by Maxine Kumin

Page 6

Well I feel emboldened by . . . It's always nice to go second. I think it's awful to have to go first. Now that Mary has mentioned that she did a USIA tour for the State department, I feel emboldened to say that I did one too. My husband and I also were sent to four countries, the last of which, in our case, was Japan and, unfortunately, we had not been there more than four or five days when I came down with an unspecified tropical disease that was later diagnosed here, in the States, as Dengue fever, but I spent eight days in a hotel room in Kyoto trying to stop shaking enough to get on a plane to come back to the States and I was really grieved that this was, that this had happened in Kyoto, because I had so longed to go to Hiroshima. While I was alternately shivering and, well you know how these fevers are, the up and down part. In the in betweens, I did a lot of reading and a young woman from the American embassy, a Japanese woman, gave me Ibuse's book, Black Rain. It's a novel about the bombing of Hiroshima. I really was afraid to read it. I thought it would be so scarifying to read, and, yet, it's an amazing book. You can buy it in paperback now in virtually any bookstore. It's a wonderful novel. It will hold your attention. You will be able to read it. I don't quite know how this poem came about. I think it was partly reading the novel, partly the fever, partly the fever dreams, partly my enormous and abiding affection for the gingko tree, because I grew up with one in the backyard and Japan is full of them.

After reading Ibuse's Black Rain

Brought low in Kyoto,
too sick with chills and fever
to take the bullet train to Hiroshima,
I am jolted out of this geography,
pursued by Nazis, kidnapped, stranded
when the dam bursts, my life
always in someone else's hands.
Room service brings me tea and aspirin.

This week the Holy Radish
Festival, pure white daikons
one foot long grace all the city's shrines.
Earlier, a celebration for the souls
of insects farmers may have trampled on
while bringing in the harvest.
Now shall I repent?
I kill to keep whatever
pleases me. Last summer
to save the raspberries
I immolated hundreds of coppery
Japanese beetles.

In some respects,
Ibuse tells me,
radiation sickness is less
terrible than cancer. The hair
comes out in patches. Teeth
break off like matchsticks
at the gum line but the loss
is painless. Burned skin itches,
peels away in strips.
Everywhere the black rain fell
it stains the flesh like a tattoo
but weeks later, when
survivors must expel
day by day in little pisses
the membrane lining the bladder
pain becomes an extreme grammar.

I understand we did this.
I understand
we may do this again
before it is done to us.
In case it is thought of
to do to us.

Just now, the homage that
I could not pay the irradiated dead
gives rise to a dream.
In it, a festival to mourn
the ritual maiming of the ginkgo,
pollarding that lops
all natural growth
from the tumorous stump
years of pruning creates.
I note that these faggots
are burned. I observe that the smoke
is swallowed with great ceremony.
Thereupon every severed shoot
comes back, takes on
a human form, fan-shaped,
ancient, all-knowing,
tattered like us.

This means
we are all to be rescued.

Though we eat animals
and wear their skins,
though we crack mountains
and insert rockets in them

this signifies
we will burn and go up.
We will be burned and come back.

I wake naked, parched,
my skin striped by sunlight.
Under my window
a line of old ginkgos hunkers down.
The new sprouts that break from
their armless shoulders are
the enemies of despair.

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