Khadija Anderson’s “History of Butoh” (Writ Large Press)

One compelling aspect of Khadija Anderson’s personal story: she is a blue-eyed American woman, who, about twenty years ago, converted to Islam. Her religious identity, which so immediately distinguishes her as an individual, has—luckily for readers—also supplied much fodder for her poetry. But she never dwells on her conversion in a heavy-handed way: everything is done subtly, often indirectly, as befits someone who has, for almost thirty years, been heavily involved with a form of modern Japanese ballet known as Butoh, a very show, stylized and haunting dance/mime practice developed in the late 1950’s. Her unlikely mix of Japan, Islam and Southern California serves to unify and enrich a body of work that could only have happened in America but that, at the same time, points away from the hegemony of Western/white culture within a country that will soon be inhabited by a mostly non-white population.

Khadija Anderson has the enviable status of having been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a fine poem also featured in this book; it is entitled “Islam for Americans”; it is short, comprising five short sections, full of pithy, smart touches and understated emotion. Here are sections three and five:

3. Does your religion make your wear that?

the woman

who does not

cover her hair

should have it


˜Corinthians 15:6


5. last words

I see a woman covered

in a long dress, headscarf

and face veil

as salaam aleykum, I say

and as she looks at my

bare head, tank top

and tattoos

she replies,

wa aleykum salaam sister

What an unusual blending/melding/clashing of lifestyles and civilizations! And Anderson strikes the right tone: she never “rants,” she never shouts at the reader or pontificates.

When she writes political poems, much is left unsaid, told in a “slant” manner; though her stance is clear, there is much cultural ambiguity as she reminds us how connected we all are:


the beach at Tel Aviv

is sunny and clean

my bikinied friends

and I

keep a ball


helicopter gunship

flies above us

headed south

not far


44 miles

to drop


the pilot will join

us later


a beer

The “something”—the wording, the fact it’s on its own line—both humorous and ominous; the line break “the pilot will join / us later” is brilliant: what kind of joining is this when it has to happen on two separate lines? And who is this mysterious pilot, anyway? How do the narrator’s friends know him? And a beer: that means casualness, camaraderie, putting aside differences, but also potentially sweeping them under the rug.

Often Anderson’s poems are gently moving, helped by a plainspoken style unadorned by literary access. This is how her poem “Dakar” ends:

The beach is a short walk.

I play in the warm Atlantic surf

and notice it’s prayer time.

I turn myself

some way,

hands across chest,

suddenly many people shouting at me

this way, this way.

They point in unison

towards Mecca.

In a helpful preface, Anderson writes about Butoh and Islam: “My relationship to Islam is very much aligned with [Butoh creator] Hijikata’s raison d’être of Butoh—as a political and social expression of insurgency.” This insurgent side of her is evident in “Today for Jury Duty I Decide to Wear the Hijab.” The title already suggests so much! The last stanza ends: “One man stared furiously / I held my tongue / and smiled sweetly / like the good Muslim / that I am.” This is an unusual vignette. The actual writing, however, may be too plain, too bare. While the substance, the approach, the “meat” of this poem is indirect and leaves much unsaid, the actual wording perhaps comes up short: we are left with a fine anecdote rather than a poem we would choose to memorize if we were off to a desert island. On the other hand, if this piece were rewritten with more fastidious attention to sound, more powerful images and metaphors, then it would be perhaps a more literary poem that might, however, fail to communicate on a visceral human level, as it does now.

Each section begins with a “Butoh” poem that serves, like the preface, to set the stage for what is to come; these poems seem to have been written especially for this collection and contain little fresh writing. However, they do help—along with fine illustrations and an accompanying CD of wild music—to give the book remarkable unity.

And when Anderson wants to be more literary, she does a good job of it, without ever falling into pretentiousness. “Death Fugue for Palestine” (an irony indeed!) has an obvious antecedent. Interestingly, the more stylistically adventurous poems appear in the section dedicated to political poems not only about the Arab/Israeli conflict in our own day but also Japanese internment camps, U.S. imperialism and cultural cluelessness. “Take Me to the River” is a fine example Anderson’s talent; here is an excerpt:

when you go down to the lake

the pond

the beach

go down to the pool

when you go down to the cantina

down to the bar

when you go down to the pool hall

down to the brothel

to the boardroom

to the bank

the White House

when you go down to the snake pit

to the dog race

when you go down to the cock fright

to the casino

the bordello

go down to the RNC

when you go down to the cesspool

We live in a new era in this country in which we have begun to move beyond the much-loved Judeo-Christian white male poet-heroes who dominated in the middle of the last century. Anderson—with her eye to the Near East as well as the Far East—is a living example of the new directions we are heading in. And what better environment for this art to thrive in than diverse Los Angeles? In this sense, Anderson’s LA street poems provide the perfect starting-points for her musings on culture and the state of the world. Here are the last stanzas of “Shoe Poem”:

A Thai Elvis impersonator

shot Cambodian gangsters

for showing the soles of their shoes

while he performed


Some claim it is against

the law to drive barefoot

in California


A Christian missionary washes

the feet of a homeless man

in a Vons parking lot


This country, indeed this world, with all the changes it is undergoing, can be a confusing, even a bewildering place. And yet through all these changes, all this confusion and strife, Anderson is always at the ready with her notebook, her beautifully chosen details, her unique biography, her faith, and her years of immersion in modern dance and the art and craft of poetry.


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