11/30/85

POEM: OYAKO SHINJU

OYAKO SHINJU*


"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now."

    
                      --Alvin Lucier


*Parent-child suicide, a practice traditional in Japan.  After reading Leslie Pound's story, "Mother's 

Tragic Crime Exposes a Culture Gap,"  which was reprinted from the June 9, 1985 Dallas Morning News.


1.  YOU ASK WHY I'D WALK INTO THE PACIFIC WITH TWO BABIES

Childless in your room
other coast of a wide country
you steam rice for supper
write me this question.
I sit in a cell
fill legal pads with pencil:
The ocean cleansed my heart and my body.
The ocean breeze blows the past away.

                                *

My first love was always the ocean.
I was born on a small island.
Old ones called the year of my birth
firehorse--
poor chance to find a husband;
I would burn him, cause his death.

The ocean breeze played a scale,
waves washed my ankles.
I was standing in music.

                                *

Girls take up flower arranging
or tea ceremony
waiting for their husbands.
My aunts advised:
"Polish harder.  Become a piece of jade."

Since they found Western arts
desirable, I practiced piano for ten years.
The ocean breeze taught its scales to my fingers.
All the time I kept one secret.

                                *

All the time I kept this secret:
with no hope for a husband
I was strangely free.
Windy nights at low tide
moon scrubbed waves ivory
against ebony of ocean.
Such a friendly omen
sent me to the keyboard, avid.
One evening, grandmother,
listening to the fifteenth hours'
practice, suspected me
possessed,
gravely counseled magic.

                                *

For her sake I frequented the shrines
lowering eyes
to demonstrate some small despair;
questioned my husband-less
fate, picturing instead
(to get the gesture right)
a hesitation on the keys,
the ruined examination.

The time came; it came to pass.
National Music University not my future
you'd say I brought failure on myself.
The truth:  I misread the ocean's omen.

2.  TIDES TRAVEL OUT

I hoped this
was what ocean counseled.
Maps showed your country of long coastlines.
I had the ear for language,
liked the sound of California,
hummed it as I bought my ticket.

All night I dreamed
a long but easy boat ride, something
I cannot remember--night tides,
a bell, the pier.

                                *

In your country I sold hot dogs, nights,
three blocks from the pier.
Grease frying, coins clinking,
the bell on the cash register:
I was listening for the ocean.

Cars honked at the drive-in window;
teenagers back from the game
yelled across the lot.
The day-cook, Japanese,
was born in your country.
One evening in the back
room he proposed marriage.

                                *

Suppose
the old ones had told you
you would never marry.
Would you notice
he lacked ambition,
a desire for children?
He promised a piano,
an apartment by the ocean.

For eight years
we lived downtown
in a noisy walk-up.
I had to keep my job.
each night I dreamed
I hadn't failed the examination.
In a quiet room
the audience waited.
My hands stretched above the keys.


                                *

I started to walk down to the Santa Monica sea:
I like the sea.  I like the Santa Monica sea
when I lose my way it comes to meet me.
And when I have something sad, it comes to meet me.
Although this was not acceptable
I ask for a divorce.

                                *

I found an auspicious job.
At the Japanese restaurant
I could save up for my lessons.
The cook, Mr. Kimura, was a painter.
He'd graduated in Tokyo
from Musashi Arts University.
He spoke of pink curl of shrimp,
translucent winter melon.

If you could have
heard him in the kitchen--the drawing cut
the thrusting cut,
the clack of lacquer soup bowls.
He spoke of sea bass in August,
sea trout in May.
Shiny eyes,
bright scales,
clean taste of ocean.

3.  HOW TRADITION COMES INTO YOUR ROOMS

Six years ago we married.
He bought me a piano.
Soon owned his restaurant.

Home, evenings, I always
cooked our simple meal:
miso soup, bowls of rice,
cups of scalding tea.
I washed white porcelain, black
lacquer, humming to myself.
The piano waited for my practice.

My hands stretched above the keys,
belly rounding like the sea bass.

                                *

Our son Kazutaka came,
his gurgles the uneven ocean currents.

I spent days at home now,
wished to teach tradition.
I bathed his father's feet each night.
We removed the bed and slept on mats,
left our shoes outside the doorway.

Soon Kazutaka crawled.  We took
all furniture from the living room,
all sharp edges,
the piano.

                                *

I named my daughter Yuri.
Neighbors exclaimed over my tiny porcelain doll.
To hide any sign of pride
I lowered my eyes, spent
whole days dressing her and Kazutaka.
Combing their hair, walking by the ocean.

Kazutaka ran ahead
scooping fists of sand, watched
them pouring through his fingers.
I took his hand,
pointed to the ocean; we watched
tides wash in from Japan.

I told him of my life on the island
of walks on that shore,
of practicing the piano.

                                *

You can imagine my dishonor.
Mr. Kimura's mistress called,
implied to support us
he had abandoned his dreams to paint.
He'd seen her several times each week
and since he hadn't wanted another child
she'd undergone the shame of an abortion.
Now she had found out about Yuri.

4.  THE SECRET OF FIRE AND OF WATER

She sat down with us.
In our home.  Offered me
his love letters,
returned his gifts.
One week later, she sent a boy
with a note to the door.
Offered to sacrifice her own life,
if the problem could be settled.

Mr. Kimura
came home 2, 3, 4,
even 6 o'clock in the morning.
Still I washed his feet, only asking
that he paint my picture.

He never noticed I couldn't
eat, lost my concept of
memory, of sleep.  Left toys
strewn across the apartment floor.
I was not qualified as a mother:
the ocean's omen beckoned.

                                *

A quiet moon, washing waves.
A piano started playing first quietly,
then louder, out of tune.
I heard again grease frying,
the bell on the cash register.
My eyes squeezed shut.
Street lights dazzled, then
again the quiet moon, the washing wave
and the old ones whispering firehorse,
firehorse.

                                *

On the appointed afternoon
my dress was the pink of seashells.
Santa Monica beach nearly deserted,
a teen-age couple mocked the shrieking gulls.
Along the windy shore, an old man
stooped to gather seashells.

You ask how I could walk into the Pacific with two babies?
You must understand
my children were me--
I couldn't leave them behind.

Kazutaka fought; my nails
dug crescents in his wrist as we walked into the sea.
I lay face down in the cold water waiting for our death.

                                *

Living is hard and dying is hard.

Mr. Kimura visits me daily in jail.
I put away the legal pads.
Agree to his plans--we will
start over, have other children.
I lower my eyes to demonstrate
regret, picturing instead
the hesitation of the ocean's waves.

And all the time I keep my secret:
the children were me.
The sea will hold me tight
and it helps me forget my sorrows.