Guest poem sent in by Laura Simeon
(Poem #982) What We Heard About the Japanese
We heard they would jump from buildings at the slightest provocation: low marks On an exam, a lovers' spat or an excess of shame. We heard they were incited by shame, not guilt. That they Loved all things American. Mistrusted anything foreign. We heard their men liked to buy schoolgirls' underwear And their women did not experience menopause or other Western hysterias. We heard they still preferred to breastfeed, Carry handkerchiefs, ride bicycles and dress their young like Victorian Pupils. We heard that theirs was a feminine culture. We heard That theirs was an example of extreme patriarchy. That rape Didn't exist on these islands. We heard their marriages were arranged, that They didn't believe in love. We heard they were experts in this art above all others. That frequent earthquakes inspired insecurity and lack of faith. That they had no sense of irony. We heard even faith was an American invention. We heard they were just like us under the skin.
Today's poem is actually one of a pair, and I think they really work best read together.... 'What the Japanese Perhaps Heard' Perhaps they heard we don't understand them very well. Perhaps this made them Pleased. Perhaps they heard we shoot Japanese students who ring the wrong Bell at Hallowe'en. That we shoot at the slightest provocation: a low mark On an exam, a lovers' spat, an excess of guilt. Perhaps they wondered If it was guilt we felt at the sight of that student bleeding out among our lawn flamingos, Or something recognizable to them, something like grief. Perhaps They heard that our culture has its roots in desperate immigration And lone men. Perhaps they observed our skill at raising serial killers, That we value good teeth above good minds and have no festivals To remember the dead. Perhaps they heard that our grey lakes are deep enough to swallow cities, That our landscape is vast wheat and loneliness. Perhaps they ask themselves if, when grief Wraps its wet arms around Montana, we would not prefer the community of archipelagos Upon which persimmons are harvested and black fingers of rock uncurl their digits In the mist. Perhaps their abacus echoes the shape that grief takes, One island bleeding into the next, And for us grief is an endless cornfield, silken and ripe with poison. -- Rachel Rose Rachel Rose is a young Canadian/American poet whose work has been published in a volume of the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series (_Giving My Body to Science_, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999, [broken link] http://www.mqup.mcgill.ca/99/rose.htm), as well as appearing in _The Best American Poetry 2001_. When I first read these poems, they resonated strongly with me on several levels. Being half Japanese, I have heard it all: both extreme negative stereotypes and the almost unbelievable idealizing of Japanese culture that some Westerners indulge in. Either approach reduces the Japanese to something not quite like us, whether it's less-than-human or super-human. Rachel Rose captures these absurdity of these contradictions economically and strikingly in just a few lines. Secondly, as an American with many friends from Japan, I'm often in the position of trying to explain things about US culture that I can barely grasp myself. Things like guns and individualism and attitudes towards the elderly. Rose's second poem crystallizes all of this into a few vivid and colorful images, showing us how strange and inscrutable we can appear when viewed from the outside. And finally, the timing of when I read poems felt significant. Much of what I've been hearing lately about Muslims reminds me painfully of what was said about the Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. They were seen as people with no respect for life or regard for self-preservation, no sense of morality that we could understand, showing fanatical loyalty to an evil empire, and threatening our culture with their alien customs. I.e. not "good Christians." Sound familiar? Life for Muslims in America today must be much like it was for Japanese during World War II. It makes me ache, but I do have hope that we can learn from past mistakes. Laura Simeon