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Prairie Schooner 80.3 (2006) 88-92

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Equilibrium, and: Shikata ga nai, and: What Remains, and: Over the Moon


In Sacramento, I was a newspaperman, but now I stuff
newspapers into cracks around the door frame, between
the floorboards and into knotholes to keep sand, wind
and rattlesnakes out of our barracks.

Here at Topaz, the Jewel of the Desert, I have become a carpenter.
I use my hands to make life in the camp bearable for my family.
When we arrived, our shack held nothing but four army cots.
For mattresses, we were given bags to be filled with straw.

I salvaged lumber from the yard to build crude furniture –
a table, chairs, and a few shelves. Emi borrowed a broom and
swept out the dust, then sewed curtains by hand to hang in
the window. My son made a pull toy from the lids of tin cans.

Mama came with us. She was an Issei and a poet.
One day she wandered into the desert and never came back.
I fashioned a box with no nails to hold her ashes.
Emi made an ikebana from tumbleweeds. [End Page 88]

Beneath the shadows of barbed wire, I have discovered
the beauty of tools. How a plane can subdue the harshness
of wood, its cold steel a comfort in my palm. How a level,
with its bubble that does not freeze in winter, can offer levity.

I have learned how to face a sandstorm with a strip of cardboard
plastered with glue, then to use this sandpaper to smooth out
the incongruities of our lives. I have been shown the miracle
of precision and balance – how a hammer can straighten out
the bent backs of nails and make them useful again.

Shikata ga nai

Rage was not something we were allowed to feel
at Gila River and before that, when we were herded
into horse stalls. We followed, obedient citizens
bound in by barbed wire and silence.
Shikata ga nai. It can't be helped.

My father was a 'no-no man,' checking 'No'
on the government's Loyalty Questionnaire –
'No' to giving up his rights – and was taken away
by the FBI to a detention camp for criminals.
We never saw him for three years.
Shikata ga nai. [End Page 89]

After eight months in the internment camp,
my brother joined the Army. Fred was swoony.
All the girls adored him. In the photograph
of us together, he's standing proud in his uniform.
I'm wearing my best lacy blouse.

Mother and the other women in camp
each sewed a stitch for a thousand-stitch sash,
a good luck charm to keep him safe.
Fred and his friends joined the 442nd.
All Nisei. All sent to Italy. All dead.
Shikata ga nai.

After the war, General Stilwell pinned
a Distinguished Service Cross to my blouse.
Yes, the same lacy blouse. Mother stood
like a ghost behind me. She was not allowed
to receive her son's medal.
She was an Issei, an enemy alien.
Shikata ga nai. [End Page 90]

What Remains

They loaded us onto trucks bound for the camps
took our homes, our possessions, our land
just because we were Japanese – Japanese Americans.

Two suitcases were all we were allowed for clothes
photos, keepsakes – twenty years of our lives in America.
Your grandfather was taken right off his fishing boat.
I was cooking the evening meal when they came.
Your mother sat at the kitchen table studying for a test.

That night I cut strips of cloth from garments
I had to leave behind. And from them I sewed this quilt.
Each stitch, a remembrance – each square, rectangle a tribute
to nature's bounty in the desolation of Heart Mountain.

I stitched in the comfort of kasuri,
the smell of wood smoke on rain-black nights,
of days when rain fell soft and even as my child's breath.
I stitched in triangles of flowers from my wedding kimono.
And as I quilted, I whispered their names: kiku, hagi, kikyô


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pp. 88-92
Launched on MUSE
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