It just so happens that our inaugural book review is being written in April, which means it’s National Poetry Month! So, naturally, we reviewed a book of poems by Rick Lupert called The Tokyo-Van Nuys Express. And like every book you read, you never know if you’ll connect with it. As for Mr. Lupert’s book, I read the blurbs and realized it had the humor, wit, and smile-inducing lines I loved from the first book of his I had read. Some years ago, I read his book I’m A Jew, Are You?, originally published in 1998. It was this book that made me a fan of his Seinfeld-esque writing style. I also had been to Rick’s features and his open mics, so I’ve read and heard his poems. This made it easy to pick his 25th collection of poems to review.
While reading, I found something that wasn’t in his earlier work. Although this book had many poems with the charm found in all of his work, the most impressive poems showed me his heart beating through them. It’s amazing to find a poet who can communicate his soul’s feelings through his poems without having to recite them or explain them. It’s like I took a journey through his heart while he and his wife had an adventure in Japan.
With all that said, Rick Lupert had me reading words that showed the immense love for his son, wife, and family. The brilliance of his message was glowing through the poems: This is the Poem, All That We Miss, Caution, Handy at Breakfast, Nakamise Shopping Street, Walk to Train, At the End of a Kyoto Day, Kimono, At the tea ceremony, haiku, On Another Train, Last, Somewhere Over the Pacific, Quiet, and I’m Still Writing This Book. The list may seem long, but I shortened the original one after a painstaking elimination process I put them through to keep this review concise.
This is the Poem (p. 13)
First up, “This is the Poem.” It shows the depth of a father’s love for his child accompanied by the pain of leaving them behind, even if it is for an innocent reason. This is clear in the lines where he describes dropping his son off; the way it made him speechless, realizing “this is the poem where/ we go away to Japan, leaving our son/ for what seems like a thousand years.”
All That We Miss (p. 27)
Lupert’s innate fatherly instinct comes through immensely in “All That We Miss.” You can feel his angst for not being there to share his son’s first earthquake, “experience the father-son bonding of huddling in a doorway.” The poet makes you feel the anxiety of not being there for your son during a beyond confusing moment. Rick doesn’t stop there, though. He also shows how missing this experience causes him to admit to himself, “I suppose this is just another sign of him getting older and finding his own way.” But it’s the ending that cements his feelings of learning about his son’s first quake. He ends it by writing, “The earth shook in Southern California today, and with all my fatherly powers, I couldn’t do anything about it.” The pain emoting from that line is universal. Although I’ve never experienced these feelings, I now know how it feels to be a father who loves his son so much he wants to protect him from the impossible.
Caution (p.31), Handy at Breakfast (p.90), and Walk to Train (p.116)
As the book progresses, Rick Lupert shows how a couple’s vacation from their routine leads to needed alone time, igniting the love they share. All three poems show the way he used the literary device called a running joke but turned into a running symbol about their love shown through his wife’s hands.
“Caution” literally starts this run because it happened toward the beginning of their vacation, proving it didn’t take long for him to realize “I don’t know what I did to deserve this life/ this hotel breakfast, this ability to be/ in this place, this nearby hand and its/ magnetic pull to my own.” The beauty of these lines end the poem, but the feeling’s magnified because it connects to the beginning when Mr. Lupert states they “read somewhere that public displays/ of affection are not as well received as/ the slurping sound you make when you/ suck ramen noodles into your mouth.” Combining these two examples from his poem shows you how much he yearns to hold his wife’s hand in a proud display of their union.
His longing for holding his wife’s hand lasts four days, which he shows in his poem from their fourth day in Tokyo. “Handy at Breakfast” begins by showing his wife’s hands getting covered in lychee juice. It’s as if he’s mesmerized by what he hasn’t touched in public. You can feel his eyes watching his wife attempting to not get too much juice on her hands. His feelings present themselves at the end when he reveals, “Today I plan to/ get all over Addie’s hands/ despite any local prohibition./ There is no easy way not to.” This line makes the undeniable admission that he’s gotten to the point of not caring about what anybody says, and he’s going to hold his wife’s hand and that’s final!
As the couple’s vacation continues in Hakone, the author reveals how far he is from accepting the rule of not showing public affection in “Walk to Train.” It is clear in stanza one when he states, “I want to touch everything/ next to don’t touch signs.” This line makes me grin because Lupert is so over not holding his wife’s hand. By stanza four, the poet reveals he’s still a little self-conscious but his wife is 100% over it by describing his wife’s “great impression/ of what she would imagine someone/ giving us the evil eye would be/ after I worry someone may have just/ spotted me touching her hand in public.” The following lines, however, announce how all of this is making him infatuated with his wife when he wrote, “Imagine the cutest frog you’ve ever seen./ Yes, that’s it.” This finale perfectly relays how smitten he is at this point.
Nakamise Shopping Street (p. 102), Kimono (p.188), At the tea ceremony (p.191), and haiku (p.192)
This next section encapsulates Mr. Lupert’s passion for his wife’s beauty, which intensifies after “Walk to Train.” It’s amazing how he makes the reader feel the steps to his display, as though he didn’t want to show it all at once because she’s too precious.
The setup subtly happens in “Nakamise Shopping Street” because of the way Rick begins the poem. He starts with him and his wife looking for things she wants, and then by the second stanza he states she wants a massage after seeing people getting them. All of this carefully leads to the setup in stanza three: “Ladies in Kimonos Eating gelato./ Addie said it./ I just wrote/ it down.” Now, as the reader, I didn’t know he was setting up a running symbol about his wife’s beauty, but I could sense he loves the way his wife speaks.
By Kyoto Day Two, the poem “Kimono” proves “Nakamise Shopping Street” sets up “Kimono” and the following poems because “Kimono” shows the intimacy of him witnessing his wife try on kimonos. The author displays this sentiment when he reveals she asked him to pick the beautiful white one or the cute yellow one. Then he connects the reader to the emotion behind his answer when he wrote, “We select white, beautiful, even though/ Addie already has both of these covered.” After reading that, you can feel his affection for his wife is unhidden and at the forefront of his vacation.
The next poem up about this topic is “At the tea ceremony.” This poem doesn’t get too far into his wife’s beauty, but it continues the setup for his reveal; it ends with “time will reveal to/ us the answer” because he states earlier in the poem that “you can pay an extra fee/ to wear a kimono.”
The poem “haiku” on the following page works wonderfully after the setup because the entire poem is about his wife in a kimono. Mr. Lupert magnificently states, “The prettiest girl/ I know wears kimono on/ bus ride to drink tea.” Since the poem wouldn’t have worked without all the setup, it was a grand display of Rick’s writing technique’s evolution since the years I read his book I’m A Jew, Are you?.
As impressive as the setup and reveal was, the poet actually uses them as a perfect introduction because by Kyoto Day Three, he shows you the true reveal. It’s his wife, as beautiful as he saw her that day, smiling in her kimono. What an outstanding way to show how gorgeous she is to him.
At the End of a Kyoto Day (p. 184)
Showing his wife’s beauty and revealing his want of holding her hand makes this next poem come to life because it focuses on the “we” factor. Like travel blogger Megan Jerrard wrote in her blog, vacations for couples are one way to increase the feeling of familiarity, leading to a stronger union. “At the End of a Kyoto Day” captures this by creating repetition with the word we. Using “we” this way shows the couple is feeling united in every manner and loving it. It’s as if Rick Lupert planned to advise couples because the end of the poem reads, “We do what people who/ are like us do/ Enough said/ Enough said.” So, by the end, the author is using “we” to create an undeniable rhythm, letting couples know they could be feeling a strong sense of “we,” too.
Last (p. 265)
When you get to the poem “Last,” the use of “we” shows how the vacation’s end impacts them. First, it gives a feeling of their readiness to return home and be with their son. It also shows the “we” expanding because their son is a part of “we” and it dawns on the poet that he and his wife will reunite with him soon. Yet it’s the end that makes you want to reread the poem. The last lines are “the trains under my feet/ are calling our names,” which emotes the sense that even the trains agree and they can’t wait to help reunite them.
Somewhere Over the Pacific (p. 272)
The feeling of reunion continues in “Somewhere Over the Pacific” through the author’s thoughts as the plane is nearing LAX. However, it also shows his wife is reminiscing over the fact that “last night at this time… we were standing in/ the stick line.” Remembering this proves, she had a glorious trip and cannot help but recall their alone time. This type of recollection caused by their vacation proves Gwendolyn Seldman, PhD, is right about what she wrote in Psychology Today’s blog; she stated that “recalling warm memories with a partner can increase feelings of intimacy, as can looking back on and laughing at a funny memory.” And then in stanza five, Mr. Lupert shows the airplane’s path took them right over where his son was staying while he and his wife were in Japan. The poem also includes moments of the author’s witty style, which made me feel like it’s all coming back and it’s all a memory at the same time.
On Another Train (p. 165) and Quiet (p. 277)
The poem “On Another Train” worked like a display of fatherhood. It shows the poet being reminded by the comedic actions of another father about his role and the fun he has being a father himself. It’s almost like a poetic dad joke because the ending, “This is the fuel/ we live on, us dads,” causes any reader to smile. I don’t see how you could react any differently. The amazing part is this poem connects to another one later in the book.
The connection is to the poem “Quiet.” This poem confirms Rick used a poetic dad joke as a running joke because he wrote that “in Japan, children are not allowed to/ make noise until they are thirty-five.” It’s this moment in the poem I realized this poem is working to cause a sense of coming full circle. I also felt the full circle when Lupert wrote “we had homemade Japanese dinner/ tonight, homemade with Addie’s hands” because earlier her hands were used as a running symbol. However, this time when he brought them up, he wasn’t worried like in “Walk to Train.” The next thing of note is his use of the listening sense at the end where he expresses, “I’ll miss the quiet but I know it’ll be just/ a handful of fast moving years before/ the quiet doesn’t go away. It goes so fast they say./ It is going so fast.” Ending this way is impressive because Mr. Lupert communicates a parent’s universal sadness, similar to “This is the Poem.” But it’s not just that, it also shows that every quiet moment we enjoy away from our loved ones will become a noisy era we miss forever.
I’m Still Writing This Book (p. 280)
The full circle feelings from “Quiet” continues in “I’m Still Writing This Book.” This is evident in the last line “see if we can’t make this last/ just a little longer” because it makes me realize the “we” has multiple meanings. One way he used “we” here was to connect it to an earlier part where he expresses “it’s still vacation until he’s/ hosed down, and the never-ending/ cycle of washing his clothes/ starts up again.” Using “we” this way shows that he doesn’t want their alone time to end. In addition, the “we” confirms their family “we” won’t be the same forever. This connects to “This is the Poem,” “All That We Miss,” and “Quiet” because he’s coming to terms with parenthood’s fleetingness. The last line also illustrates “we” for parents because many wish they could keep their child’s childhood going just a little longer, too.
Hiroshima (P. 247)
And since The Tokyo-Van Nuys Express is a travelogue, we must talk about a travel piece. The poem “Hiroshima” shows his ability to take you there with his vivid words. I added it as a bonus poem because it also shows how the poet’s innate fatherly feelings made his poetic reaction powerful. This poem is a testament to Mr. Lupert’s appreciation for fatherhood, family, and history. From the beginning, the author sets up the tone of his poem by stating that the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall is a Yad Vashem; the direct comparison readies the reader because, according to yadvashem.org, it establishes that the Hiroshima exhibit upholds the history of the great losses of Japanese lives because of the atomic bomb just as the Yad Vashem educates about the massive losses of Jewish lives as a result of the Holocaust. In addition, the comparison gives the reader an understanding of the enormity of the memorial in Hiroshima since the Yad Vashem (World Holocaust Remembrance Center) is 45 acres, so when you read “this place is a Yad Vashem” you can immediately visualize the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) is just as enormous.
Communicating the size is one thing, but Mr. Lupert connects the emotion of this place by showing it in family vignettes. When you’re reading, it feels as if the only things he’s seeing relate to family; images proving the universal truth that this type of evil must never reoccur. The way he shows a playground “where children used to play,” a mother protectively holding “her small child,/ calling its name repeatedly and crying,/ ’Open your eyes! Open your eyes!’,” a cemetery with “the names of grave stones burned away,” a scene of a mother gathering ashes trying to prove her son existed, the unborn being contaminated by radiation, lost elderly, parentless children and childless parents, beginning and ending the poem with the image of Sadako, and asking “Where shall I bury the body/ of my dead child?” These touching moments and the Yad Vashem comparison solidify the perspective this was “a Holocaust in an instant.”
The other impressive part is how the author juxtaposes the sadness of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial with giddy visitors toward the beginning and the laughing school children at the end. These two examples show the way one of the worst episodes in human history can evoke dire emotions from those that lived it and have learned it; but at the same time, they symbolize the dangers of letting one of the worst episodes in history become less and less until it becomes a dust covered history book. They also show the beauty of happiness’s rebirth and the inevitable blissful ignorance we all share for many evil moments in human history, which we have not lived or learned. If that wasn’t beautiful enough, Rick uses blank pages after this poem, giving the reader time to decompress the heaviness of what they just read. This is also the only time the author uses blank pages after a poem. Proving this piece’s significance because he shows how you feel speechless after going through an exhibit like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or a Yad Vashem.
“Hiroshima” was so good it reminded me of John Hersey’s non-fiction book. It was like a poetic version that left me wanting to reread both. Aside from that, there are impressive poems about the “stick line,” Tokyo Disney, whiskey, amenities, and so much more. Many of these poems are funny, so I hope you enjoy them as I did.
But to say it’s just a book of awesome travel poems is doing an enormous disservice to Lupert as an author because he wrote a book within a book. The secondary book is like a love poem for his wife and family. The book proves any couple can rekindle the feeling of “we” on a vacation; a break from outside-of-the-marriage demands, like work and family roles, monopolizing their time. A moment where you and your spouse can appreciate togetherness. It’s like the poet’s displaying him and his wife falling back into their honeymoon phase, more and more as the days went by.
The Tokyo-Van Nuys Express by Rick Lupert is a fantastic poetic journey showing you many facets of Japan, but it is also proof that vacations with your significant other can make the relationship stronger. Considering this, I think this book could also help couples in therapy because it could inspire them to take a much needed vacation together or they could just read this book; either way, it could help them fall back in love.
The poems in Mr. Lupert’s 25th collection of poetry are great to be revisited. There’s many for when you need a laugh, chuckle, or smile. If you’re feeling isolated or need to mentally escape, they can take you on an adventure through Japan. And if you’re feeling introspective and missing loved ones, there are beautiful poems that encapsulate those feelings like a hug from someone you missed for too long.
Thank you for reading our blog about The Tokyo-Van Nuys Express by Rick Lupert. We are not affiliated with the publisher, but here’s the book’s link.
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E. R. Sanchez is the author of Fried Potato Press’s first full-length novel, Petaco Dreams, which will be released in the summer of 2022. In addition, he has had poems and stories published online and in print. If you’d like to read his work that was published online, please click here to go to his Stories and Poetry section.