Her Makeup Face

Garrett Hongo - 1951-

L. T. H., I. M.

There were years at her bedroom vanity, daubing on
makeup, fussing with clips and brushes, a clamp
for eyelashes, the phalanx of powder jars and perfume
bottles assembled like the glassy face of a wave standing
over a box of Kleenex. She’d paint on lipstick,
then blot the excess with a fold of pink tissue pressed
between her lips, pulling pins and a net from her hair,
grabbing up her purse and high-heeled shoes,
almost ready to step up the tiered flights of City Hall stairs
and the long day’s work bossing the typists and Clerk IIs.

How long was this her life, composed or grudging amidst
the clatter of machines, the pouches and memos
that swelled like a tide of incoming blather each day
she stood at her desk, commanding Stella Sue from Memphis,
Helena from Jalisco, and Kay (short for Keiko) from Boyle Heights?
How many times must she have thought of flowers floating in a tree,
archipelagos of plumeria buoyed on their branches
as a soft, onshore wind brought the scent of the sea
to the subtropical pietà of a mother and her newborn,
wrapped in blue flannels, in her arms as she sat on a torn
grass mat on the lawn by the browning litter of blooms
beneath a skeletal tree by a bungalow in Kahuku?

In her last illness, while lying comfortably in her bed
in the semiprivate room of the care center in Carson, California,
her mind and lifelong rage sweetened by the calm of forgetfulness,
she said she wanted to go back, that it was “a good place”
and she’d like living there again. “Ripe mangoes and guava taste
every day,” she said. “And everybody knows you your family bess.”

She spoke in pidgin like this, without demands, no fusillades
of scorn nor admonishments like I’d gotten steadily since childhood —
the torch of discontent that had lit a chronic, rancorous façade
had doused itself in the calm waters of a late-life lagoon
that caught her in its tidal fingers and captured her moonlike face
so that, when she gazed upon me those last days,
she did not scowl but smiled, her tyrannous visage
made plain, beatific without blemish of pain or artifice.

More by Garrett Hongo

The Legend

In memory of Jay Kashiwamura

In Chicago, it is snowing softly
and a man has just done his wash for the week.
He steps into the twilight of early evening,
carrying a wrinkled shopping bag
full of neatly folded clothes,
and, for a moment, enjoys
the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,
flannellike against his gloveless hands.
There's a Rembrandt glow on his face, 
a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek
as a last flash of sunset
blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.

He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,
and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor
in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,
dingy and too large.
He negotiates the slick of ice
on the sidewalk by his car,
opens the Fairlane's back door,
leans to place the laundry in,
and turns, for an instant,
toward the flurry of footsteps
and cries of pedestrians
as a boy--that's all he was--
backs from the corner package store
shooting a pistol, firing it,
once, at the dumbfounded man
who falls forward,
grabbing at his chest.

A few sounds escape from his mouth,
a babbling no one understands
as people surround him
bewildered at his speech.
The noises he makes are nothing to them.
The boy has gone, lost
in the light array of foot traffic
dappling the snow with fresh prints.

Tonight, I read about Descartes'
grand courage to doubt everything
except his own miraculous existence
and I feel so distinct
from the wounded man lying on the concrete
I am ashamed

Let the night sky cover him as he dies.
Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven
and take up his cold hands.

Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi

No one knew the secret of my flutes,
and I laugh now
because some said
I was enlightened.
But the truth is 
I'm only a gardener
who before the War
was a dirt farmer and learned
how to grow the bamboo
in ditches next to the fields,
how to leave things alone
and let the silt build up
until it was deep enough to stink
bad as night soil, bad
as the long, witch-grey
hair of a ghost.

No secret in that.

My land was no good, rocky,
and so dry I had to sneak
water from the whites,
hacksaw the locks off the chutes at night,
and blame Mexicans, Filipinos,
or else some wicked spirit
of a migrant, murdered in his sleep
by sheriffs and wanting revenge.
Even though they never believed me,
it didn't matter--no witnesses,
and my land was never thick with rice,
only the bamboo
growing lush as old melodies
and whispering like brush strokes
against the fine scroll of wind.

I found some string in the shed
or else took a few stalks
and stripped off their skins,
wove the fibers, the floss,
into cords I could bind
around the feet, ankles, and throats
of only the best bamboos.
I used an ice pick for an awl,
a fish knife to carve finger holes,
and a scythe to shape the mouthpiece.

I had my flutes.
*
When the War came,
I told myself I lost nothing.

My land, which was barren,
was not actually mine but leased
(we could not own property)
and the shacks didn't matter.

What did were the power lines nearby
and that sabotage was suspected.

What mattered to me
were the flutes I burned
in a small fire
by the bath house.

All through Relocation,
in the desert where they put us,
at night when the stars talked
and the sky came down
and drummed against the mesas,
I could hear my flutes
wail like fists of wind
whistling through the barracks.
I came out of Camp,
a blanket slung over my shoulder,
found land next to this swamp,
planted strawberries and beanplants,
planted the dwarf pines and tended them,
got rich enough to quit
and leave things alone,
let the ditches clog with silt again
and the bamboo grow thick as history.
*
So, when it's bad now,
when I can't remember what's lost
and all I have for the world to take
means nothing,
I go out back of the greenhouse
at the far end of my land
where the grasses go wild
and the arroyos come up
with cat's-claw and giant dahlias,
where the children of my neighbors
consult with the wise heads
of sunflowers, huge against the sky,
where the rivers of weather
and the charred ghosts of old melodies
converge to flood my land
and sustain the one thicket
of memory that calls for me
to come and sit
among the tall canes
and shape full-throated songs
out of wind, out of bamboo,
out of a voice
that only whispers.

I Got Heaven...

I swear that, in Gardena, on a moonlit suburban street,
There are souls that twirl like kites lashed to the wrists of the living
And spirits who tumble in a solemn limbo between 164th
And the long river of stars to Amida’s Paradise in the West.

As though I belonged, I’ve come from my life of papers and exile
To walk among these penitents at the Festival of the Dead,
The booths full of sellers hawking rice cakes and candied plums,
All around us the rhythmic chant of min’yo bursting through loudspeakers,
Calling out the mimes and changes to all who dance.

I stop at a booth and watch a man, deeply tanned from work outdoors,
Pitch bright, fresh quarters into blue plastic bowls.
He wins a porcelain cat, a fishnet bag of marbles,
Then a bottle of shōyu, and a rattle shaped like tam-tam he gives to a child.

I hear the words of a Motown tune carry through the gaudy air
…got sunshine on a cloudy day…got the month of May…
As he turns from the booth and re-enters the River of Heaven—
These dancers winding in brocades and silk sleeves,
A faithlit circle briefly as warm in the summer night.