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Category: Japan

POEM: smoke from a new stick of incense

smoke from a new stick of incense

fills the cold room
with the scent
of a Japanese temple
or the small room
on the second floor
I used to meditate in
the one I had to unlock
with a kitchen knife

9 November 2013
Oak Street

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POEM: rainy season


rainy season

the walkway to the laundry is flooded
following days and days of rain
it’s pouring now, in fact
so I’ve opened all the windows
to let in the sound
my first full summer in Alabama
reminds me of Japan
flower petals covering the stones
wearing my outdoor sandals
to haul the bag of laundry back inside
when I arrived here last year
it was in the middle of a drought
I hiked to a waterfall but found
a trickle (and even that’s generous)
this is the part of the poem
where the metaphor goes

6 July 2013
Auburn AL

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POEM: walking with Basho


walking with Basho

morning and evening
someone waits at Matsushima!
one-sided love

I know how she feels
though there are no pine trees
outside my lonely window

viewing the moon
no one at the party
has such a beautiful face

they are all lovely
in a way I find hard to describe
the scent of tea from the kitchen

in the world outside
is it harvesting time?
the grass of my hut

indoors all day
birdsong as I read the paper
sun warming the room

speaking out
my lips are cold
in autumn wind

I want to kiss you
though I know I can’t
so I picked two yellow flowers

I didn’t die!
the end of a journey
is autumn nightfall

if I am not stronger
at least my feet are toughened
by the stones on this path

from this very day
erase the inscription with dew
on the bamboo hat

starting out again
through the tall grass
where no one has blazed a trail

25 February 2013
Auburn, AL

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I first read the work of Japanese poet and travel writer Matsuo Basho in 1991, when I was living in northern Japan, in a town he’d once passed through. I’ve been inspired by his style and his daring ever since. The italicized sections of this poem are haiku poems written by Basho. The non-italicized sections are mine. If you’ve never read any of Basho’s travel journals, I recommend Back Roads to Far Towns: Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi (Ecco Travels).

I’ve written about Basho before

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POEM: Naruto Ramen, Brooklyn

Naruto Ramen, Brooklyn

where the cooks speak a mixture
of Japanese and Spanish
Irashaimase!” they call
as people come in off 5th Ave
hang their coats and backpacks
on the wall hooks
those who know sit at the bar
because the bar is a sacred place
where devotion is paid
to the sprout, the noodle,
the bean pod, the tofu square,
the white pepper garnish
the sweat on the brow
the cold Sapporo or Asahi
the cheap balsa wood hashi
that you break at the end
scraping the sticks against
one another to remove splinters
order the extra noodles because
they’re generous with the broth
slurp loud enough to pay respect
to the hachimaki-sporting men
flinging pots on the six-burner stove
like Barishnikovs with ladles
for some, the nostalgia is as thick
as the steam rising off the broth pots
it’s a bit of a surprise to leave
and find yourself in Brooklyn
not in any of a thousand thousand shops
just like this one, tucked around a corner
of a narrow street, in every town in Japan

4 April 2012
Brooklyn, NY

/ / /

It’s National Poetry Writing Month! A poem a day, each day in April.

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POEM: natsukashii

Listen to this poem using the player above.

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This poem is a combination of images from my past and images from the present.


genmaicha leaves
in a clay pot

Tokyo sounds
subway travels

tatami mats
against our legs

tangy curry
from little cubes

Tonari no

a cat who steps
on his belly

maybe you should
kiss me again

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POEM: Tohoku

Listen to this poem using the player above.

(for TR)

there’s a woman on this bus
who looks just like you did
when we met twenty years ago

it’s hard to look at her
without losing my grip on this world
arriving back in Tohoku

where we ate soba noodles
until one of our friends threw up
trying to prove his strength

you were so beautiful
not like a painting
on the wall of a museum

forcing the viewer
to stand behind the rope
or risk damaging its brittle surface

no, you were like a field
of pale cherry blossoms
under the sun of northern Japan

inviting us all closer with a warm smile
as we orbited like honey bees
entranced and attentive

two decades later
the young woman on this bus
could almost be your daughter

for the last few hours
every time she’s smiled
I’ve been back there again

remembering that first taste of freedom
those cold winter days
in the mountains of Tohoku

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