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Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column

Year-ending

As we survey the past year of lockdowns and quarantines that started here in the States by mid-March, 2020, we take stock of a wide spectrum of revelations and experiences over the last twelve months. From new personal practices and experiments in the arena of safer-at-home, to illness and loss, further exposure of inequities and suffering, uprising and reckoning, community unlearning and building—we share the works of two artists who give us a glimmer of their lives through poetics about this last year, oriented to the pandemic. Veteran author Amy Uyematsu returns to the column with just a few of her many poetic contemplations from over the past year, and Tacoma-based writer & public historian Tamiko Nimura shares with us a piece from last March and a fresh reflection one year later...enjoy.

— traci kato-kiriyama

* * * * * 

Amy Uyematsu is a Sansei poet from Los Angeles. She has five published poetry collections with her latest manuscript, That Blue Trickster Time, due out in 2022. Amy co-edited the widely-used UCLA anthology, Roots: An Asian American Reader. A former public high school math teacher, she currently leads a writing workshop for the Far East Lounge in Little Tokyo.

 

Homebound Haiku

Unstoppable spring -
            burst of green on bare branches
                        virus without bounds

Which is scarier -
            bullets, viral pandemics,
                        a mob ruled by fear

No time to prepare -
            a self-absorbed president’s
                        lies and excuses

Pandemic or not -
            the White House sees dollar signs
                        downplays human life

Still taking our walks
            we are struck by the orange
                        of this spring’s poppies

Now that you stay home
            I am cooking up a storm -
                        our waistlines thicken

Is it only me -
            the clouds are more beautiful
                        a stranger’s smile too

What deadly choices -
            not enough ventilators
                        who’s more deserving?

The streets so quiet
            no children at the playground
                        but the bluest skies

How to stay healthy -
            Netflix, old books, new poems
                        sustain that deep breath

No more zumba class -
            so last night I shut my door
                        cha-cha’ed my heart out

A two-month lockdown?
            Grandpa confined at Gila
                        three relentless years

I used to teach math
            but it took a pandemic
                        for graphs to take hold

Exponential curves -
            once incomprehensible,
                        now daily fixtures

These are the hard facts -
            I’m older than 65
                        may not make the cut

Left in plastic bags
            on the streets of Ecuador -
                        unthinkable end

Find a way to smile
            look at something beautiful
                        all the while grieving

The cruelest spring -
            we watch the rising death toll,
                        cherry blossoms too

*This poem is copyrighted by Amy Uyematsu and published in Eastwind ezine on April 4, 2020.

                 In the Eighth Month of Quarantine

                     — Now the time has come / There’s no place to run
                                                                   Chambers Brothers, 1968

                 :

                 in this blur
                 of hours

                 no special
                 calendar dates

                 a few weeks
                 from fall

                 I have all
                 my life

                 to gaze
                 at this

                 shuttered light
                 the play of

                 afternoon shadows
                 and retreat

                 to the drone
                 of a summer fan

                 :

                 I’ve had close calls
                 the scariest
                 a cancerous tumor
                 in my right breast

                 I even convinced myself
                 I was ready
                 in my early sixties
                 not knowing

                 I’d say hell no
                 a decade later
                 how different the view
                 with two grandsons

                 :

                 now this feeling of being

                 trapped against our will
                 or
                 choking for air

                 pandemics
                 police brutality
                 a planet on fire

                 this furiously uncertain now

*This poem is copyrighted by Amy Uyematsu (2020).

 

When All They Can See Is Our Eyes

            More than 3,000 hate incidents directed at Asian Americans
            nationwide have been recorded since the start of the pandemic...
                                                                                        CBS News, 2/25/21

 

Sixty years ago I knew the danger
of walking past white kids my age
who would sneer and glare
and pull up their eyes -
still so young, I
was relieved if they didn’t
also yell “Jap” or “Chink”

In World War II propaganda
Americans were told
how to differentiate
loyal Chinese citizens
from treacherous Japanese
like my California-born parents
locked up in camps

“How To Spot a Jap,”
a U.S. Army pamphlet
in comic book style,
explaining that “C’s eyes...
have a marked squint”
while “J has eyes slanted
toward his nose”

In 2020 the pandemic
brought our eyes
to the forefront again
as President Trump kept
blaming anyone Asian -
proclaiming the “China virus”
or even “kung flu”

No coincidence
we soon became scapegoats
strangers yelling
“Go back to China”
when we’re Korean
“Infecting and disgusting”
though Pilipino or Thai

In 2021, covid still raging,
a Sacramento teacher
lectures via Zoom -
“If your eyes go up, you’re
Chinese” she gestures,
“If they go down,
they’re Japanese”

As the racist bullying
now escalates to our elders
a grandmother assaulted
and robbed at an ATM
an 84-year-old fatally
smashed to the ground
by a 19-year-old

To those who insist making
“slanty” eyes is harmless fun -
“Can’t you Asians
take a joke?” -
whether Miley Cyrus
or Houston Astro
Yuli Gurriel

No such thing as
a little racism – so-called
innocent teasing
and taunts transform
in an instant to
this all-too-familiar
avalanche of hate

Where attacking us for
our Asian eyes
is as American as
“Japs Must Go” signs,
slanted vagina insults,
the Chinese Exclusion Act
as far back as 1882

*This poem is copyrighted by Amy Uyematsu (2021).

 

* * * * *

Tamiko Nimura is an Asian American writer living in Tacoma, Washington. Her training in literature and American ethnic studies (MA, PhD, University of Washington) prepared her to research, document, and tell the stories of people of color. She has been writing for Discover Nikkei since 2008.

Tamiko has published two books, Rosa Franklin: A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice (Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, 2020) and a co-written graphic novel, titled We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration (Chin Music Press/Wing Luke Asian Museum). She is working on a memoir called PILGRIMAGE.

 

Bad Poems
              March 2020, for Abby

I knew it was getting real
when I started writing bad poems—
in my dreams, even worse.
Me, the fallen-away poet,
who left the laser precision,
the X-ray vision,
the truth-telling lighthouse of poetry.
I thought I’d broken free to roam
 into acres of meadows in prose,
wandering essayist streams,
wide open prairies of fiction,
horizons like novels.

But, no. I slept. I dreamt. I was writing bad poems,
in Times New Roman no less—
even worse, I confess,
with those magnetic poetry kits.
I was writing poems,
trying to assemble words into dutiful lines,
and I knew they were bad.
Even magnetic, the words did not move.

When I woke up, I knew that poetry was calling me back.
It wasn’t just the music.
It wasn’t just the rhythm.
It wasn’t just the image.

It was the power of poetry’s intention,
of poetry’s insistent attention.

My bad poems were telling me that it was time.
The pandemic, then the panic erupted, went
endemic in my dreams.
If I couldn’t let them out,
the stories I was telling
would not move,
would not go viral,
could not become
vital.

One Year Later
              March 2021

One year later
I am dreaming in
restrictions

I am teaching.
(I no longer teach.)
There is a country club
off campus,
there is a classroom,
gray carpet,
white walls,
white lights that buzz.

I have forgotten
the lecture I’ve written.
I have sent my husband
home for notes.

I do not even know
what
I was teaching.

The students
are lounging on couches,
blankets pulled over
their faces.

Once retrieved,
my notes
do nothing
for memory.
After
glancing
at them,
I do not
remember
the words
I have written.

I cannot speak.

The next night
I am missing.

Parties, and readings,
and meetings, and gatherings.
Epic Asian American potlucks.
I am telling my mentor
all of this,
how much
I am missing.

We’re sitting,
facing each other.
A picnic table,
sunlit green trees.

“Then write,” he says.
“Would you like to write
for an hour? With me?”

Above us,
the branches are stirring.
A wind is picking them up, gently,
letting them down, gently.

Then I am running
down wooden stairs
for my wide-lined notebook,
waking up to see.

 *These poems are copyrighted by Tamiko Nimura (2021).

 

© 2020/2021 Amy Uyematsu; 2021 Tamiko Nimura

Amy Uyematsu covid-19 lockdown Nikkei Uncovered poet poetry quarantines Tamiko Nimura writer

About this series

Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column is a space for the Nikkei community to share stories through diverse writings on culture, history, and personal experience. The column will feature a wide variety of poetic form and subject matter with themes that include history, roots, identity; history—past into the present; food as ritual, celebration, and legacy; ritual and assumptions of tradition; place, location, and community; and love.

We’ve invited author, performer, and poet traci kato-kiriyama to curate this monthly poetry column, where we will publish one to two poets on the third Thursday of each month—from senior or young writers new to poetry, to published authors from around the country. We hope to uncover a web of voices linked through myriad differences and connected experience.