The poems in Sophia Terazawa’s Winter Phoenix: Testimonies in Verse (Deep Vellum Publishing, 140 pp. $16, paper; $15.20, Kindle) serve as witness to a series of war atrocities. A poet and performer of Vietnamese-Japanese descent, Terazawa holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks.
The poems in the Winter Phoenix—some of which were published in The Iowa Review, The Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Seattle Review, and Sundog Lit—are a form of found poetry based on veterans’ testimonies during internationally publicized events, including the Winter Soldier Investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, and the Bertram Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm in 1966.
Terazawa says these poems are about her “ongoing survival as the daughter of her mother.” The book can be read as eighty poems, or as six poems, or even just one long one. There are several different forms of poems, and poems within poems. Taking the overall form of a war crimes tribunal, the poems speak of accusations and allegations, atrocities, violence, trauma, and witness. Each consists of an opening statement, witness oaths, exhibits, supplemental diagrams, testimony, cross-examination, redactions, bylaws, a final report, and a closing statement. In all, they are “a cry for justice.”
These lines that jumped out at me during multiple readings of the book:
“She was shot before they called her young.”
“Our trials happened but we never happened.”
“Stars inside my mouth” and the men kept changing places, “Slapping high-fives.”
“How do trials make another body absent?”
“women, hunted, were first shot then stabbed—each comma,/here, most crucial to our story, hence, delineating men from action/during war—a woman, hunted, was then killed upon another hill./These facts are very simple.”
“Losing count of war crimes meant a war crime never happened. Therefore, I was tortured.”
“Then all was silent in your
language, and my language”
“Somewhere in a thicket
There were rabbits screaming. Stop.”
“Uphill, in a country not my own, I found her body, sir.
From that body I could write our book of testimonies. But I could not write this by myself.”
“Why did you just stand there and say nothing?”
The final poem includes an alphabet running backwards, as if it’s leading us back to a time before there was a language to describe the atrocities of war. But even then there would be a witness and a silent accusation: Why did you not do something?
This is a consciousness-raising work of literature.