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Sample Poems by Leah Stenson
Flying to Ohio
After a soporific of red wine and potato chips,
I drifted off over the Great Plains at midnight,
the cabin darkened, my heart and the heartland lit.
Now the sky is reddening in the east, and
in the west lights are clumped like islands
glimmering through velum.
On a solo adventure four decades ago, knapsack
on my back, I wandered from the foot of the Acropolis
to Delphi and Santorini, channeling light.
Returning home a prodigal wanderer, I never stopped.
Sometimes at high altitudes, I still find shards
of former selves, a polished stone, a sun-bleached shell.
Pushed into rush-hour trains where windows
pop from pressure, impeccably groomed
salary men in white shirts and trench coats
read pornographic comics and sex ads while
shifting and lurching to the squeal of brakes.
They slyly rub up against pert little office ladies
in short skirts, hose and heels who will make copies
and serve tea in fluorescent, airless cubicles.
After work, these same salary men will go out
and drink until the last train and have to be held
as they stumble out the door of the karaoke bar
into the dark where they puke their guts out
on the train platform, waiting for the Yamanote line
to take them home to houses the size of rabbit hutches
where wives and children wait and pray
they won't come home too late or too drunk.
Saito-san is out in the rain tonight.
It is nearly midnight but his wife won't let him in.
He is calling her name and rapping on the glass door.
She, too, is drunk. In her house
there are no slippers in the genkan,
no meshi on the table, no hot water in the ofuro,
no covers turned down on the futon.
In other households, women wait patiently
for their samurai salary men,
the kamikaze of Japan's economic miracle.
They wait for men who are up too early
and home too late to see their children,
for men who come home stinking of sake,
who, after giving their lives for the company,
succumb to karaoshi (death from overwork),
or even worse, in their retirement, solidify
into sodai gomi (oversized pieces of garbage),
unwanted nuisances in their own homes.
The children fight their way into the trains through
bodies packed together as tightly as blades of grass.
Shouldering heavy leather knapsacks, they struggle
to carve out even a small breathing space.
Barely able to see over the heads of the commuters
to the concrete apartments and gray skies of the suburbs,
a blur beyond the windows dripping with condensation
and sweat, they brave the trains like little Spartans
in thin navy uniforms, in the dead of winter,
to attend the best schools, followed by cram
schools, until late in the evening. They study
to pass safely through the examination hells
that will open doors to the best universities
and then to the best companies, so that
they might follow in their fathers' footsteps.
Wives don't ride the trains much.
Only after preparing breakfast
and making obento for lunch,
after cleaning house and hanging
laundry, might some adventurous woman
take a train to somewhere. Most just bicycle
around town, children in the rear, groceries
in the front basket, babies on their backs,
stopping to gossip on the street with neighbors
as they make the ritual rounds to the fruit market,
fish market, post office and bank.
They might even drop by a friend's for tea.
But they don't want to go too far.
They have to be home to wait for their children,
to wait for the last train to bring their husbands home.
Give It to Me Straight
with a steady hand-
just the terrible
exquisiteness of being
poured to the rim
of a whiskey glass,
In the dim light of the cabaret
you soothe the sadness
of salary men with whiskey
and karaoke as you bow,
smile and serve up
an outpouring of welcomes
and compliments until
the money runs out.
Then, like a cold-hearted lover,
you offer no comfort to those
who can no longer afford you,
leaving them alone to leap
like lemmings onto train tracks
and be counted as jinshinjiko-
fatal body accidents.