Lee Ann Roripaugh

mothra flies again

I knew it was a bad omen
when silk moth cocoons hung
unhatched like stillborn husks
from the mulberry trees—
imagoes furled tight as parasols
crumbling to ash and dust inside

but still, i felt so lucky
to have survived the tsunami

I felt so lucky to be alive
after three reactor meltdowns

daijobu, said mayor Norio Kanno

daijobu, echoed the village officials

everything was fine, fine, fine

for weeks, everything was daijobu
while our village was irradiated:
the soil, the water, the produce,
the dust particles, the rain

three months later, Iitate
was a ghost town crumbling
to dust, infested with mold
and vermin, and we had become
part of the nuclear diaspora

now we stay in prefab shelters
assigned to us in Date City,
waiting for cleanup workers
to scrape off Iitate’s farmland
topsoil—sealing it into bags
no one wants to handle,
like too-hot sweet potatoes
and when the high pressure washers
that were promised never arrived,
the workers began scrubbing off
contaminants using only paper towels

how can we ever go back there?

at night I lie awake and unpack
my worries like wooden kokeishi dolls,
nested one inside the other

what if? what if? what if?
my heart clangs inside my chest,
then waits with held breath
for the twin girls nested inside me
to shift or twist or kick in reply
within their amniotic fluid

I try not to think of the cocoons
shriveling on the vine, the weeks
I unknowingly exposed my twins,
small as a pair of bing cherries,
to radioactive contamination while
believing everything was daijobu

instead, I get up and watch
late-night kaiju movies on television,
the ones my father used to love

all of the monsters rising
one by one on monster island:
Gojira, Radon, Gigan, Ebirah

last week, I saw a movie
about Hedora, the smog monster,
who fell to earth from outer space
in a cloud of toxic spores,
while tonight I doze on the sofa
as Mosura is summoned by her
twin fairy priestesses, who sing
for her when they’re in danger

how fiercely she defends them
with her electric beam antennae,
her deadly lightning bolts,
the scatter of poisonous yellow
shed from the scales on her wings

when I wake the light is harsh,
my neck a sore bent stem,
and the red ambulance melody
of my shobijin, my small beauties,
sirens a distress call inside me:

mosura ya mosura
tasukete yo te yobeba
toki o koete
umi o koete
name no yo ni yatte kuru
mamorigami

divider
 

ama, the woman of the sea

how the tourists loved to see us
diving for wild abalone and sea urchin
in our traditional white isogi, with
wooden buoys tethered to our waists
for when we surfaced to rest

in my prime, I could hold my breath
for three minutes before releasing
the pent-up air in my lungs
in a long gasping isobue
those hyperventilated whistles
of the ama ricocheting across
the bay like the sighs of ghosts

when I first became an ama
I was just a teenager, and we dove
naked, wearing only a loincloth
and a tenugui to cover our hair

a photographer once visited
my tiny fishing village to capture
pictures of ama at work, and now
there is a back-and-white image
of me as a “Japanese mermaid”
reclining in a froth of surf,
loose hair swirling around bare
shoulders, my eyes half-closed

that’s when I decided to move
to Toba City to learn to work
as a pearl diver on Pearl Island
for the Mikimoto Pearl Company

we dove there for Akoya oysters,
which perliculturers implanted
with the tiny grit of irritating nuclei,
making the oysters secrete layers
of nacre to grow a cultured pearl
then we hid the seeded oysters
in protected ledges within the seabed,
safe from typhoons and red tide

we performed for westerners
and tourists in modest white
cotton suits designed by Mikimoto,
and there was a kind of celebrity
in this that made us feel
temporarily, at least, a little
like American cinema stars

eventually, I married a fisherman

several decades later, Mikimoto
found a method of seeding pearls
more efficient than the old ways

and though tourists still come
to see diving on Pearl Island
it’s no longer real, just a show,
like an image held still in time—
not of how things really are,
but of how things used to be

when my husband inherited
his older brother’s fishing boat
in Kuji City, we moved back
to his childhood home and began
working on the Tohoku coast

though I’m an old woman now,
I dive every day, and each year
the ama and fish both dwindle

none of my daughters, or my
granddaughters or even my
great granddaughters, show
any desire to dive, and though
there have been women divers
since the ancient Nara era,

some people say we are
the last generation of ama

at 78, I’m one of the oldest,
but still, on most days I surface
with a catch of sea urchin
or octopus, possibly an abalone,
or sometimes even a coveted
horned turban-shell snail

I know the seabed better
than the creased geography
of lines that mapwork
my husband’s weathered face,
and I’ve seen such strange
things beneath the surface:

a starfish whose legs tore off
of their own accord and walked
away, spilling out the insides

a wolf eel that sought me out
like a pet, letting me feed it
urchins and clams by hand

thousands of baby octopuses
like an exploding constellation
of slickly glittery rubber stars

when the tsunami struck,
at first I tried to outrun it
by seeking higher ground,
but when this seemed useless
I thought: how stupid! why
should I run from the tide?

so I turned around to face
the rising wall of curled surf,
so much more magnificent
more terrible than Hokusai’s

then I made a final image
of my life to tie myself to
like a wooden buoy, took
one long deep breath, and dove
back into the sea again

divider
 

white tsubame

after the tsubame disappeared,
white feathers started sprouting
from my shoulders and back
in a furious itch of stiff follicles,
the weird tickle of snowy down

it all began when more and more
damaged butterflies appeared
with stunted or crumpled wings

and the stained glass windows
of cicadas’ wings turned into
a tangled lace mesh crocheted
by a bent, contaminated hook

soon the hypnotic thrum
and drone pulsing the horizon
during late summer nights
fell silent: no power-tool surge
of cicadas, no squeak-shined
scrubbing or tambourine jingle
from the katydids and crickets

the gwa gwa gwa of frogs
stopped from invisible ponds

and even towns just outside
the nuclear exclusion zone
became ghost towns, too,
when barn swallows lost
all of their blues, turning
into albino ghosts, before
abandoning their mud nests
tucked under house eaves,
leaving them to decay until
all of the birdsong was gone
and everything was irradiated
by a blinding wash of silence

my parents begged me
to tell no one about
the white swallow wings
feathering my back

my father worked for TEPCO
cleaning up radioactive topsoil
in the no go zone
and didn’t want any trouble

my mother was worried
I’d be shunned as damaged,
so she bound down
my wings every morning
until they ached under gauze
and I felt crumpled
and stunted as one of
the deformed butterflies,
or the pruned-down bonsai
my grandfather in Ukedo
trained to grow into
strange transfigurations

before my grandfather
disappeared during the tsunami
I visited him every year
during amba matsuri
the festival of the safe wave

I loved how he split open
fresh salmon with a silver
fish knife to squeeze out
sticky orange roe directly
onto hot rice for breakfast

now coastal fishing boats
rock crippled in their harbors,
crumpled sails pinned down,
going on fake runs, only
so scientists can test
for cesium levels in the fish

my wings grow larger
and more unwieldy, become
difficult for me to hide
underneath my hoody

sometimes I stand on the roof
of the tallest building
in Minamisoma and think that
if I jumped, then everyone
would finally know the truth

barn swallows are said
to be harbingers of luck
so maybe I could be like
the tsubame who returns,
bearing good fortune

I could fly across the river
looping over water
bright with the hot swirl
of irradiated golden carp

I could fly all the way
across the border patrols
into the no go zone

I could fly all the way
back to Ukedo to search
for my missing grandfather
because ever since
the insects died off
and stopped their singing,
I can hear his lost
and desecrated bones
tapping out an SOS
into the too-quiet nights:

please help me
I am lost

please help me
I am lost

 


Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry: Dandarians (Milkweed, Editions, 2014), On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The current South Dakota State Poet Laureate, Roripaugh is a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.