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Amy Uyematsu: California Poets Part 1, Three Poems

Amy Uyematsu

August 27th, 2020

California Poets: Part I

Amy Uyematsu

Three Poems

The Suitcase - a Manzanar tale

In 1945 Dad and Grandpa get a travel permit from Manzanar officials to visit Star Nurseries, the business Grandpa starts back in the 30s and flourishes even in the Depression years. They take a bus bound for L.A. Stopping in the small town of Mojave, Dad tells Grandpa to stay on the bus - knowing the war is still being fought and how dangerous it is for them - but Grandpa gets off anyway. Like many issei, Grandpa is short – 5'2” at the most - not exactly threatening, but as he walks downtown the cops arrest him, put Grandpa and Dad in jail to spend the night. Around 2 AM FBI agents pick them up and drive them to Fresno, never suspecting the hatchet Grandpa packs in his suitcase, the hatchet not so unusual for this gifted plant grower. Dad recalls how dark it is on the winding mountain roads. Already nervous, he starts to panic when one of the agents turns on the light inside the car, looks hard at both of them sitting in the back seat. Dad warns Grandpa, speaking in Japanese, “Don't do anything to make them suspicious.” The FBI never inspects the suitcase. Once in Fresno, they are questioned then put back on a bus to L.A. - Grandpa's hatchet in tow. Note: Manzanar was one of the ten “relocation” centers / prisons for 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Winter Friend, the Pine

Even before I learned my name contains “matsu,” Japanese for pine tree, it seemed to be part of my own genetic destiny. Generations of Uyematsus lived on Izu Peninsula, home to cedar, cypress, and pine. No one told me about an ancestral reverence to matsu that would have made much more sense than the 50s Americana I was raised on. LA's eucalyptus, pepper and jacaranda trees fill my girlhood memories, yet I'll always gravitate to pine. How fitting that the first time I realized there might be a god was around eight or nine, on a trip to King's Canyon with my uncle's family. It was that moment when I was all alone, pine trees overhead and the sound of water nearby - a feeling of something so amazing and bigger than anything I'd ever felt before - impossible to forget. How comforting to learn, so many years later, that in Shinto legend, gods and goddesses descended on pine tree branches, their spirits still residing inside. On matsu planted at Shinto shrines, omikuji, fortune-telling paper strips holding both blessings and curses, are tied to the branches to ensure good luck. I've planted a kuro-matsu, Japanese black pine, in my front yard garden. Surrounded by mossy grass, it stands out in my very urban neighborhood, crowded with houses and cars and low maintenance landscapes. A tiny treasure, it may well be the most gorgeous plant – a welcome aberration – on this ordinary cul-de-sac. Recently I've discovered the pine tree is central to Noh play scenery and in Heian poetry it's linked with waiting for a lover. Clusters of paired pine needles that drop to the ground are symbols of fidelity. And in Japanese shochikubai refers to the three friends of winter - pine, bamboo and plum. While winter approaches in so many different ways, I continue to take in the season's uncertainties with endless little beauties - – like today's microscopic photos of pine stems, in eye-boggling cross sections of intricate purples and blues, or this latest handful of pine needles, still lovely and green on my open palm.

To Tell the Truth

“President Trump has made 15,413 false or misleading claims over 1,055 days”

December 10, 2019 headline, Washington Post

Since when is evidence and proof no longer required? Whether the massacre of children at Sandy Hook being called a hoax, a rising chorus of denial about six million Jews exterminated in death camps, or concrete footage of families separated in border jails discounted as “fake news.” Alarming how normal it's become to hear gutless politicians defend the latest tweet storm of presidential lies. This isn't shocking – people of color have long been victims to the falsehoods of American racism - from the “discovery” by Columbus to Wounded Knee, from Jim Crow and lynchings to the trumped up detention and deportation of Latino immigrants. How well my family knows FDR's Executive 9066, which wrongly condemned 120,000 Japanese, including my parents and grandparents, locking us behind barbed wire and armed guards. But something bigger is taking hold, a fertile soil via the internet, Facebook, Fox news, and more for conspiracy theories, reckless claims dismissing climate change and labeling journalists “the enemy.” All around us we watch fellow citizens bloated on mis- information, a growing lynch mob whose blindness and fear is giving way to tyrants and oligarchs - truth, an ever riskier and lonelier proposition.

Author Bio:

Amy Uyematsu is a sansei (3rd-generation Japanese American) poet and teacher from Los Angeles. She has published five poetry collections, including her latest, Basic Vocabulary. Currently, Amy teaches a writing workshop at the Far East Lounge in Little Tokyo, downtown LA. Amy was also co-editor of the widely-used anthology, Roots: An Asian American Reader


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