Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pearl Harbor at 70

70 years ago today the Imperial Japanese Navy struck the Pacific port of Pearl Harbor.

7 years ago today, with the help of my Japanese boyfriend, Takaaki, America and Japan settled the last few lingering issues of the terrible conflict that began that placid Sunday morning in Hawaii. We did it with words. We did it with poetry. Here is how we achieved a lasting peace.

Takaaki, Part II

Becoming human takes a bit of time.
Nobody knows exactly how we do it.
We classify the clock as the enzyme—
the universal catalyst. Through it
we cease to be that seemingly divine
lump of life we call ‘a child.’ Fine.
We can cope with children pretty well.
What gives geneticists heartburn from Hell,
however, are the differing results
we get. When something evil as a rule
shows up with a small army at the pool,
shooting all the judges, most adults
completely fall to pieces. Like that helps.
Now, evil can compete with Michael Phelps.

The cruel careers of our worst instincts are
Olympic in brutality, but short—
if measured by the life of stone or star.
Were we less human, we might not resort
to good or evil. They’d be words—like stones
and stars. The sea would not be free of bones,
but bones would be more beautiful, like sand
twinkling between alien toes stand-
ing on Coney Island, where the old Cyclone—
the roller coaster—clatters up and down.
The salty waves would still drift in, surround
small feet. Bad children would be taken home.
The sea would sparkle—conscience cold and clear.
Only you and I would disappear.

Some distance back time in this scene is set,
inside a vast apartment—glass, concrete
and steel—accessed by elevators. Let
the windows start in Brooklyn, stretch to meet
The Empire State behind a candle, where
I swivel in a large black leather chair,
while your eye continues traveling
along gray glass, skyscrapers unraveling,
until the pointy tip of the Chrysler Buil-
-ding gently lifts Lexington Avenue,
piercing a silver nitrate mist. Now you
must let this scintillating picture fill
the space before your eyes: that is New York.
Here, I transfix a carrot with a fork.

“I will never tire of this view,” I say,
blowing on my steaming vegetable,
adding, “Totemo oishikatta ne,”
confidently in Nihon-go, able
to tell Takaaki I enjoy his curry
without entangling my tongue in worry.
“It’s okay,” he shrugs, quietly deferring
my compliments—as usual preferring
a tilted head, a seated bow, the nicer
show of manners honored in Japan
which can seem strange to the American
inclined to linger too much over dinner,
allowing food to cool and candles run.
Before I’d started, Taka-chan was done.

Except for these two mushrooms which
he pushed off to one side—not even tried—
two huge shitakes that he didn’t wish
to eat. Or share. They looked okay. I’d
eat them. From a Doraemon candy tin,
Takaaki took a cigarette. A thin
wisp of smoke and hiss rose from his plate
to celebrate our ninety-seventh date.
“What should we do tonight,” I inquired,
“Go bowling? I’ll do anything you like.
Get drunk? Get naked?” [Silence.] “Steal a bike?”
“I swam forty laps today. I’m wired.”
He exhaled, emitting a dry laugh,
“Shall we play Scrabble, then, and then have bath?”

The carrot on my fork released a drop
of curry with a thick and oily splash.
The very second my utensil stopped,
I discerned, across the table, a flash—
something which I hadn’t seen before—
metallic—worth investigating?—or
maybe not: a passenger aircraft
hovering above New Jersey as it passed
behind Takaaki’s silhouette, gliding in
to Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark—
nothing necessary to report.
A zero. Nothing nasty hiding in
those pink puffs of lead behind his head—
those distant thunderclouds, I should have said.

“Have bath sounds good. But Scrabble, I will pass.
You always win, you creep. You clearly cheat,”
I said, “It’s obvious. You won the last
nine times. You’re not going to defeat
me for time number ten tonight.” I put
my foot down firmly. There. Takaaki’s butt
he then extinguished in the blob of sauce
that recently had claimed his match. “You lost
because you play without strategy.
There is no need for me to cheat,” he sighed,
as if I were an insect on his thigh
too insignificant to crush—a flea.
“You waste time making interesting word—
not the word that wins.” My mouth conferred

a moment with a chunk of chicken dyed
cadmium by turmeric—the curry.
Then I swallowed. “I have always tried
to think of Scrabble with you as purely
educational. It is my wish
to help you in enlarging your English
vocabulary. And defeating you—
too easily—as surely I must do—
would only be embarrassing. I know
how sensitive to that Nihon-jin are.
Destruction on a Scrabble board would mar
our beautiful relationship.” “Honto?
It sounds like Maru-chan’s afraid to play.”
“If you want to play with words, okay.”

(Maru-chan, or “Little Maru” is
the new nickname by which I’m known
in Japanese. I really don’t exist
in English anymore—except at home.
Maru works best for me as a suffix
to Kobayashi—a fictitious ship—
the bane of all Starfleet cadets, but one.
The Kobayashi Maru ranks among
his greatest triumphs. Though Kirk’s victory
pales before my own: I am the first
to turn the Kobayashi into verse—
in one of those strange twists of history.
Present me a no-win scenario,
I get the rules. Then change the game. Let’s go.

“The Kobayashi Maru is a test
of character. There is no way to win.
We simulate a vessel in distress,
hull breached, an icy vacuum pouring in.
During rescue operations, a surprise
Klingon assault destroys you—Enterprise.
The purpose of this mission is to face
fear—certain death. Logic indicates
we should get started. This is Judgment Day.
You will be graded by computer. I
am the computer. Any questions? Try
to die with dignity. Dismissed.” Okay,
Takaaki, you be Spock. You are aware
computers can be—hmm—re-programmed?) There

Takaaki tapped a second cigarette
on Dora-chan’s bountiful blue tin.
I went on eating, watching the sun set
like some enormous, obvious omen.
A hungry hush settled on our table
until a tulip petal quite incapable
of hanging on fell to my straw placemat
softly. Ten long minutes passed like that—
so painfully they felt more like twenty.
I drew bananas in my curry sauce
while Taka-chan established who was boss.
Then he offered, “More?” “I’ve had plenty.
Thanks.” I roll the tulip petal from
the mat between forefinger and thumb

contemplatively as Takaaki takes
dishes to the kitchen. In the glass—
his picture windows—I assessed the stakes.
I watched Takaaki work—efficient as
a machine—feeding things to Tupperware
containers, fridge and freezer over there.
I should be helping to put things away.
But I am lazy—what else can I say?
When I see him stationed at the sink,
I drink the dregs of my cold barley tea,
then saunter to the toilet for a pee,
leaving the door open while I tink-
le, shouting with some disgust, “Ew.
You didn’t flush.” I lied. I sometimes do.

Before we get to Scrabble, we must first
prepare our space for battle. Wet dishes
rest in a rack while bubbles rise and burst
around Takaaki as he calmly swishes
cutlery though the hot suds. Each plate
I plan to dry I first inspect. I scrape
a shred of gray organic matter loose
from the light, lilac pattern. I peruse
both back and front and add it to the stack
of china in the cabinet above—
enraging him with all my heart, my love.
This underhanded method of attack
earns my palm a pair of scalding forks
falling from the sky with deadly force.

“God damn it! What is wrong with you?”
I thundered to a non-existent jury,
“You stab me with hot forks out of the blue—
I promise to play Scrabble and—” And fury,
rage crystallizing in Takaaki’s eye!
“I know when you’re mocking me.” I
do not reply—permit my mask to slip—
seeing I’ve destabilized his lip:
it jiggles like red Jello in a mold
before the gelatin’s had time to set
sufficiently. Our glances briefly met,
calculating how long we could hold
some fresh profanity from breaking out.
He placed his boiled hands beneath the spout

allowing a cascade of cold to run,
so his corpuscles had a chance to cool.
But were they? Something horrid had begun
with Scrabble at sunset. A kind of duel:
a test of tempers turning letters—tiles—
into finely calibrated dials.
I followed a cylindrical, stiff ping,
a hollow contact in my sonar ring,
the sound of flesh, not schools of frightened fish,
darting down into the icy depths.
I sensed his anger out there, sliding West,
enveloped in the velvet dark. I wish
he hadn’t tried to lecture me before
about my Scrabble game. Now, I abhor

violence like any veteran
who knows what horrors in his soul may lurk.
But I’m American, and human, and,
against a submarine, depth-charges work
well—like words—if you deploy them right.
But using double-meanings in a fight
is regulated largely by extent
of your technology. Intelligent
tacticians will grade every syllable
according to its true explosive power,
testing new artillery in the shower,
walking, waking, working—if capable—
gathering the forces to make love.
Love is where things get a little rough.

Love is not a game like Scrabble, is it?
It’s more like dominoes. With rubble. War
may be our best analogy. I pick it
because war has no ceiling here, no floor.
I make love without limits—not sky,
the stars, the earth, the sea. I’ll tell you why.
The language I command is so advanced
it now permits me to transform romance
into a weapon. Watch as I revoke
each kiss, caress, all pretense of pity.
Watch me turn your face into a city,
blow your eyes to atoms—balls of smoke.
Watch me fly from love to Nagasaki,
deliberately incinerate—. Takaaki

frowned. He turned the faucet off. He dried
his swollen fingertips on a dishtowel
with ‘It’s Thanksgiving’ printed on one side,
a turkey, goose—some kind of cooked, brown fowl—
emblazoned on the other. He withdrew
another cigarette. (There were just two
cigarettes remaining in Doraemon.)
“Are we still playing games or are we done?”
I left when he invited me to go.
Reluctantly. No goodbyes were said.
I understood. I even expected
this. Nagasaki went too far. To show
how bad I felt, I called him—to surrender—
unconditionally—the 7th of December.

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