Craig Santos Perez
Review of clutch: hockey love letters, by Sawako Nakayasu
(Tinfish Press, 2002)


Sawako Nakayasu's clutch: hockey love letters embodies the movement, unexpected angles, and near violence of both hockey and love. In relation to these themes, Nakayasu explores the variable denotations of “clutch”: (as verb) to grip something tightly, to grab hold of something; (as noun) control and influence, a crucial moment in a critical situation; (as adjective) dependable or accomplished. Each poem develops the tension inherent in the word “clutch” and funnels this tension into the eroticized forces of sport.

Reflecting this dynamism, the chapbook takes on two forms: long lines sprawling across the page and short condensed lyrics. The latter are contained within brackets, giving them the look of a hockey puck:

intimations at the nearest blade
[            ]
curve—rescind—extenuate—[                  ]or wrap
      aroundings at the fastdoor,
              to the[      ]quick
eyes spin to the play—circomfiting
this here, or andlessness                           ]
speeden’d weight continues,

                                                                        holding ]

Nakayasu's “quick eyes” curve and extenuate through the “speeden'd” syntax of perception. The rhythm wraps “arounding” and attempts to hold, when the whistle sounds, the “andlessness” and “fastdoor” of the play:

    if short or quick to draw
back at the top of
                           [        ]
shorter breath—locality

             all dropped g[    ]loves
whole fleet of such [ moment

cross                                       ]

The subtle moment when “gloves” opens to “loves” hints at the complex relationship Nakayasu sketches between love and hockey. The sport, as metaphor, becomes a site for love's volatile emotions while also representing the poet's real love for hockey (in the dedication, Nakayasu sends “hockey love” to the San Diego Hockey Players, Puckheads, and Gino & the Providence Lady Reds, among others).

Although I'm always weary when a poet shifts formal gears in such a short chapbook, Nakayasu manages to move from these “shorter breath” localities into longer, sprawling prose poems. In “Long Distance Hockey”, the desire abstracted in the above poems becomes fleshed through a manic narrative:

& it’s summer it’s summer but & I still can’t & I still can’t & I still can’t let it go & the glide of it & the speed of it & no man is worth very & no sentence worth completing & I want ice & I want ice & I want & I want […] everything but everything but everything but & the good stuff & the faster & the wind of it, bring it in & ship me out & back to the ice whose hand I hold & hold & hold

The intimate tone of this poem creates an emotional depth in “clutch”. Although we are never given the exact relationship of the “I” and the hand she holds, we acutely feel the tension of not being able to “let it go”. The “forces of time and memory” seem to be what the poet clutches with a convincing fragility:

We played a game of hockey today on the floor and as I picked myself up for the first time this year, it struck me that. Oh, pain is relative when your goalie is involved, but not when there are ex’s, lost ones, floating pucks and other bruises in assorted colors. I didn’t sub out the whole game through because I was afraid I would never find my way back in.

Nakayasu manages to bring together the assorted colors of her two themes into one epiphanic pain. The continual intensity in clutch seems to embody this fear of never finding her way back into the bruises of memory haunted by “ex's, lost ones, [and] floating pucks”. Without this moment, the emotional impact of “hockey love letters” would've only been a poetic game.

The clutch of clutch, so to speak, is the title poem, which occupies the final four pages. In this poem, the two aforementioned techniques collide into a dynamic formal exchange: while some lines stretch to the end of the page and continue onto the next page, short lyric stanzas balance and disrupt the horizontal movement. Because it's impossible to replicate the look of the page in this review, I will only quote one passage to give a sense of its conditions:

A given distance from ice to no ice translates itself
into the time it takes and which it is from. If you
drop/give and that at a breath-width, the taking
and the running out the clocks and the witness

[…]I was once at a party that left me hanging on the balcony with a cigarette a motive and a match but […]

continues as it breathing never stopped for either
of us. Drawing up constitutes the other side of
the line, I take from this each suggestive point to
hold and to cover,

                                    blue to shining blue line

Reading this poem becomes a sport for the eyes as the long lines push us horizontally across the page and the stanzas lift us either above or below that space. Through re-reading, I learned it's impossible to read the poem the same way twice because each reading forces us along different lines of flight and force. Nakayasu translates the “given distance” of desire into a poetic space resembling a hockey rink where our imaginations skate unpredictably from “blue to shining blue line”.

Throughout clutch: hockey love letters , Sawako Nakayasu creates a work in which “breathing never stopped for either of us”. We never learn who the “us” is, but we can't help but feel the book's emotional depths. Nakayasu clutches the remnant forces of memory while each poem holds the moment in its clutch. In the end, she proves that she's clutch at the moment of composition, crafting “those conditions above which allow for multiple necessities of tightened breath.”