“Nisei”: A Poem by Me; Plus, a few by a much better poet

So, I made this little promise on Wednesday’s blog that I would post one of my poems.  Pretty much as soon as I said that, I wanted to take it back.  As sensitive as I can occasionally be about my writing in general, I am far more paranoid about my poetry.  And this is for two reasons: 1) my poetry (like much, but not all) is extremely personal and mostly autobiographical; and 2) I’m just not that good at it.  I am not a brilliant fiction writer (yet…) by any stretch of the imagination, but I do feel that I have some potential in that area that on the whole my fiction writing “isn’t bad.”  My poetry on the other hand… well…

Still, I have a few that are decent, at any rate.  In fact, I had four poems published by my undergraduate university literary journal, so I’m giving you one of those in order to get a feel for my audience.  This poem was written (and obsessively revised) between 2004-2007.  (Note: WordPress screwed up some of the spacing and line-placement, but oh well…)

Nisei

for Grandma

The old mahogany cuckoo clock chimes the hour.

Dawn.

The thin light filters in through thick curtains,

casting shadows on the walls.

I rock softly in Grandpa’s recliner,

my legs curled to my chest, my eyes closed.

Grandma is on the phone,

greeting her brother’s voice across

a million miles of wire – “moshi moshi…”

Her words, like puzzle pieces,

spread out wide before me.

She will not teach me Japanese:

Manzanar taught her the value of silence.

She has her back to me, facing the kitchen

as if her entire life were contained there –

a passive prisoner in a curtained cage.

When she hangs up, she will turn to me,

and pretend she’s surprised I am there,

though I am always sitting in the dim light,

listening.

She’ll smile at me, and her wrinkled face

will glow beneath a shock of

coal-black hair that still refuses to gray.

Her small black eyes will squint

beneath heavy eyelids,

and I will know that she is happy.

I can imagine her making California rolls

for lunch, because my brother begged her.

I’ll watch her cut the cold crab,

cucumber, avocado, seaweed,

and her hands, like spiders, will roll out rice.

Rice…

I can hear her walking in the kitchen,

still chattering in Japanese,

as her feet pad across linoleum floors –

feet an inch-thick with dry, hard calluses,

from working in rice paddies, to support her brothers,

when she should have been in medical school.

Suddenly, her history stretches out before me:

Manzanar and marriage,

her dead Daddy, her disappointment,

Hiroshima, children, that

placid, implacable smile –

all these pieces refuse to fit.

So I sit here in Grandpa’s chair,

and I let her voice wash over me.

The puzzle remains inscrutable.

In the tradition of poetry anthologies everywhere, here are a few footnotes that might be necessary:

1)     “Nisei” – a Japanese term meaning second generation; refers to the children of Japanese immigrants who were born in the new country.

2)     “moshi moshi” – a Japanese term that does not have a specific meaning but is the traditional term used when answering the phone.

3)     Manzanar – one of the ten U.S.-controlled internment camps Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in during WW II, located in California.

My grandmother was ten years old when she and her family were placed in Manzanar.  Four of her brothers and sisters died in Manzanar.  Her family was originally from Hiroshima and returned there after the war.  She was accepted to medical school at the age of 16 and returned to Los Angeles to begin college.  Then her father died from cancer, most likely caused by the radiation in Hiroshima, and she was forced to quit school and work to support her family.  She married my grandfather at the age of twenty.  She refused to teach her six children Japanese because she feared that it would mark them as it had marked her as child.  Thankfully, in the last few years this has changed.

Now, to wrap up, I would like to send you off to read a few other poems.  Because I mentioned him in one of the comments I responded to on the last blog post, I would like to start with Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943).  He is most well-known for his epic poem John Brown’s Body (which covers the history of the American Civil War) and his short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “By the Waters of Babylon” (which I first read in 10th grade, in one of the Prentice Hall Literature textbooks.  It is, I believe, the only thing by Benet still taught in schools.)  He is, sadly, not much regarded these days.  I’m not entirely sure why, though one MFA student I spoke too called him “melodramatic.”  But he is one of my favorites.  Here are a few of his better poems (in my humble opinion), which were published in his collection Young Adventure in 1918.

“Nos Immortales” which beautifully expresses what I believe are probably common thoughts on death.

“Winged Man” which is a poem about Icarus, one of my favorite Greek myths.

“The Quality of Courage” which is about exactly what it sounds like, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

I hope you enjoyed the poems – either mine or Benet’s, or (in my perfect little world) both.  I would love to hear any thoughts you have on either.  I swear I will not be offended if you didn’t like mine.  I am my own worse critic; you can’t possibly say anything I haven’t told myself a million times.  If you have any poets you’d like to share, please do so!  I read a lot, but there are far more poets than I can possibly discover on my own.  And others who read this might be interested as well.

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10 thoughts on ““Nisei”: A Poem by Me; Plus, a few by a much better poet

    • Thank you very much.

      I wouldn’t say poetry is becoming a lost art, per se… As per my last blog post, the big problem is that the general public simply isn’t READING poetry. There are actually quite a few extremely good poets out there right now doing very interesting, innovative, exciting things with poetry, but the general public still doesn’t much care for stranger more postmodern forms of poetry that are popular among poets right now. It’s considered “too academic” or “too hard” or whatever. And that’s all well and good, and do think that sometimes poets do simply need to make their poetry more accessible (read: easier to understand) for the general reader. But I don’t think that’s going to happen as long as the general reader doesn’t even seem interesting in TRYING to read poetry.

  1. Hi Amanda thank you so much for sharing, my poetry is not the best yet, but I decided to start writing and publishing it on my site anyway. If found if anyone asks just say it’s not personal. 🙂 they then have to ponder that. Anyway loved the imagery you made in my head, and nice backstory.

    Jonny S

    • Thank you very much. I’m so glad the imagery worked for you. For me, poetry is ALWAYS personal. Perhaps not autobiographical, but always personal. Even if the poem is about something that has never and will never happen to me, even if I write from a male persona, or whatever… its still personal in some aspect or another. But that’s just my take on poetry.

  2. Amanda, this is beautiful. What a wonderful moment you’ve captured. I can see you in the chair as a child listening and intrigued by this woman’s culture, your ancestors, the history. I love the life in the terms you’ve given as footnotes. I hope you share more. I really do.

    • Aw, Jess, thanks! I’m so glad you liked it. I am pretty proud of this particular poem. And my grandmother, for all that she has some traits that drive me absolutely NUTS, is a very special person to me. Her history is important, I think, not only on a personal level, but because it represents such a difficult time in the American culture. I’m glad some of that comes through.

      And I’ll probably post at least a couple more of my own poems, though I’ll probably mainly stick to poets I admire.

  3. nice multidimensional expression biographic,historic and personal.it was nice to read your blog,i will be back,thank you.

  4. Thank you for sharing this… It was beautiful, and the description was so vivid and just so real. It was a pleasure to read. =)

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