Generosity, Generativity, Generations: A Tribute to Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan

Laurie Clements Lambeth

I knew Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan for 25 years—at Loyola Marymount University and later at the University of Houston, and on through her remaining years. For much of that time, we were intensely close, and I miss her deeply. The last time we saw each other was at a friend’s funeral, and we made plans we couldn’t keep. That potential “what next” of our friendship was cut short, but her ability to collapse past, present, and future brings comfort.

photo copyClaire’s mind and words reach and spin across time, tendrils stretching forward and backward through generations. She fiercely believed in continuity beyond the borders of our lives, exhibited in her poetry’s sense of time travel, past and future mingling. I recall, for instance, years ago, my fascination as she spoke of her certainty that the spirit of her grandmother was angry at her for writing the poem that would become “The Grandmother I Called Mama”—causing things to go wrong in her apartment, drop, break, leak—in a sense haunting her. She felt her grandmother’s presence directly, tangibly: confronting, comforting. Later, she would write again of Mama, her grandmother, in “Diamonds and Crane”: “Mama is dead. Mama is still alive.” “In the gaps and lapses” Claire allows herself to question and imagine Mama’s life before she knew her. The presence of her beloved dead, even through confrontation, offered comfort in continuity, helping shape her life and work.

This in mind, it seems no surprise that the day Claire died, her body succumbing to respiratory failure on her 20th day in the hospital, a distinct memory began playing on a loop through my mind. I relived the moment over and over until I wrote about it the next day. It was a mysterious, welcome distraction that would not let me go, taking me back to a night in 1991, the first time I understood that this star among LMU’s undergrad poets actually wanted to be my friend. As I wrote the memory of my failed attempts to do her hair, the poem showed me why this small moment from the past had become so present. In the face of incomprehensible losses, how far would you keep striving, it asked.

The Pair

                        Don’t eat the spaghetti, she whispered. It’s funny
spaghetti—her hand raised to one corner
of her mouth, speaking out the other side,
conspiratorial grin I’d come to know, naively

           I wore my chopsticks to the party, the pair
with inlaid fragments of iridescent shell,
wide X holding my bun tight atop my head.
How do you get it to stay like that,
she asked. Ripped tangles, I thought. Easy,
I said,

            then slipped each out to show her. Do mine,
she said. We found a pillowed, dark corner, entered
our own orbit: dense, whisper-enclosed zone
blurring the party’s edges. Another thing
I’d come to know: this intensity, this closeness.

I sat behind her, extended my left hand to lift
so much wide lightness—bright, dark hanks sliding out
through my grasp as I pulled and twisted, lost them,
gathered again, twisted into swirl—one chopstick,
almost the other—but her hair fell like water,
like flood.

                   So far from the party and my new beau
I would later kiss until dawn in his truck—not
yet. Back to my task of gather, spin, and pin.
Make her happy. Make her my friend. Shape
her as she wants to be. For a thin instant, both
chopsticks held

                             what might be called a bun, which then flew
wide, loose as laughter flying down, the ornate pair
dangling quotation marks draped around her head.
How many times would I try reshaping her strands
beyond their gravitational incline and curve?
All must fall, even the healthiest and most shiny.

The poem offered what I needed to know to accept losing her. It also brought the early days of a long, deep friendship, that pairing—into my present moment, to confront with comfort my grief and regret.

Before the party in my poem, Claire had been (to me) a campus celebrity, the editor of LMU’s literary magazine L.A. Miscellany, who generously encouraged me to contribute. Preparing for this talk, I once again noticed Claire moving through time in a note she’d written on my poem for a graduate workshop we attended together many years later at UH: She wrote, “This poem reminds me a lot of your poem Tantalus,” which she’d printed eight years and three degrees (LMU, UVA, Berkeley) before. I’d given up on that poem, but she remembered, folding time.

At LMU we held readings at a place called the Bird’s Nest. Since Claire was ahead of me in workshops, this was where I first heard her poetry, specifically the poem about the loss of her cousin that would grow into “End of Adolescence,” which she included in her second book Bear, Diamonds, and Crane. It was like nothing I had ever heard before: melancholy, sonically resonant, with incredibly cool imagery:

No one is wearing yellow today
on Melrose today, except
in their hair.
Claire, Claire,
Where are you?                       [Her dead cousin’s spirit calls to her in dreams]
I’m here
by the wall of graffiti,
over there on that apricot hill,
riding your dirt bike.

Those lines tumbled through my mind for days then, and for years after. Her talent and urge to forge new images, to dislocate the reader through surprise and tension were evident back then.

I was similarly knocked out by her work when we met up again in Houston in 1997. Sitting on the floor of her apartment, surrounded by her cats Dugan and Pookie, we shared poems as a way to catch up. On top of her stack was “The Moon and Kaguya.” In it, Claire refashions the bamboo princess of Japanese folklore into herself, defiant to what she calls the “velveeta moon.” The poem unfolds unexpected turn after turn, the speaker completely in control of what she decides to be—from Kaguya to a mother dove, then “I think I’ll go/ and become a butterfly.” Shortly after her death, searching for sense, I viewed the 1987 Japanese film “Princess of the Moon,” starring Toshiro Mifune as Kaguya’s father, a bamboo cutter who finds baby Kaguya in a shining bamboo stalk. In the traditional story, Kaguya grows to be a beautiful woman, sought after by many suitors she tests, but she is ultimately called back to the moon, where she came from. In the film, the moon is indeed the color of velveeta chese, and I wondered if Claire had seen it, but of course could no longer ask. In Claire’s poem, it is Kaguya herself who decides to replace the moon:

Go away moon—get out of my poem.

(Who will be the moon if I leave?)
I’ll make myself the moon.
I rise a new mother.
My children are the platinum stars.
I feed them corn pebbles.
They ask me my name.

I tell them, I am the pickled moon of November.
Do not be afraid. The terrible moon
has gone away.

The tale of Kaguya, at least in Studio Ghibli’s beautiful, animated 2013 retelling, serves as an allegory for untimely death; she’s just gone to the moon, embraced by the moon people who place a shawl of forgetfulness on her shoulders as her adoptive parents and community grieve below. Of course, Claire’s death can’t be this easily explained or mythologized. Still, at one point in the film, Kaguya’s fury, expressively scribbled in roving, beautiful, wild tangled lines, holds the essence of Claire’s fierceness and passion. The film’s final song carries lines that speak to Claire’s sensibility as a poet and person, spanning generations: “Everything of now/ is everything of the past /[. . .] Everything now/ is hope for the future,” which can be found in her daughter Vidya, and Claire’s later poem, “For My Daughter.”

For My Daughter

Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan

Don’t cry Little One,
it’s only Vishnu
hiding the branch.
Don’t cry,
He’ll bring it back.
For now, smile
at the lizard worshipping
the sun.
When you miss the warmth
of my womb. I miss
your kicks and flutters inside,
how you would dance
when we ate vanilla
ice-cream and yogurt,
kiwi popsicle. I will soothe you in my arms
But now
I get to cradle you
in my arms, as you blink
back and smile at me.
Your father held you first
under the light
after you were born.
Now he holds and sings
you songs in Hindi, pointing
out the spinach and Holy Basil,
the small orange and avocado tree,
the Elephant’s Ears leaves
flapping above the dirt
and concrete, fire ants
climbing from the cracks.
One day you will inherit
this house. When we are gone,
don’t cry. Like Vishnu,
we are always with you.
You are the gift from above,
miracle of my life.

“The Pair” by Laurie Clements Lambeth originally appeared in Zócalo Public Square ©2016, and is reprinted by permission of Laurie Clements Lambeth. All rights reserved.

“For my Daughter” by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan printed by permission of Rajesh Ramakrishnan. All rights reserved.

Laurie Clements Lambeth

Laurie Clements Lambeth is the author of Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008), selected by Maxine Kumin for the National Poetry Series. Her poetry publications include Poetry Magazine, Crazyhorse, Seneca Review, and Bellevue Literary Review, where her poem won their 2014 award for poetry. Her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in The New York Times, Ecotone, and Crab Orchard Review. When not at work on several writing projects, she teaches Medical Humanities courses at the University of Houston.