Issue > Poetry
Todd Kaneko

Todd Kaneko

W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and This is How the Bone Sings (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writer's Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of the literary magazine Waxwing and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.

Oh, Say Can You See

America is the place in Seattle where I was
born, where I learned to sing angry songs

about who I am, where I come from. America
is the place in Michigan where my family lives

now in a modest house near a park. I sing this
song along with the radio on my way to work

every morning, along with the jackhammers
breaking the freeway into chunks while I drive.

America is a place in 1942 where my grandparents
once lived, nothing but crows and barbed wire

and shards of us left in the dirt. A concentration
camp in Idaho is a song about how to kill people

without killing them, about those scars striping
a person's insides like tiger skin. America

is a hospital room in Seattle where my father died,
a hospital room in Grand Rapids where my son

was born, and these are both songs about Idaho,
about the world we survived and the world

we must learn to survive. I sing to the birds
at night until they return to that silence

that brought them into this world the way
snow melts to reveal new potholes in the road.

I sing to the ghosts until they recede into hunger
each morning, into the sounds of traffic outside

and all of these songs we sing are America,
heavy and salt-laden in our mouths.

When we sing, we place one hand on our hearts
to make sure they don't stop beating.

Dawn's Early Light

See the night sky detonating in slow motion on the horizon, bleak hills fading into the chatter of birds.

See my son in his bed, his eyes fluttering in dreams, seeing whatever children see moments before they wake.

See my grandmother in 1944, my father about the age my son is now, both of them packed and ready to leave home.

See my grandfather behind them in shadow, his immense hands on their shoulders like he can keep them safe, like he can keep all of us safe.

See those soldiers outside the door, come to take us away to Idaho.

See this memory, the opposite of twilight, this rendering of the world as I understand it, through dream, through conversations with the dead.

See my son eat a waffle for breakfast as the radio gives us the morning news about our own history in America: children stripped from mothers, fathers stripped of their families, all of them stripped of home.

See my son ask for more peaches and be unable to understand any of this.

See me at my father's house about the same age as my son is now; he says this strange word, Minidoka, and I know it's something I don't want to say back to him.

See this word: Minidoka, a beautiful poison, a spider on the tongue, a dry gush of water in the desert of my body.

See our Idaho, a little village of tar-paper roofs and dirt roads surrounded by guard towers and this word Minidoka tangled in the barbed wire.

See my grandparents outside before sunrise because sometimes America is an easier place to live when you can't see it, when it can't see you.

See the first sunrise in Idaho, breath billowing from my grandparents' lungs, from my father's lips in tiny wisps.

See these hands unable to catch that breath, once it dissipates, it's gone.

See these hands unable to catch anything because no one likes to talk about Idaho, about California, about Arizona and Utah and Wyoming, so many points of origin we cannot trace.

See our point of origin, the dark heart, the birth spark, the barrows where our parents once lived in America.

See the prairie illuminated: sunrise and all that's left of our Idaho are the outlines of camp, the silhouettes of our bodies in the dirt.

See me and my son after breakfast. I will have to teach him about Minidoka one day, but this morning he shakes his head, points at the door and says one word: outside.

See the two of us go out, walk through the park across the street and stop near the cemetery on the other side.

See my son pointing back at our house. Home, he says and I am happy that he remembers where we came from.

See that sliver of fire at the edge of the universe, Heaven threatening to descend on all our heads.

See a boy with his eyes squeezed tight,
                                                our ancestors looking back at him,
                                                                                                           thirsty for light.


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