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…)
— for Grandma
The old mahogany cuckoo clock chimes the hour.
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,
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.
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.