THROUGH THE FIRE: for the man who never heard of Manzanar

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TRACI KATO KIRIYAMABy traci kato kiriyama

 

1)

writers are sometimes asked

to consider the question,

“Who is your ‘public’?”

 

my Public

seems to

change depending

on where the mic is placed

 

is that open mic hosted by

Asian American college students?

 

should I read this piece

for our performance at

Day Of Remembrance?

 

is this poetry reading

at a tiny library?

north of Colorado Boulevard?

on a Saturday morning?

 

but, I’m stubborn

and end up reading it all

wherever I am

 

so, really, the Preface to

a poem read aloud

is what changes

 

I suppose the Public

stays the same

(should stay!)

(can stay?)

(will stay.)

 

2)

At a poetry reading I attended

last week

there was a man who

did not know what I meant by

“American Concentration Camps

for Japanese Americans

during World War II”

 

He told me later he was raised in

California

 

His face was far too full of wrinkles

He had too many sunspots

way too much white hair

for someone who

had never heard of

Manzanar

 

3)

This is all I wanted to say,

without any preface:

 

In a town called Independence

up in the Owens Valley

a small museum

holds a panoramic photograph

of the farmers in Manzanar

during the war

 

you can only see it once a year

when it is put out on display

for a Pilgrimage

the descendants make

to meet with the ghosts

who hover around

the fences of Inyo County

 

the spirits usher us around their

former camp

with haughty high noon

exhales

tempting us toward the

streams where their

hands once

proffered treasure

to the puzzled desert

and made introductions

between cherries and bark

wisteria and wire

eggplant and tumbleweed

cucumber and dust

 

the river was aloof

to most but nothing

more than a challenge

to the farmers who were

masters at designing

a maze

that could irrigate

distant wishes into

dreams realized

right through the

vast, abandoned domain

underneath their green feet

turning once pitied dirt

into the richest

of soil

 

they did this

for their sons

like my father

who ran with friends

from mess hall

to mess hall

come dinner time

to see the

new crops

sprout on

plate after plate

after plate

 

they did this

so the rumors

of wartime officials

stealing meat rations

would matter less

for their stoic daughters

like my mother

who even at 3 years of age

knew she wasn’t

supposed to learn the

meaning of seasons

while locked

up in a desert camp

 

the first time I made

pilgrimage to meet

Grandpa’s ghost

my brother pointed out

that photo

 

when you go to find it

look towards the very

center and you will

see a man in a

clean white t-shirt

and a long, thick,

black beard

 

in every other picture

taken of my grandfather

outside of camp

he was always

clean shaven

in a button down shirt

with rolled up sleeves

underneath a vest

or tie

ready for the business

he took from farm

to grocery store

 

now when I look at this

picture of the farmers

I wish it to be a digital photo

in a frame with a touch screen

so I could expand the image

with my fingers and zoom in

on the detail of his

face

 

I’d like to think I could

tell what was behind the

beard and confirm

what looks like a smile

for all the

glorious vegetation

posing so splendidly

in the foreground

 

what I can see is

the posture of a

proud spirit

a fierce farmer

and a man

who didn’t need to

be pretty for that

kind of place

 

that place

where the

farmers

like my

grandfather

who had nothing to

prove

and for no one else

but their families

raised

into a home

 —

traci kato-kiriyama writes at open tables, counters and roads all over Los Angeles. She will be the opening reader this Sunday, March 16, at 2 p.m. at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena to celebrate the debut book release of “Fox Drum Bebop” (Kaya Press, April 2014), by 82-year-old Gene Oishi. Please join them along with Naomi Hirahara for a stimulating dialogue investigating the art of survival in contemporary Japanese American literature. The event is free with admission to the museum. Reservations: (626) 449-2742, ext. 20.

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