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Three poems

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Editor’s Note: Kyoko Uchida was a finalist in the 2020 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest and her work appears in our literary anthology Ancestors.

Breath

One.
 
The story goes:

When Sun and Moon married

to people the string of seed pearl islands
as they’d seeded the sky with cold hard stars
 
after circling her husband to be
seven rotations mincing the hour,
the bride spoke first. Perhaps she merely said
 
Let me catch my breath. Yet because of her
breach of decorum, their first child was born
a leech, without limbs or vertebrae, just
 
a hungry mouth, was cast away from these
jade-green shores on a boat of woven reeds.
Seven times Moon circled a raging Sun
 
anew, kept quiet until he spoke first.
Their next child, the Sun Prince, descended from
the heavens to become our ancestor.
 
The End.

And our leech-child sibling, exiled

to its mother’s salty low tides? Teaching
itself to speak. Growing a spiky spine.
 
 
Two.
 
The word son is written as two kanji:
breath and child—the kanji for breath itself
composed of two characters: self and heart.
 
The word daughter is one kanji also
composed of two kanji: woman and good
the same word as for any young woman:
 
a neighbor or a stranger, generic,
interchangeable. To be distinguished
only from older sister (woman and
 
market), younger sister (woman and end),
bride (woman and house), wife (woman and broom),
or old woman (woman under the waves).
 
The character for wife also denotes
social position—a lady is wife
followed by person, ordinary wives
 
not being persons—or a profession:
nurse, cleaning woman, midwife, prostitute,
comfort woman.
 
 
Three.
 

Written as three kanji:

Consolationto master the heart; peace
a woman under a roof; wife. There is
 
no consolation for those women whose
names we mispronounce, no peace even now,
no mastering a heart bound and gagged. For
 
the word accounts for no daughter, sister,
mother, not even a generic young
good woman. The word ancestor includes no
 
woman.

How is it that we’re still learning

to draw breath, a lungful of burning coal
to speak, to name ourselves, our daughters?

 

 

From Mother Tongues and Other Untravelings

        I have no sense of direction and it embarrasses my mother; she denies any family resemblance. I never learned to navigate, to translate forward motion into the pale grids of roadmaps, though as a child I’d loved the miniature geography of atlases and globes—for it was easy to know where the distant places were. It was where we were that I misunderstood. In a flashing maze of street names and storefronts, traffic circles, on- and off-ramps, I might remember a sharp left turn, or if the road curved as it climbed. What I don’t understand is relative location, where each place is from where you are or where I’ve come from, how to articulate sequence of movement. I am here. You are there. I won’t know the way back.
 
 
        Down the wide gray corridor, we’re leaving the hospital I hate. My mother is pregnant with my sister. I know, with no memory of her being big or slow-limbed, because she no longer holds my hand; I’m old enough, almost five. When we pass the kiosk with candy and magazines, I do not look longingly at the bright red tins of caramels. But as we come out into the blue November day, out of habit I reach up—and find a stranger’s hand. Reeling with rage, I fly back down the corridor to the waiting room: green vinyl benches and slippered feet, canes, nurses’ shoes, disinfectant stinging. She always said to wait by the exit if I got lost. No running! but I’m gone already, rounding the corner, nearly knocking into her.
        Where have you been?
        We say to each other as if in a game of mirrors.
          I walked out with a stranger. I thought it was you.
          It was me. You were with me.
        I don’t know why I mistook her for another, only how sure I was. I don’t know if she’s forgiven me, only that even then I’d delighted in my mistake, not knowing my mother or the girl who took her hand away and ran, motherless and nameless, back to her.
 
 
        She writes on my birthday and at New Year’s, otherwise rarely. I do not complain. My mother’s letters come with boxes of food or clothes I do not need, are even more formal than my grandmother’s.
        A lesson in letter-writing: Begin with the greeting appropriate for the season: something different for mid-April and for late April, as the cherry blossoms fade and the leaves come in; for early and mid-June, as hues of green deepen with the plum rains. Assume the same weather for the other, that they are not far apart. Inquire after her health, even though you know already that she eats too little meat. Note the polite closing address to match the opening, the honorific after even a daughter’s name.
        Her briefest note has a beginning and an end, a sense that something substantial has been said. They come to me as postcards from a distant place of motherhood, written in a foreign tongue like weather we do not share. I recognize only the plainness of her signature, the abbreviated Chinese character for mother like a thumbprint seal.
 
 

Grief

The first grief is without
memory or sound—
an absence guessed at
of one barely glimpsed:
a pale hand, a red candy tin.
 
The second grief is a wrenching—
out of my first-grade classroom
across the long night of the Pacific
in my stomach churning turbulence—
a wrenching of my mother from my side
 
into her own mother’s arms;
of a single wail from their throats,
a ragged tearing sound that
I would recognize years later in
the rending of black gauze pinned to my breast.
 
A wrenching of my mother into
someone unfamiliar:
someone’s daughter
like me
bereft.
 
The third was mine to impart
to my father, calling from a payphone
on his way home from a business trip:
With my mother at the hospital,
I am left to say the words
 
Your father is gone,
to listen to the rushing silence of
clattering rails, his
orphaned breath
between us.
 
But news of the last was kept from me
until after the funeral
lest I attempt to traverse oceans
in a misguided show of grief
and hold up the ashes.
 
For I had no right to grieve—
the wayward granddaughter nine thousand miles away
who’d been forgiven her shortcomings
again and again and still
failed to learn her place.
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About the Author

Kyoko Uchida was born in Japan and raised there and in the United States and Canada.

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