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https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2024/6/20/nikkei-uncovered-91/

Burning

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We hope this finds everyone well and able to find rest and rejuvenation amidst all of daily grinds and strife that too easily abounds. I’m always grateful to provide some poetry, as a balm and as hopeful fire for our greater work in the world. This month is of course no exception—from the wondrous Mariko Rooks, community health practitioner and creative, we share their poem on the “carcinogenic caverns” of time, on “...war and cigarettes...taking us on a search through the wreckage of memory that challenges us to come up for air...

— traci kato-kiriyama

* * * * *

Mariko Fujimoto Rooks (they/she) is a community public health practitioner who explores how art and community storytelling function as forms of healing in the face of oppression and trauma. Her poetry has appeared in The Water Behind Us (Porchwater Press, 2023), Letters to Home: Art & Writing by LGBTQ+ Nikkei and Allies (Okaeri, 2024), Discover Nikkei (2021), and Mixed Life Magazine (2020). She is also an alumnus of Yale's Asian American spoken word group JookSongs. When not writing, Mariko practices traditional Japanese folk dance with FandangObon and the Nippon Minyo Kenkyukai School, drums with Kinnara Taiko, and serves on the board of the Little Tokyo Towers and Little Tokyo Towers Community Foundation.

 

(Taste Like) Lucky Strikes1

One.

Surrounded by teal walls,
a white (coated) man slips a prescription for cigarettes
into the folded corners of my grandmother’s eyes.
“To help with the sadness,
after the baby,” he says.

America makes promises that
Camels, like womanhood, should be easy on the throat.
Pal Mals, like good wives, are less irritating.
Marlboros, like the ashes of bombed hometowns, are best inhaled when you’re happy.2 

she sits, new son
perpendicular to military crisp hospital sheets,
the slender white cylinder held gingerly against her lips
her only substitute for those desperate postpartum prayers
as he struggles to breathe
(Does he know yet? That as a Black man, he will always struggle to breathe?) 

Mildness and taste, war and cigarettes:
both will make your throat close up
metastasize DNA into disfigured wreckage
reshaping cellular memory into carcinogenic caverns
until nothing there is nothing left to attack but you. 

Two.
My uncle’s long legs press
against the coarse flaking paint of a high school gym wall,
thin fingers whirring a drum major mace faster and faster,
until they flame with the grit of burn out
snuffed at the end of every smoke.
In the ashes:
false teeth, floating in electric water next to his mother’s,
thin cotton tracing his trembling vertebrae that release
his last drag
into plastic tubes beneath his nose
that gently collecting final molecules of a failed exhale. 

Three.
my first memory will always be shutting a coffin over my grandmother’s already shuttered eyes.
my last is walking across a cold cemetery in December
wondering which steps will echo through my uncle’s bones.
While I’ve missed the chance to tell either of them this,
the only fag at this cemetery will be me:
billowing grey condensation with every exhale of Colorado air
tapping ashes into another funeral urn
no cigarettes necessary to
burn at odds with everything that has ever existed
even if it kills me.

Notes:

1. See “Lucky Strikes” by queer singer Troye Sivan

2. See, various, 1950s cigarette ads.

*This poem is copyrighted by Mariko Fujimoto Rooks (2024)

 

© 2024 Mariko Fujimoto Rooks

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About this series

Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column is a space for the Nikkei community to share stories through diverse writings on culture, history, and personal experience. The column will feature a wide variety of poetic form and subject matter with themes that include history, roots, identity; history—past into the present; food as ritual, celebration, and legacy; ritual and assumptions of tradition; place, location, and community; and love.

We’ve invited author, performer, and poet traci kato-kiriyama to curate this monthly poetry column, where we will publish one to two poets on the third Thursday of each month—from senior or young writers new to poetry, to published authors from around the country. We hope to uncover a web of voices linked through myriad differences and connected experience.

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About the Authors

Mariko Fujimoto Rooks (they/she) is a community public health practitioner who explores how art and community storytelling function as forms of healing in the face of oppression and trauma. Her poetry has appeared in The Water Behind Us (Porchwater Press, 2023), Letters to Home: Art & Writing by LGBTQ+ Nikkei and Allies (Okaeri, 2024), Discover Nikkei (2021), and Mixed Life Magazine (2020). She is also an alumnus of Yale's Asian American spoken word group JookSongs. When not writing, Mariko practices traditional Japanese folk dance with FandangObon and the Nippon Minyo Kenkyukai School, drums with Kinnara Taiko, and serves on the board of the Little Tokyo Towers and Little Tokyo Towers Community Foundation.

Updated June 2024


traci kato-kiriyama is a performer, actor, writer, author, educator, and art+community organizer who splits the time and space in her body feeling grounded in gratitude, inspired by audacity, and thoroughly insane—oft times all at once. She’s passionately invested in a number of projects that include Pull Project (PULL: Tales of Obsession); Generations Of War; The (title-ever-evolving) Nikkei Network for Gender and Sexual Positivity; Kizuna; Budokan of LA; and is the Director/Co-Founder of Tuesday Night Project and Co-Curator of its flagship “Tuesday Night Cafe.” She’s working on a second book of writing/poetry attuned to survival, slated for publication next year by Writ Large Press.

Updated August 2013

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