The poetry of Thien Pham’s Sumo [Review]

Written by Andrew on September 1st, 2013

As I wrote when reviewing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the graphic novel form enables the writer and artist to explore structure in ways that are more overt than the purely written word. In fact, I would argue that the techniques I’ve observed in great graphic novels — the way sections echo each other, how the artist alludes to things beyond the immediate page, and even the layout of the panels — shift graphic novels along the spectrum of literary genres away from “regular” novels and more toward poetry.

The structural similarity between graphic novels and poetry is, for me, most evident in Sumo, the first solo work by Thien Pham, published last year by First Second.

Sumo tells the story of Scott, an American who moves to Japan to pursue a career as a professional sumo wrestler after his girlfriend dumps him and his NFL dreams have been dashed.

But first, a few words about the greatest sport on earth.

I grew up following sumo in the era of Chiyonofuji and Konishiki. Back in Japan in the 70′s and 80′s, my classmates and I marked off a ring in the dirt of the schoolyard, stamped our feet, slapped our hands, and then slammed into each other until one of us fell over or stepped out of the ring. My hero was not, as you might expect, the American-born Konishiki, but Chiyonofuji — smart, and light on his feet. A chorus of 「ずるい!」 (“Not fair!”) would erupt when I’d side-step a much-larger boy and propel him stumbling from the ring with a shove between his shoulder blades. In my defense, I’d just mention Chiyonofuji’s most recent win against the likes of the monumental Konishiki and they would fall into grumbling acceptance.

I love sumo, from its ancient Shinto traditions to the way the modern sport has begun to open its doors to American, Russian, Bulgarian, and — most successfully of late — Mongolian wrestlers. It’s beautiful in ways that I can’t explain to someone who didn’t grow up watching it on NHK and mimicking the previous night’s bouts with your friends in a dirt ring you marked off yourself.

I don’t know anything about Sumo author Thien Pham beyond what appears on the book jacket — “Thien Pham is a comic book and visual artist based in the Bay Area. He is also a high school teacher.” Somehow, Pham manages in this small graphic novel — barely breaking a hundred pages — to encapsulate all that is wonderful about sumo.

Like the sport itself, Sumo is a minimalist work of art — as sumo is to ballet, Sumo is to poetry. Pham eschews both sound effects and thought bubbles. Everything you learn about Scott and his journey happens through action and dialogue. The beauty of some of that action lies in stillness and simplicity, with long sequences in Sumo showing nothing on the page but single-color illustrations.

Sumo is a story whose power lies in the convergence of three story threads — Scott as he prepares to leave for Japan; his early days there and friendship with the sumo stable master’s daughter; and his life as a wrestler rising through the ranks of professional sumo. Pham uses three separate colors to highlight each story, and intertwines them throughout the novel.

When Pham ties all three threads together at the end, the real emotional impact of Scott’s story becomes apparent. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but the hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck.

Such a deep effect is something I encounter rarely, even in the best poetry. I heartily recommend Thien Pham’s Sumo and eagerly anticipate his next work.

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Written by Andrew on August 30th, 2013

As I clawed my way free of the grip of Modernism early in my literary life, Seamus Heaney was one of the first post-Modern, contemporary poets whose work I fell in love with the moment I began reading it. Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74. As fellow Irish poet Michael Longley said today, “I feel like I’ve lost a brother and there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved…”

I write a lot about “connections” — how archaeology connects us through our shared human heritage, but also how one can discover unexpected connections with a beloved poet. Having cast aside the New Criticism of the Modernists, I fully embrace the power that a sense of personal connection brings to the reading of poetry.

And yet, any sense of personal connection to Heaney was always tangential at best. I bought my copy of Human Chain at a bookstore in Dublin a block away from Trinity College, and I harbored a brief, secret hope that I would run into the poet taking a walk in St. Stephen’s Green. Earlier, I picked up District and Circle in London. In other words, my only connection to Seamus Heaney in life was through my purchase history — not really the stuff of inspiration.

What, then, about Heaney’s poetry do I find so personally attractive? It’s simple, really — and more than a little obvious, if you’ve read anything I’ve written: It’s the words.

Watch this beautiful compilation from footage over the years of Seamus Heaney reading his iconic ars poetica “Digging.”

Though I can assure you that the influence was entirely unconscious, astute readers will observe a straight line from “Digging” to my own “Waiting for Work to Begin” (which I wrote more than a decade after I first read Heaney).

There is an inevitable shared language among poets of the Pacific Northwest and of Ireland. From W.B. Yeats to William Stafford and from Seamus Heaney to myself, we set our poetry against the same backdrop of wind and rain, of moss and soil. We flit back and forth between the city and the wilderness; the interplay between fellow humans figures as prominently in our work as the balance between ourselves and the natural world around us.

Yeats, Joyce, MacNeice, Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, Wagoner, Kinsella, Longley, Heaney, Muldoon, and so many more — perhaps there is a “green” school of poetry that spans centuries, literary movements, and continents. If there is such a school of poets, count me among them.

 

Traversing all 4 seasons in just 17 days

Written by Andrew on August 29th, 2013

In two weeks, I’ll be traveling again to New Zealand for work. Though the contrast will not be nearly as stark — last time, it was snowing in Seattle when I left and I hit the beach on a bright summer day in Auckland the day I arrived — I’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere for the Spring Equinox on September 22. That means that in just 17 days, I’ll spend time in all four seasons.

I made an infographic illustrating this quirk of global travel caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

4 Seasons in 17 Days

EDIT: Antipodean friends inform me that Spring begins on September 1st in both New Zealand and Australia. Frankly, I find that ridiculous. Spring begins at the equinox, and isn’t something you shuffle around at the national level as though it were Daylight Savings Time. I’m sticking to my guns on this one!

 

That one time I swam to Myanmar (and back)

Written by Andrew on April 22nd, 2013

One day twenty years ago or so, somebody at my religiously affiliated high school thought it would be an excellent idea to send our choir to a school in the Mae La camp in Thailand to aid in the construction of a new building for Karen refugees, presumably as a demonstration of American largesse and Christian charity.

I could tell you about how I bathed in a river for a week, how I rode a genuine working elephant (not some tourist pachyderm), how two thirds of us got food poisoning, or how the concrete never properly set. I could tell you that we left having accomplished nothing more than two parallel ditches in a patch of red dirt that the local people had already cleared before we arrived.

I could wax political about the sheer, indecent waste of spending thousands of dollars each to send a bunch of American teenagers to do work that could have been done better, faster, and with positive economic impact for the local community. As a missionary kid myself, I could rail against the sheer arrogance and imperialism — that somehow these American children were making a difference or “helping” the local community.

I could remind everyone that the safe, secure, and “free” Yangon that Anthony Bourdain enjoys today is thanks to a successful military campaign to suppress all the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) fighting in the countryside for self-determination.

But none of that is especially interesting, so I’ll tell you about the time I swam to Myanmar.

One afternoon after the church service, starring a special choir of children flown in all the way from America, we were walking along a riverbank back to the little village that surrounded the school. Our Karen guide — a fellow teenager from the school — pointed across the river and told us the other side was Burma. Unsupervised by adults and newly invigorated from having survived salmonella poisoning in the middle of the jungle, several American children thought it would be an excellent idea to swim the hundred meters or so across the Moei River, just so they could tell their friends and relatives back home that they had been to Burma.

“Just don’t go past the rocks on the shore — there could be mines,” the Karen girl said. Good to know.

Back home, I was the head lifeguard at our school. I didn’t need to be an adult to suggest that this was not, in fact, an excellent idea. Unswayed, several boys and girls waded into the river wearing their cargo shorts, T-shirts, and brand-new Tevas from REI.

I decided I could at least sit on a rock and make sure nobody died in the water.

Halfway across the river, the current caught one of the younger boys.

I called out, “Do you need some help?”

He nodded sheepishly as he drifted north toward the Salween River, thence south on to the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean.

I took off my own Tevas (they were really big back in the 90′s) and I waded into the brown water. Once I was clear of the mud sucking at my feet, I dove forward and swam toward the floundering boy. I threw my arm over his shoulder and shoved my hip up under his, pulling him up and nearly out of the water — a move designed simultaneously to control and to calm. It’s also a move that puts the lifeguard mostly underwater.

“Just lean back and relax,” I said as I bobbed up and exhaled. A breath, one stroke, up again. “I’ve got you.”

Damned if I was going to play flag football or join junior varsity basketball, I had taken lifeguard certification twice for P.E. credit. This would be my first real-world rescue. But if I could subdue an ex-Marine Gulf War vet who outweighed me by a hundred pounds in our pool, I knew hauling a fifteen-year-old to safety in real life would be quite possible.

I looked up and realized we were closer to the far bank. I changed course and hauled him with my right arm as I scissor-kicked us the rest of the way to Burma. My feet touched round river stones and I pulled the boy upright.

“Let’s rest for a minute, and then I’ll haul you back. I think that’ll be easier.”

We sat there in Myanmar for about 10 minutes, tossing stones into the river.

Our return trip was uneventful. He floated on his back and I hauled him back to Thailand by his collar. (I suppose my story’s boring ending proves that it’s true. The most dramatic part of a good, made-up story isn’t in the middle.)

We never told the adults about all this — the choir director and the chaperones, the parents and teachers. We suspected nothing good would come of telling everyone else of this latest adventure.

On the desk in my office, among the trilobites and bifaces, sits an unprepossessing green stone — a souvenir hastily picked up from the banks of the Moei River, a memento of the day I swam to Myanmar and back.

Moei River on Wikipedia

A fairly well-populated section of the Moei River, nothing like the middle of the jungle where I swam across, hauling an embarrassed fifteen-year-old kid

 

The day I corrected Roger Ebert

Written by Andrew on April 4th, 2013

The great movie critic Roger Ebert died today after a lengthy battle with cancer. It’s not often I’m personally touched by the passing of a “celebrity,” but Roger Ebert was first and foremost a writer, and someone into whose orbit I was inexorably but briefly pulled one day back in March 2006.

Roger Ebert

A young Roger Ebert in 1970

Seven years ago, Roger Ebert posted a review of V for Vendetta, observing:

Britain is ruled by a man named Sutler, who gives orders to his underlings from a wall-sized TV screen and seems the personification of Big Brother.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of my favorite books, and the movie starring John Hurt is one of my favorite literary adaptations in cinema. So when I saw that John Hurt was playing Sutler, I thought Mr. Ebert had missed something. I hit the Send Feedback link and wrote a brief email:

Dear Roger,

Although you compared John Hurt’s character to Big Brother in your review of “V for Vendetta,” I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t note the irony inherent in the fact that Hurt played Winston Smith in “1984.” I think it was a brilliant piece of stunt casting.

Andrew Becraft
Seattle, WA

I never expected a reply. But a few minutes later, I got this amusing response from Roger Ebert himself:

Ohmigod. You;re right!

A few minutes later, he replied again:

I have now incorporated your insight into the review, for which I thank you.

I went back to the review, and Ebert had added:

And is: Sutler is played by John Hurt, who in fact played Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984).

I wrote Roger back:

Excellent! We all have our little obsessions, and “1984″ is one of mine.

All the best,

-Andrew

Again Roger replied:

I love the whole of Orwell — all his novels, and those four thick volumes gathering his miscellaneous writings.

Best,
RE

I was so tempted to continue talking movies and literature with the world-famous Roger Ebert in more and more of these brief exchanges, but I didn’t want to seem obsessive — even though I was giddily forwarding these little emails to all my friends and doing little dances at the office.

Exactly three months later, Roger underwent the first surgery that removed his ability to speak. The ultimate writer (the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, back in 1975), he quickly turned to the web, embracing RogerEbert.com more than ever, along with the nascent social media boom. The written word became his voice, and his fan base grew and grew even as he mostly retired from public view.

I hear people today talking about how much he interacted with fans and engaged with them intellectually since his illness, but it’s obvious to me that Roger Ebert was doing exactly that long before Twitter or Facebook.

Roger Ebert loved what he did, and loved to share his passion with like-minded people — movie buffs, writers, and readers of great literature. For one afternoon seven years ago, I found myself sharing my love of George Orwell with the great and wonderful Roger Ebert.

The world of film will be a dimmer place without him.