Love poem for Isaku from 1983

Everyone says that you take after the father, not me. Though I was the one who suffered the nine months of carrying you around, the agony of labor, the Cesarean scar.
*****
I feel surrounded by Face and Face _ a formalization in flesh of a relationship that was otherwise just a romance, perhaps even love, but not quite this. I am afraid. When I see your sleeping face to my right and the same face sleeping to my left, the face doesn’t seem much bigger, with those eyes with lots of long lashes that make them appear smeared-gray painted, the pouting undersized mouth, the same curve of skull arching at the back. You two are breathing the identical rhythm, and I kill mine to make sure you are really breathing.
*****
Did you know a mother often checks to make sure her sleeping child is still alive? You are nearly 2 years old, but you still want to suck. I feel like killing you. Yet I make sure you are alive. You cry when I leave. “Miss Mama,” you tell me later in your sweet voice. (That sweet voice you have, no matter how much I resent you.) I don’t feel guilty. I tell myself: I don’t feel guilty. When you become a young man and I an old woman, I will cry for you, yet you will leave. So, at times, Isaku, I have to go.
*****
Your father’s shoulders have broadened and muscles lurk in arms that used to be skinny. He has a job now and works hard. And he wasn’t like this before you came around. “Are you my son?” he keeps saying, bouncing you on his knee, waiting for your correct reply. “Yes, Daddy!” You point to his baby photos and comment, “Haku,” mistaking them for yourself. When you grow up and leave, will this man, whose looks you will grow into, this man, who cried with me when you were born, will he still be here?

More Motherhood Notes

“Oya Baka” means “doting parent” in Japanese. Since it’s Mother’s Day today, here’s another from my column:

Black and Yellow

My 3-year-old son wants to be black. All the people he admires _ from Golden Gate Park roller skaters and football stars to break dancers, jazz musicians and even bus drivers _ often happen to be black.
“When I get older, my face is going to get black,” he says proudly.
“What color are you now?” I ask.
“Yellow,” he says in a meek, almost apologetic tone.
“Your daddy is Asian,” I suggest, though he doesn’t appear impressed. “Daddy, you and I are Asian, and we’re proud we’re Asian.” I’ve ben repeating similar propaganda since his infancy.
He looks up with an idea. “Can I pretend my face is black?”
It doesn’t take many years in American society _ 3 years and 3 months to be precise in the case of our Isaku _ to figure out racial myths, which are, in part, based on or are exaggerations of reality.
For the Asian in America, the low cultural energy and absence of positive images make it difficult, if not impossible, for a child to think that we are: cool, creative, sexy, attractive, musical, vivacious, outgoing, etc.
It’s more like we are: academic, responsible, straight, proper, quiet, modest, subdued, etc.
From the above two lists, guess which one Isaku would pick to emulate.
To give an illustration, aside form the pidgin in Hawaii, or the Cantonese-English of the recent Hong Kong immigrants, Asian Americans lack their own vernacular.
The “hip” Asians who talk “street” basically talk black English. They don’t throw in “ne?” or “honto?”
Using Japanese except for names of food (“sushi” is “in” these days) would only destroy their style. And much of Asian American art _ poetry, music, visual art _ remains imitative _ mostly of black or Latin forms, but also of white forms.
Asian Americans have yet to produce an artist on the calibre of Duke Ellington or a media figure with the impact of Prince.
My son recognizes Miles Davis tunes on the radio, strums his plastic guitar wailing “ROCK ‘n’ roooooll music, if you wanna dance with me,” and beats on his drums, claiming he’s Elvin Jones. (And all this despite the unusual fact that we do have Asian American friends who play music.)
I point out Brue Lee posters, whenever they are encountered, which isn’t that often these days. But I’m being unreasonable to expect a martial artist-actor, no matter how dramatic and handsome, to be relevant to a 3 year old. Many years lie ahead before he’ll be taken to those violent films.
With the intention of alleviating _ but perhaps ultimately intensifying _ my son’s identity crisis, I’ve been taking him to a Congolese dance class for children his age. Being of a contrary nature, anyway, he refused to participate. Then I made the worst parental mistake. I praised another student, a little girl, who was performing fantastically, and he muttered with a horrible hatred in his voice, “She’s black.”
“Don’t say anything like that,” I hissed, controlling an urge to strangle him while praying that no one else had overheard. “It doesn’t matter what you are _ black or Asian. We’re all friends.”
We had never taught him to be conscious of race that so-and-so was this race while someone else was something else.
But after the class, I had to lecture to my son, “J.J. is black, and Seiji is black, and they’re your friends. Wain is black and Dorothy is black …” I felt like an idiot. But that was the only way he’d have understood.
“But I like black, mama,” he protested, tears brimming in his eyes.
I wished that we didn’t have to live in world that divided people by the color of skin. I wished that skin color didn’t matter to Isaku, someone so young and innocent, but it did, and I was powerless to change it.

Oya Baka Notes in the Hokubei Mainichi

Transcribed below is one piece from a column on motherhood that I had in the Hokubei Mainichi, an iconic ghetto paper that still exists in San Francisco:

The House That Isaku Built

“Here’s a diamond necklace for you.” Often he holds up nothing in his delicately poised little fingers. He may have a rubber band or a rock _ both parts of his extensive collection of street finds. His voice is usually timid if I have just scolded him.
“For me? Oh, THANK you, Isaku.” I hug him.
“Happy now?” he asks, not just to ask, but really wanting to know.
I don’t have to yell for him to know. Sometimes it is the way I close a door or put my books or a plate down.
I make tut-tut noises with my tongue against my front upper teeth, when I discover still another pair of Daddy’s dirty socks or a toothpaste cap left on the sink.
“Is Daddy stupid sometimes?” he offers as though reading my mind. Or he cries out vehemently, “Daddy is too NOI-SY with his shakere!”
The shakere is an African Yoruba percussion instrument, which has been my husband’s recent passion. He spends hours pondering over what he believes is a “hip” design, then stringing colored wooden beads around a gourd rubbed with palm oil.
He spends more hours shaking the shakere in our one-bedroom apartment, driving me crazy with the rattling rhythms, the volume of which, unlike radios or amplifiers, can never be turned down. The only thing louder I can recall is traps drums, which can literally shake the walls of an entire house.
Anyway, people have comforted me by pointing out, better music as your man’s mistress than a real woman.
There are men who gamble at the race tracks; there are men who play golf all weekend long. The pursuit of Afro-Cuban rhythms seems rather dignified in comparison, I admit.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel, bullshit, what’s all this music, like it’s a gift from God or something when Isaku and I are living human beings who happen to be a wife and a kid with needs, too?
I swear, the man worships Coltrane. What about me? I could use some husbandly reverence.
“If Daddy’s insulted,” Isaku tells me, “you can marry me, OK?”
I don’t know if he knows what “insulted” means, but he probably heard his father remark how insulted he was by something I had said.
In the past, every time Isaku wanted to marry me, I told him I was sorry but I was already married to Daddy. Maybe he figures that, if Dad and I break up, then he’s got a chance.
It’s wonderful. Isaku adores me. Right now, I am the Woman in his life.
“Isaku-chan Mama no koto, daaaaai suki!” he tells me, climbing on to my lap and kissing my nose.
The way he fits, his solid smallness against my chest, his arms around my neck, he can fill an emptiness with an incredible certainty, with total negation of any loneliness ever experienced.
“You look cute, sitting there.” The 3-year-old already knows the way to a woman’s heart.
“When I’m older, I’m going to build a house,” Isaku promises. “It’s going to be painted white and pink. And we’re all going to live in it _ with my two cats and two dogs and five penguins.”
He has this all planned out.
“For you, mama, the house is going to have books and clothes. Lots of clothes.” I start to laugh. “And flowers,” he adds with conviction.
“What are you going to have for Daddy?” I ask.
“A radio,” he replies immediately. “And earphones.”
He can be so smart.

Short Story

Design by Annette Dorfman. Photo by Takashi Itoh.

Fifth Sunday Fiction Series Nov. 30, 2008, at Ben’s Cafe.

Poet Yuri Kageyama reads her new short story, “The Father and the Son,” in “POW-WOW: 63 Writers Address the Fault Lines in the American Experience,” edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank; Da Capo Press, January 2009.

The anthology also includes Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Alejandro Murguía and Erskine Caldwell.

Kageyama’s poetry, short stories and essays have appeared in many literary publications, including “Y’Bird,” “Greenfield Review,” “San Francisco Stories,” “On a Bed of Rice,” “Breaking Silence: an Anthology of Asian American Poets,” “Other Side River,” “Yellow Silk,” “Stories We Hold Secret” and “MultiAmerica.” She has read with Ishmael Reed, Shuntaro Tanikawa, Winchester Nii Tete, Geraldine Kudaka, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Russel Baba, Seamus Heaney, Yumi Miyagishima and many other artists. She has a book of poems, “Peeling” (I. Reed Press). She is working with director Yoshiaki Tago on a film “Talking Taiko” that chronicles her readings with music. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University and holds an M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley.

SuperMom

Master percussionist WINCHESTER NII TETE hails from the honorable Addy-Amo-Boye families of drummers of Ghana.
He plays with the Ghana national troupe, Sachi Hayasaka, Yoshio Harada, Takasitar _ and with me!
We were at Ben’s Cafe in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, the other day.
Besides “SuperMom,” we did a version of “Little YELLOW Slut.”
We are planning more collaborations.

Ikiru

Ikiru
by Yuri Kageyama
Reading at the Pink Cow in Tokyo June 8,2008.

When you cut your finger against the end of a piece of paper, and it hurts and the blood spurts out, you remember blood, lots of it, curdling red ink with a sweaty smell, is rushing around your body, all of it, brain, eyeballs, cell tissue, spine, toes, your heart is pumping like quivering red rubber and your lungs are going in and out, in and out.
When you stop to think about it, you want to scream and you almost forget how to breathe.
People who believe in Reincarnation say it would be a waste of lives to have so many people alive and then die and so god must recycle all those lives.
It is nothing short of a miracle we continue to live everyday despite all the deaths everyday. And each one of us is dying gradually everyday.
But for the most part, we don’t get shot, we don’t get run over, we don’t crash, we don’t get a deadly disease, we don’t get stabbed, beaten to death, crushed in an earthquake, commit suicide, and we live live live live.
And each day adds to the next day and pretty soon we are old but still we live and we don’t think about the blood circulating or the each and every breath we take or the fact that we have averted death for the moment.
We are alive.
But we could at any moment take a long silver needle and poke it in our eye, blinding ourselves in blinding rage.
We could jump into the wind from the station platform as the train glides in with a rattle, although the mirror is there to remind us how ghostly we look and make us think again how foolish this act is that we are contemplating to die this moment instead of the next moment when we do get shot or get cancer or our hearts stop or our lungs fail.
My mother is dying of pancreas cancer, and I can finally smell death, that unmistakable stench that sticks inside your nostrils for hours, maybe even a day, trailing you from the hospice room.
She has lost so much weight she looks like a bird, her nose pointed like a beak in a mummified face.
She lies curled up in the bed, her arms clasped into herself, a scrawny embryonic chick in a nest, and her beady eyes are expressionless, unmoving, staring into your eyes, and she won’t close them because she knows you are her daughter and these may be the last moments, and she needs to look, but you just want her to close her eyes so you can leave and forget.
She couldn’t even speak then.
When she could still move, when she was at the hospital, not the hospice, where patients are getting treatment to live, she was just a burden on the nurses and they want her to move to a hospice, she would grow delirious on pain-killers and start walking around the hallways naked, announcing: She must leave now because Otoosama _ her husband, my father _ has arrived to get her.
My father is dead.
Before that, when she was still undergoing tests, and she had always instructed us she never wanted to know it, if she ever got cancer, and so we couldn’t tell her, she says to me: “I wasn’t a very good mother, was I?”
This is a very important conversation.
But I brush it off. I don’t want to talk about this, do I? because then wouldn’t we be talking about her death?
“I watch you and your sister, how the both of you think about and interact with your children,” she says. “And I realize I wasn’t a good parent. I know this watching the both of you as parents.”
She goes on, matter of fact, her father, was a big believer in education and sent all his children, even the daughters, unusual for those times in Japan, to urban schools.
My mother was second from the youngest so she was barely in elementary school when she was sent to live away from home with her sisters and brothers to go to good schools.
And so she grew up never knowing the intimacy of a relationship between a mother and child.
She doesn’t have to apologize. And I should reach out and hug her, but all I remember is how she never stopped him, her husband, my father, when he beat me, how I had to cower, never apologizing, and all she did was sit quietly and pray and be patient and believe the anger will pass like a typhoon, leaving behind just tiny purple bruise marks on sallow skin, as sanity returns to the Ph. D. in engineering, professor, salaryman, head of the household, and all would be well.
He needs a break from work, it is stressful, he needs to go the family beach villa.
She has already made arrangement, and I must go with him, the ever faithful daughter, because he can’t go alone.
“It can’t be me. It must be you,” she says, as though this is decided, ironing the white shirts and folding them on top of each other on the tatami mat.
She doesn’t tell me until years later. She worried about me every day, praying he wasn’t beating me.
He didn’t beat me. We took turns rowing a wooden boat. We went fishing til our fingers smelled like worms. We lowered cages into the water with fish heads, and drew them up to find crabs entangled with each other.
But I can’t forgive, not just yet, though no one has to apologize.
I call my sister on the train back from the hospital.
“She is going to die,” I say, breathless, more from excitement than from sadness. She is dying but she is realizing and she is changing.
What she is saying is so profound she had to be dying. Really dying.
It should have been like the movies.
I should have forgiven her, a moment of reconciliation before the moment of death.
You are a good mother.
Remember all the Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories you read to me in the kitchen, but you told me the stories I wrote, secretly, in big block letters in a worn out notebook were petty and would never amount to anything?
Remember how you wanted to go back to school for your Master’s degree, but you had to cook and clean and you gave up?
Remember how you won awards with those elaborate sumi calligraphy on rice paper, painting ancient words no one could read?
Remember how you sat naked in the bath tub, thinking your solitary thoughts, and you hated your husband, my father, because he bought you the wrong-size ring in an overseas business trip?
Today, you taught me how people keep evolving til the last moment of life.
No, you are not a bad mother at all.
This is the best gift you have given me.
I have learned the lesson of death although I still can’t understand how we manage to keep living day by day, lungs breathing and heart beating and you feel so faraway and I can’t remember barely anything else about you.

SuperMom: A Poem for All Working Women With Children

Poetry by Yuri Kageyama.

SuperMom is the Mother in “The Terminator,” fearless, sinewy, a mother like no other.
SuperMom risks her life to save her child.
SuperMom risks her life to save the world.
SuperMom _ the mother of all mothers.
SuperMom, Mother, Mama, Okaasan!
SuperMom is never found in kitchens barefoot and wears boots to march to work.
SuperMom doesn’t make obento.
SuperMom shops at Ichi-Maru-Kyu.
SuperMom _ the mother of invention.
SuperMom, Mother, Mama, Okaasan!
SuperMom doesn’t gossip with other moms but makes her own money, pays tuition and buys you sneakers.
SuperMom doesn’t aspire to be on the cover of Nikkei Woman.
SuperMom just minds her keep.
SuperMom _ a motherfucking worker.
SuperMom, Mother, Mama, Okaasan!
SuperMom endures, her womb red and heavy and big and open, wrenching out babies and seaweed and stench.
SuperMom spurts out curdled milk like a fountain in the desert.
SuperMom is the origin of origins.
SuperMom _ the bottom of the sea.
SuperMom, Mother, Mama, Okaasan!
SuperMom teaches the primordial instinct of nurturing the species, the legacy of creation, the courage of the Artist.
SuperMom shows by example.
SuperMom leaves the message that nothing counts except Who You Are.
SuperMom _ the bottom of the earth.
SuperMom, Mother, Mama, Okaasan!

Poetry 2

When you cut your finger against the end of a piece of paper, and it hurts and the blood spurts out, you remember blood, lots of it, curdling red ink with a sweaty smell, is rushing around your body, all of it, brain, eyeballs, cell tissue, spine, toes, your heart is pumping like quivering red rubber and your lungs are going in and out, in and out.
When you stop to think about it, you want to scream and you almost forget how to breathe.
People who believe in Reincarnation say it would be a waste of lives to have so many people alive and then die and so god must recycle all those lives.
It is nothing short of a miracle we continue to live everyday despite all the deaths everyday. And each one of us is dying gradually everyday.
But for the most part, we don’t get shot, we don’t get run over, we don’t crash, we don’t get a deadly disease, we don’t get stabbed, beaten to death, crushed in an earthquake, commit suicide, and we live live live live.
And each day adds to the next day and pretty soon we are old but still we live and we don’t think about the blood circulating or the each and every breath we take or the fact that we have averted death for the moment.
We are alive.
But we could at any moment take a long silver needle and poke it in our eye, blinding ourselves in blinding rage.
We could jump into the wind from the station platform as the train glides in with a rattle, although the mirror is there to remind us how ghostly we look and make us think again how foolish this act is that we are contemplating to die this moment instead of the next moment when we do get shot or get cancer or our hearts stop or our lungs fail.
When my mother was dying of pancreas cancer, I finally could smell death, that unmistakable smell that stays inside your nostrils for hours, maybe even a day, after you left her hospice room.
She lost so much weight she looked like a bird, her nose pointed like a beak in a mummified face.
She was curled up in the bed, her arms clasped into herself like a scrawny embryonic bird, and her beady eyes were expressionless, unmoving, staring into your eyes, and she wouldn’t close them as though she seemed to know you were her daughter and these were the final moments, and you just wanted her to close them so you could leave that room and forget.
She couldn’t even speak then.
When she could still move, when she was at the hospital, where other patients were getting treatment but she was just a burden on the nurses and they wanted her to move to the hospice, she would grow delirious on pain-killers and start walking around the hallways naked, announcing she had to leave now because Otoosama _ her husband, my father _ had come to get her.
He was dead.
Before that, when she was still undergoing tests, and she had always instructed us that she never wanted to know it, if she ever got cancer, and so we couldn’t tell her, she said to me: “I wasn’t a very good mother, was I?”
This was a very important conversation. But I brush it off. I didn’t want to talk about this, did I? because then wouldn’t we be talking about her death?
“I watch you and June, how you think about and interact with your children,” she said. June is my sister. “And I realize I wasn’t a good parent. I know this watching how the both of you are as parents.”
She went on matter of fact to explain that it was because of her childhood. My grandfather, her father, was a big believer in education and sent all his children, even the daughters, unusual for those times in Japan, to urban schools. My mother was second from the youngest so she was barely in elementary school when she got sent to live away from home with her older sisters and brothers to go to good schools. She grew up not knowing the intimacy of a relationship between a mother and her children, she said.
She didn’t have to apologize, but she showed she changed and came to a realization, although maybe a sad one, in the last few days of her life.
I called my sister up on the train back from the hospital. “June, she is going to die,” I said, breathless more from excitement than from sadness. She is dying but she is evolving. This was a fantastic discovery for me. But what she was saying was so profound she had to be dying. Really dying. I wish I could be more like the characters in the movies and have responded appropriately to what should have been a cathartic moment. I should have hugged her, a moment of reconciliation before the moment of death. You are so wonderful for teaching me how people keep evolving til the last moment of life.
No, you are not a bad parent at all. This is the best gift you have given me as a parent. I have learned the lesson of death although I still can’t understand how we manage to keep living day by day, lungs breathing and heart beating and you feel so faraway and I can’t remember barely anything else about you.