3 out of 4 stars
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Mark S. Osaki’s book, Best Evidence, is a collection of 39 prose poems in a 54-page book, a short but intense read. For those who are unaware, prose poetry is basically poetry written in prose instead of verse without forgoing certain qualities of its form, like heightened imagery and high emotional intensity. Split into four sections, the first part deals with the Asian-American experience, the second and third on war, and the final section a mix of various themes.
I certainly enjoyed reading Osaki’s works. Powerfully evocative and lyrical, they draw much-needed attention to sensitive issues, like the resultant psychological trauma left on the Vietnamese people in America by the Vietnam War, as well as his experience as an Asian-American in a predominantly white America. The poems do not shy away from these delicate topics; instead, it invites the reader to look even deeper into the pool of Osaki’s raw feelings and emotions.
In addition, what I find most touching is the realistic portrayal of Asian-American stereotypes – such as Osaki's need for affirmation and validation from his parents when he decides to pursue a “soft subject” like the literary arts in “My Father Holding Squash”. This would definitely resonate with many second-generation, or even third-generation Asian-American readers, as they may experience dissonances in identity and values caused by the various differences between their cultural and historical inheritances and the Western cultures and values that they are exposed to.
Furthermore, Osaki has a beautiful way with language. He is able to utilise even the most mundane and everyday object to depict a depth of emotion that arises from the discourse on heavy topics. A great example of this would be “Chinese Camp, California”, where he creates a triple play on the word “pen” – taking it to mean the pen used to pen the poem, the penning itself, as well as likening the isolation Asian-Americans experience to being trapped in a metaphorical pen.
However, Best Evidence is not without its flaws. Personally, I am of the opinion that Osaki has a problematic tendency to portray women in a negative and inferior light. In many of his poems, such as “Double Vision”, “Ambush”, “Such a Lovely Dress", "Snow" and "Border Exchange", women are either depicted as madwomen, or personifications of negative qualities (i.e. licentiousness, capriciousness). Not only is this insulting in this day and age where many people are fighting to achieve gender equality, it is also a great step backwards in this struggle. Regardless, I do not believe that it is intentionally done – however, this does not mean that I condone such sexism. In fact, it seems like an unconscious disparaging of women – this is perhaps due to patriarchal culture, which has a relatively stronger influence in traditional Asian society. Hopefully, with more awareness, this will not be present in Osaki’s future works.
Therefore, I am rating Best Evidence 3 out of 4 stars; the negative representation of women unfortunately prevented me from giving it a full score. Nonetheless, Osaki’s mastery of language and his ability to elicit in his reader introspective thoughts/emotions is evident in his poetry. If you are looking to learn more about racial prejudice, war, and its resultant psychological aftereffects, this is definitely the book for you.
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