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The Asian American Literary Review

Poems by Hiromi Itō -- from Wild Grass on the Riverbank - Part 2

Read Jeffrey Angles’ short essay about Wild Grass on the Riverbank >> 

Mother Leads Us to the Wasteland Where We Settle Down 

Mother led us along and we got on board
We got on and off again
Boarding cars and busses and planes
Then more buses and trains and cars

I was beginning to think that life would go on forever, it would go on forever, but one day it stopped all of the sudden, that day wasn’t especially different from all the others we spent aboard all those buses, trains, cars and airplanes, when we left the airport just like always, mother was smiling and there was a man in front of us, he pressed his face which was covered with bushy jet black whiskers against mother’s face, he stuck his tongue in mother’s mouth, wriggling it as it goes in, then he grabbed mother’s breasts, shoulders, stomach, and hips and gave them a hard squeeze

Mother made little sucking sounds at the man’s mouth, closing his eyes, the man made a little groan as he tasted mother’s saliva, sniffed her scent, stroked her skin and her flesh, when the man removed his mouth he spread his arms wide and said ohh mai ohh mai and hugged me and my little brother, he put us into a gigantic car, the sky was blue there, it was really, really blue, we drove for several hours, for several hours beneath the blue sky before we arrived at the big house in the wasteland, there was a sprinkler in the yard and it turned on at night
Ohh mai, it would soak everything in sight

Mother told us where to sleep then went into his bedroom
At the crack of dawn, there was a loud noise, the sloshing noise of rinsing a mop in a bucket of water, the slippery sliding sound of scrubbing, the sound of mother’s voice as if she was singing or breaking down in tears, this went on for days and days on end, at first it woke me up but with time, I got used to it and didn’t get up anymore

During the day, mother used words we didn’t understand to tell the man every teeny tiny thing my brother and I say, then they started talking to us in those same words, at first I had no idea what they were talking about, but then with time I got used to that too

Then mother started standing in unfamiliar stances, walking with an unfamiliar walk, cooking with unfamiliar foods, she made us eat us her cooking, it was still good even if she used unfamiliar foods just because she made it, we realized we were gobbling up her food left and right

Mother gave off an unfamiliar scent, that man was always at the dinner table, mother embraced and stroked us in unfamiliar ways, such things have happened before, mother would settle down with a man, she’d drag us into it, and every time we’d get dragged right in as if it were no big deal at all

Mother didn’t get on board anything anymore, we didn’t trail after mother any more or walk from airport to airport like our lives depended on it, one day that man used an unfamiliar name to call out to mother, she responded as if nothing was the matter at all, Mother says he’s finding fault with you

Who cares about a name as long as you’ve got one?
Words fulfill their usefulness as long as they get through
You two, mother said to us,
Let’s not use Japanese any more

I was eleven, my little brother was eight
We stopped speaking
But when we spoke to each other or to mother
We continued to use nothing but Japanese
We stopped speaking except in Japanese
When people approached, we fell silent
When they left, we started speaking again
We spoke Japanese
Japanese was all we had
We spoke only Japanese
I started pricking up my ears
My little brother did too
For years and years, we pricked up our ears
One day I tried asking my brother
Are you listening to something?
He answered
I can’t hear anything
I tried asking again
Are you listening to something?
He answered
I’m not listening to anything
We pricked up our ears for years on end

One day when I woke up, there was a baby’s car seat next to my pillow, and in it is a fresh little baby, ohh mai gossh, a fresh little baby, I asked, when did you get that? mother said yesterday, mother’s belly was still swollen like she’s still got more babies in her womb, babies to whom she hasn’t yet given birth, the baby started crying like a little cat, mother bared her breast, it was an altogether unfamiliar shape, it had swollen up and become dark and fierce, it smelled so raw and fresh that I had to hold my breath, the little baby shifted its little head and started sucking on it, mother took out the other breast and exposed its heavy, swollen shape, right before our eyes it began to bend and twist and the tip split open, and the milk flew out in an arc, my brother screamed eeewww, mother said try it, try sucking it, it’s sweet, you’ll be sure to like it, we hesitated, then mother grabbed my little brother and forced it into his mouth, the breast looked much bigger and fiercer than my little brother’s head, and mother looked still bigger and fiercer than that, the bubbling milk came squirting from its smiling, split tip, with resignation my brother took it in his mouth, mother squeezed and stroked it two or three times, I heard the sound of him swallowing one gulp after another, gurooosu, he said, his mouth dripping with her white milk

The wind changed directions
So it blew from the desert
Dry as a bone
In the distance, a mountain burned
A mountain burned, raining down ashes
The ashes blocked out the sun
We could look at the sun with our naked eyes
The plants turned to corpses
Dry as a bone
The sage released its intense aroma
The rabbits and coyotes turned to corpses
Dry as a bone
When winter came with its rain
All grew wet, moss grew, sprouts came out, flowers bloomed
The cacti and yucca grew long and lanky
Everything beneath heaven became a sea
Everyday the sun fell in the sea

Mother said, I’d like to start rowing, rowing over there to the other side of the sea, she said this in Japanese, if we go over there, no one will probably tell us to come back ever again, mother looked at the sea

When we came here
I was eleven, my little brother was eight
Since then we’ve tried using Japanese
But the sounds that drip from our mouths
When just the two of us talk
Only emphasize how much we’ve forgotten
My little brother and I push sounds out our mouths
We push sounds out our lips and palates
We extract them from our noses, catch them on our tongues
We leak them out unintentionally
One day, my brother said
I katto my finger
There’s blood trickling from it
His words were a mixture of English and Japanese
One day, my brother said
Sis’, what’s my name? do you know?
I say to him
It’s Zushio1
My brother said
No one can say it, no one can pronounce it
No one can say my name at all
I repeated to him
It’s Zushio
The baby grew bigger and began blabbering baby talk
Saliva dripped out of its mouth the whole time
Then before long it began forming words
As if to deride my brother’s distress

This all happened long ago
Mother led my brother and I along
And we got on board
We got on and off and on again
Boarding cars and busses then planes
Then more buses and trains and cars
We got on board
And began to move
Still, no matter how much we move
Our journey still does not end


1. Zushio is the name of a boy in the medieval legend of Sanshō the Bailiff (Sanshō Dayū). In this story, a boy and his older sister Anju are separated from their parents and sold into slavery. Left to their own devices, they grow up on their own, without the help of any authority figures.

is an Associate Professor of Japanese and translation studies whose translations of leading contemporary Japanese poets have earned the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, the PEN Club of America Translation Grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Grant. He is the author of Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature, and his translations include Tada Chimako’s Forest of Eyes, Takahashi Mutsuo’s Intimate Worlds Enclosed, Hiromi Itō’s Killing Kanoko, and Arai Takako’s Soul Dance.


* This was first published as "Hiromi Itō - from Wild Grass on the Riverbank," translated from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles in The Asian American Literary Review, Spring 2012: Generations. This article was first published in The Asian American Literary Review Spring 2012: Generations. The AALR has generously shared several of the forum responses, poetry, and prose with Discover Nikkei from this issue by David Mura, Richard Oyama, Velina Hasu Houston, Anna Kazumi Stahl, Amy Uyematsu, and Hiromi Itō (translated by Jeffrey Angles).

AALR is a not-for-profit literary arts organization. To learn more about it or purchase a subscription to the journal, visit online, or find them on Facebook.

© 2012 Jeffery Angles

immigration poetry

About this series

The Asian American Literary Review is a space for writers who consider the designation “Asian American” a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community. In showcasing the work of established and emerging writers, the journal aims to incubate dialogues and, just as importantly, open those dialogues to regional, national, and international audiences of all constituencies. It selects work that is, as Marianne Moore once put it, “an expression of our needs…[and] feeling, modified by the writer’s moral and technical insights.”

Published biannually, AALR features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comic art, interviews, and book reviews. Discover Nikkei will feature selected stories from their issues.

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