Frances H. Kakugawa’s Latest Book Features ‘Poetry for the Ageless’
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Reading Frances Kakugawa’s poems in her latest book, “Dangerous Woman: Poetry for the Ageless,” is like cozying up with an old friend and talking story. This particular friend has lived a long life and traveled far, literally and in her imagination. Along her journey, she wrote poems. In this, her 14th book, she shares a collection of those poems that she selected for the reader — some of this and some of that, like a literary hot pot — which, when consumed as a whole, offers a complex mix of tastes and flavors.
The poems in the 215-page volume published by Watermark Publishing are divided into five sections: A Poet’s Life, The Enemy Wears Many Faces, The Fifth Season, Collected Poems, and Dangerous and Ageless. They are not arranged in chronological order. In her introduction to the book, Kakugawa writes that to arrange the poems chronologically “would give a false impression that the things I wrote about were happening in some logical sequence, each poem somehow leading to the next and then the next, or building off the previous. The reality is that any of these poems could have been written when I was twenty-one or eighty.”
Those familiar with Kakugawa’s writings through The Hawai‘i Herald know that she has a special place in her heart for caregivers and care recipients. She demonstrates this in books such as “Mosaic Moon: Caregiving Through Poetry,” “Breaking the Silence: A Caregiver’s Voice” and “I Am Somebody: Bringing Dignity and Compassion to Alzheimer’s Caregiving.”
“Dangerous Woman,” however, addresses a much broader swath of themes. Kakugawa has also written memoirs (“Teacher: You Look Like a Horse! Lessons from the Classroom” and “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii”), children’s books (“Wordsworth the Poet,” “Words-worth Dances the Waltz,” “Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer!” and “Wordsworth, It’s In Your Pocket!”) and poetry (“Sand Grains,” “White Ginger Blossom,” “Golden Spike” and “The Path of Butterflies”).
“Dangerous Woman” has the feeling of a retrospective, looking back at a diverse body of work developed over a long period of time. Her first book of poems was written when she was in her 30s. “Fifty years later, I am still here,” she writes in her most recent book. In “Dangerous Woman,” you don’t always know what period of her life a poem is from, but that — in Kakugawa’s own words — is what makes them ageless.
“Our passionate desire for answers to life’s existential questions, the need to understand our relationship with nature and the world beyond the self, do not diminish with time,” she writes in the introduction.
Kakugawa’s ability to interweave the past, present and future comes through powerfully in her poem “Obaban,” an affectionate Japanese term for one’s grandmother. “My eighty-year-old grandmother stood / On the sidewalk in Hilo, facing Kress Store. / “I wonder,” she said in Japanese, “how / Hilo will look long after I’m gone. / I wish I could stay.”
“Had I been wiser, I would have said — / “Obaban, what if eighty years ago, your mother / Said this to you. She couldn’t stay / So she gave her eyes to you. / Now it’s my turn. I will be here. / I’ll take pictures, Obaban.”
“I stand where she once stood / With my broken promises. Kress Store is gone. / Hilo Drugs is gone. There are no photos. / But I wrote these poems. / Just these poems. I wrote them.”
In three stanzas, Kakugawa takes us back to a bygone time by simply invoking Kress store, the five-and-dime retail department chain that was familiar territory to many of us who grew up in Hawai‘i during a certain era. As Obaban surmised, how times would change. While Kress and Obaban may be long gone, the past becomes the present and the future through the eyes of the young. Like so much in the world, it is an ongoing cycle of life. Kakugawa transposes memories to words through so many of her poems so that current and future generations may see.
Kakugawa has devoted time in her life to not only writing poetry, but also encouraging others to do the same, even if they have never thought of themselves as being poets. In the past, she has written about the healing that can occur when caregivers open up to pen and paper and let the words and feelings flow. To her delight, they did. In “Dangerous Woman,” Kakugawa shows the wide range of themes and topics that can be addressed in poetry: love, fear, disease, nature, regret, hope, history, relationships, places, existence, identity, an awakening of the self . . . and then some.
The poems are of different lengths and styles. Some are only a few lines, like this one titled “Bamboo.”
“Like a man. / It reaches out. / The higher it grows. / The lower it stoops.” Of course, like many poems, there could be multiple interpretations beyond — or underlying — the literal one. Here is another short poem, ever so brief and yet packed with evocation: “He snuffed out his own candle / Left us all in darkness.” Other poems are longer, taking up a full page or more in the book.
The Romantic poet William Wordsworth described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The phrase succinctly captures the poetry-writing process, as poets often find a quiet time and space to write about “life’s existential questions.” But some poems are more existential than others, exploring the profound questions of an individual’s reason for living. Why are we here? What are the meanings behind our experiences? These questions should be relevant at any age, true enough, but perhaps take on greater urgency as one ages.
In all, Kakugawa offers the reader almost 200 poems from her large body of work developed over a handful of decades. She hopes there is a poem for everyone in the book, regardless of age.
Readers will have to discover for themselves why the poet titled her book “Dangerous Woman.” The answer lies somewhere in those pages. (When it comes to poetry, sometimes it is best to not explain too much. Let readers excavate their own gems from the treasure chest of words.) It is an interesting title, to say the least, for a Japanese American woman who spent much of her adult life as a teacher. She is fortunate to have amassed 60 years of writings that she can now review and reflect upon, each poem a window into the world as she viewed it at one point in her life. By publishing these collected works, she allows the reader to look through those windows with her, not only to see the world as she saw it, but also to put our own interpretation to that view, indeed to sharpen our own vision.
“Dangerous Woman” has a feeling of culmination to it. In formal education, there is often a class referred to as a “capstone” course — the class taken near the end of a certain segment of one’s educational journey. It is meant to be a culminating experience — that is, to allow the student to integrate a lifetime of learning (up to that point) into one big final project before moving on to the next stage in life. It also allows the teacher to assess whether a student has been able to apply knowledge and skills learned from a variety of courses over time to a project that is meaningful and significant. When this feat is achieved, there should be a feeling of mutual satisfaction shared between teacher and student, as well as, oftentimes, a bit of melancholy, because the successful completion of a culminating project means the student will be moving on, one hopes, to bigger and better things.
Frances Kakugawa’s prolific output as a thinker, writer, teacher, public speaker and caregiver is well known to many. She has not shied away from putting herself “out there,” exposing her soul to the world through both poetry and prose, in published works and in public speaking. She has not played it safe. She has not lurked quietly in the shadows. She has taken risks, and she has lived. In doing so, she experienced, intimately, what it means to be vulnerable and what it means to look back and say with confidence: I did it. And, for that, she has earned the distinction of calling herself “a dangerous woman,” a title she apparently wears with both pride and provocation. In one of her poems she invites you, too, to be “a dangerous woman.”
Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.