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Poems from Topaz

In an intergenerational reading held at the Japanese American National Museum on Saturday, March 15, 2014, Sansei poet and editor, Brian Komei Dempster, read these two poems, “Crossing” and “Steamer Trunk,” along with other work from his debut collection, Topaz, which looks at the legacy of the camp experience and its impact on younger generations (see Topaz book page).

Brian Komei Dempster at the Japanese American National Museum (Photo by Richard Murakami)

Dempster also discussed his community-based writing projects and anthologies, in which Japanese Americans—mostly Nisei—tell their stories of wartime incarceration and post-war resettlement. Joining Dempster was project participant Toru Saito, who sang and played music, along with prominent Nisei writer, Wakako Yamauchi, whose granddaughter Alyctra Matsushita, read excerpts from Yamauchi’s dazzling story collection, Rosebud (University of Hawaii, 2011, edited by Lillian Howan).

Brian (Left) and Wakako Yamauchi talking with a guest (Photo by Richard Murakami)

* * * * *

Crossing

No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home 
        to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal 
                   hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—a bent post 
                              and a wooden board: No food or gas for 200 miles. The tank

                   needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
       my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz 
in the simmering heat? On quartzed asphalt I rush

       past salt beds, squint at the horizon for the desert’s edge:  a lone
                   tower, a flattened barrack, some sign of Topaz—the camp
                              where my mother, her family, were imprisoned. As I speed 
                                         by shrub cactus, the thought of it feels too near,

                              too close. The engine steams. The radiator
                   hisses. Gusts gather, wind pushes my Civic side 
       to side, and I grip the steering wheel, strain to see  
 
through a windshield smeared with yellowjacket wings, blood
       of mosquitoes. If I can find it, how much can 
                   I really know? Were sandstorms soft as dreams or stinging 
                              like nettles? Who held my mother when the wind whipped

                                       beige handfuls at her baby cheeks? Was the sand tinged 
                              with beige or orange from oxidized mesas? I don’t remember 
                   my mother’s answer to everything. High on coffee

        and nicotine, I half-dream in waves of heat: summon ghosts
                   from the canyon beyond thin lines of barbed wire. Our name
                              Ishida. Ishi means stone, da the field. We were gemstones
                                         strewn in the wasteland. Only three days

                              and one thousand miles to go before I reach 
                   San Francisco, the church where my mother was born 
        and torn away. Maybe Topaz in the desert was long

gone, but it lingered in letters, photos, fragments
        of stories. My mother’s room now mine, the bed pulled blank 
                   with ironed sheets, a desk set with pen and paper. Here 
                              I would come to understand.     

 

* * * * *

 

Steamer Trunk

You know us well,
            from Brendan teething in the church
to my mother’s fenced-in thirst,
            from the possibility of chocolate
to the tinny taste of eel. Slow carrier

            of silver and sand,
from distance and troubled time
            to us and our son Brendan,
who, in unknown sympathy,
            wails on your lid

like his baby grandmother did
            in Topaz prison camp
for her absent father. Makeshift crib
            built by his gloved hands,
a wool blanket stapled as lining

            for your splintered wood skin,
she quieted in you
            calming to cricket-song
beyond barbed wire, her body
            sheltered by you from the cold

that pushed through cracks
            of the barrack door. Strongbox
of only what we can carry,
            my wife Grace towels off Brendan,
and I set him down

            on his nursery floor, pry you
open with a crowbar. We unload
            your bent tinware and brittle-wicked candles
set for meals of unagi
            from jagged lids of dusty cans

on my mother’s birthdays in Topaz, 
            when her sisters Nori and Tae draped you
with wrinkled lilac silk. 
            Barrack heirloom table
they squatted at, we sweep out

            and fill you with Brendan’s ironed clothes
and toys, between sips of bottled milk
            he crawls up to touch your sides
we wipe clean, tugs at your latch, temple chest
            of rusted sweetness.

 

* “Crossing” and “Steamer Trunk” from Topaz (c) 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster. Appearing with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

 

© 2013 Brian Komei Dempster

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