned. The hedge has been removed: what I see is a continuum, of experiences, of stories, of time. There is no before or after, no arrival or return.” This is a book that has learned to move intuitively, to find its way to itself through process. In his characteristically poetic fashion, Fries concludes by demonstrating this transformation as a single, distilled moment at the ancient hot springs of Tsurunoyu Onsen:
I submerge myself into the close-to-scalding water. I lean back and look up at the surrounding mountains and then the clear sky.
I don’t know what is finger or what is toe, what is head or what is sole, what is front or what is behind. Every part of my body individualized but coalescing. Skin no barrier. Difference no matter.
I could be a butoh dancer emerging, rising, emerging, ever so slowly; I see life’s process not as change but as changing—
No east. No west. No direction No plan.
Time dissolves. Thought evaporates.
Conscious, unconscious. Seen, unseen. Everything inside and outside my body merges—
Changing, the virus not me but a part of me.
No words. No feeling. No future.
And so, we see how Kenny Fries’ In the Province of the Gods is the kind of book that, through the writing of it, permanently changes it author as a writer. And we see, too, that to read it is to experience what true literary achievement really means, for by its concluding chapters it has clearly become—in all of its glimmering uncertainty—the book its author had always needed, and intended, to write.
Julia Bouwsma is the author of the poetry collections MIDDEN (forthcoming from Fordham University press in fall 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). She lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Muzzle, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She is the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine, and the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Please send her book review submissions to [email protected].