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  • The Love of the Red Soil
  • Yonaha Mikio (bio)
    Translated by Katsunori Yamazato and Frank Stewart

The following poems are part of a narrative sequence written by Yonaha Mikio while living on Miyako Island, about two hundred miles southwest of Okinawa’s capital. The poems are written from the perspective of a seventy-year-old woman who has spent her entire life on Miyako. The largest island in the Miyako archipelago, it is nearly flat and encircled by wide, white-sand beaches and coral reefs. The island is exposed to typhoons that strike in early summer and late fall, and though they bring rain, the moisture quickly seeps underground because the soil is porous. The dry soil and intense heat make it difficult to grow crops on most of the island. Miyako people have an ancient culture and language distinct from those of the main islands in the Okinawan chain. Despite efforts to preserve sacred sites and spiritual practices, this ancient culture is quickly being overwhelmed by influences from the outside.


In the indigo sea  new corals rise from the dead   ancestors of the past, their chalky skeletons of lime, the great heaps of the dead  settling under them, bones upon bones,   generations, fused one atop the next, the enormous bone-pile and charnel house  of long-dead children who reproduced   over parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’ disembodied  bones, tangled, extending skeletal heads,   stony septa and gullets rising for millennia over the uncountable fossilized kin,  architects of brittle bodies, builders of the reef’s   infinite chambers, creators of feeding grounds in the indigo timelessness, unfathomable, [End Page 141]  nameless genealogies fused in death and life   —this coral island of our ancestors.

Townspeople imagine coral islands   simply appear on the ocean’s surface, can’t imagine    unending spirit-time, or the limitless number     of ancestors’ rocklike bones, the calcified piling up of their corpses   until the last of them glimpse an indigo glitter,   small waves: making this island     —my old mind unravels at the thought.

And who were the first   ancestors? Enthralled by their blue souls    to voyage to this place and begin slowly turning to stone?  How is the spirit released as the body fossilizes    bit by bit, the metamorphosis from soft polyp to chalky stone? Where are the souls   of the billions now? Did they melt like salt    into the sea, or descend into the blind abyss? Without rest, do they drift homeless on the waves?

Blue ocean, blue sky, darker blue of night, of the ocean’s depths—generations of spirits dyed the cloth of sky and ocean this pure blue.

Before they are spirits, are their souls scarlet as the red hibiscus trembling in the wind like living coral in the waves?—Yes, I think they are.

   Whose were these bones   when their bodies were alive? Those who turned slowly into skeletons even before they died from poverty  from hunger    from the greed    of far-off rulers whose tax-stone   measured out their burden and dried them into branches of lime and heartache    hearing the typhoon winds? [End Page 142] Children, I’m singing you the story of Miyako   the beautiful, the blue, the deepening indigo,    and the red soil made from crushed bodies   that lay down their genealogy of bones —Their spirits are whispering to you: all of this is what is.


A cosmos, an island, centered in a blue dome that arcs high into the azure whose circumference touches the horizon in all directions, waves from far away break on the encircling reef like white petals of blown flowers and wash ashore at my feet —Every day they do this, beautiful and sad.

Beyond the blue cosmos, what others are there? Even dreams leaping from the cape toward the horizon cannot fly far enough, and they fall into the sea. In this blue cosmos, time does not move. —Only the white waves on the reef one by one count the moments as they break.


Yes, Grandchildren, my song sometimes strays here and there. Remember, though, our island’s story under its blue spell is like that too. Though the tax collectors no longer come from...


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pp. 141-144
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