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The Asian American Literary Review

Poems by Hiromi Itō -- from Wild Grass on the Riverbank - Part 1

Read Jeffrey Angles’ short essay about Wild Grass on the Riverbank >> 

Mother Leads Us on Board 

Mother led us along 
And we got on board 
We got on, got off, then on again
We boarded cars and busses
We boarded planes
Then more buses and trains and cars

The place where we arrived was a building full of muffled voices, it had a cold corridor where people had gathered in droves, they were all looking confused, they were all looking confused as they didn’t know what would happen next, they were sitting and looking around with wide open eyes, the room became dark, and mother’s form rose up

Mother mumbled
“I don’t know what to do”1
Mother tapped the floor with her wrinkled hand and whispered
“We’ve been living like this since you were born”
She closed her eyes halfway, clutched at her breasts and railed
“I’ve had nothing but hardship since I was born”
She repeated
“I’ve had nothing but hardship since I was born”
My little brother began to sob
I asked him what’s the matter
He said I hate it here, I hate it here
He said I don’t want to see her
He said I want to run away and go home
She’s mean, she makes me sick, she’s dirty
She’s a mess, she’s dirty
It’s like she’s rubbing off on us
I don’t want to see or hear her, I want to go home
My little brother sobbed with sorrow

All the people had unfamiliar faces, they sat in unfamiliar fashions, no one seemed to understand Japanese, mother was sitting alone on a stage then she stood up and thumped her feet against the floor, to everyone else it was nothing but noise, then mother squeezed a noise from her mouth, to me it sounds more like a voice than a plain old noise, it had meaning, it had emotion, it was sad at moments and happy at others, it had meaning, it had meaning, but to all the other people, it was nothing but noise

Mother said
“A growing, laughing, living body”
Mother repeated
“A growing, laughing, living body”

Once I asked mother, do all those people understand?
Mother responded
I don’t think so
Why are you doing that if they don’t understand?
Doesn’t your voice just come out and disappear?
Mother responded
I wonder
Why do all those people come if they don’t understand?
Mother responded
Isn’t it precisely because they don’t understand?
Mother repeated over and over
“A living body, a living body”
Why’ve we come somewhere no one will understand us?
Mother responded
Maybe we can get some money
Mother repeated over and over
“A living body, a living body”
I hate it here, my little brother said
Go to sleep, I whispered
He put his head between his hands
Covered his ears, closed his eyes
And before long he stopped moving
I was also starting to doze
My little brother’s eyes were closed
Still covering his ears, he fell sound asleep
And started to melt away
I was also starting to doze
“That is what I am, that is who I am”
The words repeated
“That is what I am, that is who I am”
The voice stopped, mother gave a small laugh
Relieved, the listeners laughed too

We were shaken awake, the men barked out long strings of words we couldn’t understand, my little brother and I don’t know how to respond, mother was speaking to some people and didn’t even turn to look at us, she was speaking to some people and didn’t even turn to look at us, then hours later, mother finally looked back and told us we’re going, she led us to a hotel, without even combing our hair, we crawled underneath the stiff sheets on the narrow bed and fell asleep, my little brother was soft and warm, mother was hard and cold, mother and I fall asleep holding my brother, we fell asleep, everyone touching everyone else’s arms and legs, a dry, withered hand caressed me during the night, I was so tired I didn’t even brush the hand away when it pulled my ponytail in my sleep

Mother led us along
And we got on board
We got on cars and busses and planes
Then more busses and trains and cars
My little brother said that was fun
At one of the airports where we got on
The room we were waiting in
Turned into a bus and started moving
Then merged with the plane
But I don’t remember getting on anything like that

We slept here and there in the airports, we played here and there in the airports, we tumbled over and bumped into things here and there in the airports, I got scolded, my little brother cried, food was bought, we didn’t eat it all and threw it away, we coaxed mother for things, we got scolded, there were lots of families like us, parents let their children eat, parents scolded their children, some of the families traveling from airport to airport had their hair cut, some had it braided, some had it tied up, some had it shaved right off, everyone was wearing clothes of different colors, everyone was waiting, everyone was spread out all over the airport waiting all over the place, every last one of them was waiting except for the children who were not eating or sleeping or waiting but tumbling over, bumping into things, and playing just like us

It was dark inside the planes
I watched the movies but the screen was either too far away or too close
In the next seat, my little brother slumped over asleep
Mother had covered him in the darkness
I watched the movies
People got angry and got killed
In a language I didn’t understand
In the next seat, my little brother slumped over asleep

After I thought she had fallen asleep, mother started moving under the covers in the darkness with a certain monotonous rhythm, then she let out a long breath and stopped moving, when she did this I smell the same sweet and sour scent as always, it is not the smell of passing gas, nor the smell of breast milk, nor the smell of my navel, after she let out a long breath and stopped moving she fell asleep, I tried doing the same thing, then I stretched and spread myself out slowly, allowing me to sleep a little, allowing me to sleep just a little

I watched the movies
If I don’t put on the earphones
I can get away without listening
To their angry shouts and death cries
In the next seat, my little brother slumped over asleep
Mother wept silently to herself in the darkness
Quietly she wept to herself

When we got off the plane my little brother threw up
The long, long conveyor belt clattered along
Mother held my brother covered in vomit
And walked along the conveyor belt with great speed
As the long, long conveyor belt clattered along

It took one day and one night to reach immigration, the route was lined with many, many immigrants who had collapsed along the way and shriveled up, no matter how wealthy the country, they never make the path to immigration any shorter, their wealth won’t help us, there is just sadness, curt answers and pain, immigration is nowhere in particular, and to make matters worse, there is no guarantee we’ll make it through, my little brother didn’t notice but I did, our passports were bad, I had noticed that at immigration in every country, the men made mean faces and stared at their computers, that’s ‘cause our passports are bad, my little brother tried looking into the computer and got scolded, not just once, not just twice, the men pointed us to another window and told us to go there, we followed mother as she rushed us onward, not just once, not just twice, she dragged us to all sorts of places

As mother dragged us along
All sorts of things got pulled out
Telephone lines, books of telephone numbers, postcards
And old passports punched full of holes
And leftover airplane food and changes of pants
And apples with missing bites and the tip of a dried-up hand
And small bottles full of bugs we had collected
The bugs were dead inside the bottle
Some man called out to us
You dropped something, you dropped something
You dropped something, you dropped something
Pick it up, pick it up
So we picked it up
And put it back where it belonged
Mother led us from place after another
Rushing us here and there
And when we reached the window, no one was there
So we waited before the empty window
There was no guarantee the window would open
My little brother asked what will we do if no one comes?
My mother responded then this is where we’ll live
And with that she smiled

In one corner of the great immigration hall, my little brother was slumped over asleep in the row of hard chairs before the empty window, watching him was enough to put me to sleep too, something was pulling at me so I brushed it aside, it’s that dried-up arm, the tip seemed to break when I brushed it aside, it made a dry sound as it fell to the ground, no sooner do I realize what’s happened then someone shakes me awake, mother’s standing up and saying we’re ready to go, I asked if the bad part of our passport had gotten fixed, she told me no, she told me a bad passport is always bad, we went outside the airport and as we put our three bad passports away, mother nudged us as if to say, look we’re going

Once again we’re getting on board
No matter how often we arrive
Our journey still does not end

Read more from Hiromi Ito's Wild Grass on the Riverbank (coming soon)...


1. The passages in quotes come directly from Itō’s own long narrative poem “I Am Anjuhimeko” (Watashi wa Anjuhimeko) from 1993.  Based on a variant version of the famous medieval legend of Sanshō the Bailiff (Sanshō Dayū) discovered in northeastern Japan, “I Am Anjuhimeko” begins with a description of the tortured relationship between an infant daughter and her mother, who eventually consents to have her daughter killed.  This opening portion of the poem, which provides all of the quoted passages, is a piece that Itō often reads at her own poetry readings.  In fact, Itō has commented that this scene was inspired by an actual poetry reading she did at Innsbruck.  For a translation of “I Am Anjuhimeko,” see Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Itō, trans. Jeffrey Angles (Notre Dame: Action Books, 2009), 99-115.

is an Associate Professor of Japanese and translation studies whose translations of leading contemporary Japanese poets have earned the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, the PEN Club of America Translation Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Grant.  He is the author of Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature, and his translations include Tada Chimako’s Forest of Eyes, Takahashi Mutsuo’s Intimate Worlds Enclosed, Hiromi Itō’s Killing Kanoko, and Arai Takako’s Soul Dance.


* This was first published as "Hiromi Itō - from Wild Grass on the Riverbank," translated from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles in The Asian American Literary Review, Spring 2012: Generations. The AALR has generously shared several of the forum responses, poetry, and prose with Discover Nikkei from this issue by David MuraRichard OyamaVelina Hasu HoustonAnna Kazumi StahlAmy Uyematsu, and Hiromi Itō (translated by Jeffrey Angles).

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© 2012 Jeffery Angles

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About this series

The Asian American Literary Review is a space for writers who consider the designation “Asian American” a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community. In showcasing the work of established and emerging writers, the journal aims to incubate dialogues and, just as importantly, open those dialogues to regional, national, and international audiences of all constituencies. It selects work that is, as Marianne Moore once put it, “an expression of our needs…[and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.”

Published biannually, AALR features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comic art, interviews, and book reviews. Discover Nikkei will feature selected stories from their issues.

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