At the ancient pub in Tokyo everything sings.
Orange smoke sputters from a blue hibachi,
hoes, axes and swords costing twelve fortunes
hang crookedly on mud walls. Even the Daimyo
clock insists on keeping its own time,
dividing the days into twelve parts the way
they used to be. How unfair our time
should go so quickly,
I am thinking, staring at a school of sardines
pressed into a sheet upon your plate.
Thirteen fish, heads forever leaning
in the direction of some unknown current
stare back at you, as if recognizing
something familiar in the way you sit
in the row of old Japanese men—
a starfish washed ashore,
its awkward shape too large,
too foreign to escape notice.
One pours sake into your mottled cup,
its taupe border spilling
into the blue imperfect body like memory.
Another says he was a captain in the Japanese Army,
and his daughter rushes up to apologize, saying
It’s just my father’s way of conversation.
Soon another is quoting Basho,
My body, now close to fifty years of age,
Has become an old tree that bears bitter peaches,
he murmurs as if it were an incantation
history could hear and place him in
that crack of time in which he dreams to live
rather than the one he’s in.
You could as well be one of them, picking noodles
(strangely called devil’s tongue) from a wooden bowl,
bamboo chopsticks poised at your mouth,
a miniature sword. And I could be your Japanese
shrugging and blushing by her father’s side,
wondering if it is she who will see him
to the end of his life, or if her mother
(quietly cooking in the kitchen,
chopping green onions for miso soup,
sipping barley tea to quell the stomach pain)
will make it through. Who’s to know
where she’ll end up? you say when someone wonders
where I will go after this.
But we both know
I’m never coming home.
How old are you? Another ventures, and
the fiddler crabs, orange speckled with white
climbing up the walls of their black stone pot
are held in the air for a moment,
as if embarrassed by their own curiosity.
How old? someone asks again,
judging the weight of ages upon your eyelids.
You could just as well be filling in
that last empty square of a crossword puzzle
when you say, perhaps too loudly, fifty-five.
Happily they toast to you, a father too young
to have been in the war, too old to hold grudges.
Another rises from the wooden stool,
takes a sword from the wall and passes it down,
man to man to man, along the bench.
It stops at you. You remark how sharp the blade is,
but not enough, you think, to kill a man.
Someone is crunching on the tiny fiddler crabs
dipped in batter while still alive.
Someone else is reading a manga, others are falling
But when the moon has vanished
and all the men stumble off,
too late already for the last train home,
it is you and I who are left
to walk through the windy streets
we’re both learning how to navigate,
me after two years here
you after visiting only one short week.
It might be the last time I will see you, father,
and here is what I’ll remember:
the sound of you, shaking off
dust from your brown workman’s boots,
the gentle falling of plum blossom
petals from trees,
the smell of rice cakes baking in tiny kitchens,
and the way we walked together so slowly
carrying memory, a basket heavy
between us, each of us weighing
what survived the journey, and
so much more we lost along the way.