[Table of Contents]

 

4 POEMS

W Todd Kaneko

 

LOYALTY QUESTIONNAIRE

  1. How do you pronounce your real name?
  2. How do you pronounce your identification number in your native tongue?
  3. Is the mouse more loyal to the cat or to the cheese? What does this say about the mousetrap?
  4. Do you look more like your mother or the President of your country?
  5. What noises do they make to celebrate the country where you were born? When the neighborhood dogs howl at night, do you sing along?
  6. You have lived inside a closed box for three years. What grateful words will you say to your captors when they finally lift the lid to set you free?
  7. When you pray, what does God look like when you open your eyes?
  8. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but sing it to the tune of a song that is popular for dancing in your country. Don't you think that is disrespectful?
  9. How do you feel about your country? Choose from the following:
         a) Does the scarecrow do the crops' bidding?
         b) Does the machete sharpen itself against bone?
         c) When do Halloween masks go on sale?
  10. You are walking in the city and discover a young man unconscious on the sidewalk. He has no identification so you take twenty dollars from his wallet and leave.
  11. Is the sword loyal to the hand? Is the tongue loyal to the mouth? What are you thinking about when you cover your mouth with your hands?
  12. How many horses have you ridden in your life? What were their names? Where do they live now?
  13. In your country, there is an abandoned zoo where the animals wait in their cages for someone to rescue them. There is a party just outside the zoo, everyone high on sugar and fireworks. What will you do with that gun hidden under your jacket?
  14. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but do it in that mocking tone your father uses when he talks about America.
  15. There is a stable with a leaky roof. The animals are trapped together standing belly-deep in rainwater, their cries inaudible out there on the prairie. What can you think of that is sadder than this?
  16. Describe it using only questions you wish you had asked your grandmother before she died.
  17. Do the bees pledge loyalty to the hive? What is honey in the land of the dead?
  18. What is night in your country? A place for the constellations to reenact the wars we make on Earth? A black eagle hunting animals in the dark? A haven for ghosts?
  19. There are no such things as ghosts except for your ancestors' shadows crouching at the foot of your bed while you sleep. How does your name taste in the mouths of the dead?
  20. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but replace the words with black seawater, with huge gulps of brine and the sounds a boat makes as it splinters against the rocks.
  21. What are your least favorite animals to eat in your country? In your house?
  22. Are you loyal to your animals? What animals would you kill to defend your country?
  23. Why do you keep hearing the word animals when I am clearly saying children?
  24. How does the moth's body come to be filled with dust? Can you say the word moon without thinking of the moon? What kind of animal is inside your body?
  25. You overhear a foreign woman on her cell phone. You can't understand her, but her words sound filthy and mangled. What language do you think she is speaking?
  26. What do you think she is saying about your country?
  27. Is the rain loyal to the clouds? Are fish loyal to the ocean? If you could live anywhere in the world, where in America would you live?
  28. Do you renounce loyalty to those foreign governments you serve, your treacherous herds, your covens?
  29. When you return from the war, your house will be empty. Who remembers how to cook your favorite meal? Or do the horses gather in your room at night to graze on your silence?
  30. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but replace the words with the names of all the ancestors you have forsaken.
  31. Recite your ancestors' names, but replace their names with blood.
  32. If you could die anywhere in the world, where would you bleed?
  33. When you are bleeding, can you recite your name over and over again until it becomes the Pledge of Allegiance? What color is your blood then?

 

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GHOST STORY

     1.
A child walks through
                                           a closed door.

     2.
Not a child but everyone
                                           in my family—
            all walking all the time without seeing
                        where we've come from.

     3.
Everyone in my family is dead,
            except for those who are still
alive                                           amen amen
            to bring the dead back to us.

     4.
My grandmother is no longer alive,
                        and she tells me stories at night
about Minidoka, about Idaho—
                                                           amen amen

     5.
            My grandfather is no longer alive,
and he tells me stories about my grandmother.
                        They say this is how the lioness
                                    was turned into a witch. They say
                        there is no such thing as magic—
                                                                      amen amen

     6.
My father is no longer alive,
                        and he tells me stories about life
            in a concentration camp.

            They say this is how life is
breathed into a body,                        amen amen
            how it feels to be out of breath.

     7.
One day the child will grow up and tell me
a story about Idaho, how my family learned
                        to pray, how in the end
                        no one remembers how to pray.

     8.
One day the door will open
                        and so many stories spill forth.
They say this is where our hearts are buried.
They say this is how the crows learned our names.
They say Minidoka over and over again
                        so that my family can finally sleep.

     9.
                        There is no child,
                        there is no door—
one day my son will ask me
where we come from                        amen amen
            and my father won't be there
                        to tell us the answer.

 

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AMERICAN SENTENCES

During World War II, my father was imprisoned in America.

Seattle is far from Michigan, my father from my newborn son.

My father was a child back in that nowhere we call Minidoka.

Minidoka is a Dakota Sioux word meaning "spring of water."

My grandparents were captives too, animals stranded in the badlands.

Some call it relocation, internment; we just call it Idaho.

Before that, they lived in a little house near Seattle's Chinatown.

My Ji-chan worked all day, new gardens sprouting from beneath his huge thumbs.

My Ji-chan worked all night, night watchman pounding a beat through Chinatown.

My Ba-chan went to business college, kept books for Japanese grocers.

My father wasn't yet old enough to understand Minidoka.

Minidoka: family word meaning plume of dust, dirt in our mouths.

When the war broke, the soldiers shipped them all to the Assembly Center.

There, thousands of people waited on their way to the internment camps. 

A sad irony: the Assembly Center was called Camp Harmony.

For months, they huddled in chicken coops, wept like piglets, slept like horses.

Camp Harmony was built at what is now the Washington State fairgrounds. 

A sad irony: my father took me to the Washington State fair.

We fed the cows, then ate hamburgers on a bench just outside the barn.

He never explained how different the world looks from inside the cage.

Minidoka: that feeling in the animals' guts before slaughter.

When I take my son to the petting zoo, we do not talk about camp.

When I say camp, I mean Minidoka, where we lived without bodies.

I mean Minidoka, where our bodies lived without us inside them.

I was not at Minidoka, but I was bequeathed a piece at birth.

When we say sad irony, we mean Minidoka, still inside us. 

I am shingle and tar paper, the sky's dry breath, at Minidoka.

I am barbed wire and fence post and coyote howl, at Minidoka.

I am the crow's bleak song, the National Anthem, at Minidoka.

My son is these things too, or will be when he learns of Minidoka.

After the war, my Ji-chan gave up the garden for a new death grip.

He broke birds by the neck, Minidoka in his hands until he died.

After he died, my Ba-chan lived in the darkest house in the city.

Neither of them ever talked to me about what Minidoka means.

After the war, my father carved out poems about Minidoka.

Poems about the cold desert, about how animals cry at night.

We never talked about what Minidoka means, but we have poems.

My father no longer survives with me on Earth, but we have poems.

Here in Michigan, my son will one day ask what Minidoka means.

One day, we will try to gather what Minidoka means together.

Together, our fingers might not be able to contain all of it.

 

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TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING

The horses gather in the sky
where the airplanes once were,
flanks radiant in moonlight

as they stamp out places
in the night for our dead to live.

I imagine my grandmother,
a young woman on the prairie
looking up from behind barbed wire

for shooting stars and the horses
rear and whinny like they do at night
when the barn has caught fire
and the doors are locked.

The horses say the night is holy,
each star a socket of light
to remind the earthbound to look away

from the ground. I imagine America
searching the night for airplanes,
for satellites orbiting God and the horses
can't remember when they touched

the Earth last. Perhaps that first dusk
my grandmother watched in Idaho,
the sun's revenant hovering on the hill

before the horses trampled it into soil
for her garden. Or that last sunset
over the water I watched with my father,
ghosts of the plains draping themselves

over our shoulders. The horses just want
to hear us speak our prayers for the dark.

The horses just want to hear us sing.

 

 

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Poems help me try to understand that which is unfathomable to me. They help me say that which I don't know how to say. During World War II, my father and his parents lived in a concentration camp in Idaho for people of Japanese descent. How do we reckon with the lived experiences of those who have passed? How do we understand the weight of those experiences on our own lives and the lives of our children? I'm still trying to figure that out.