Richard Newman

Grave Scything in Takachiho

Obon: the week for cleaning family graves,
when ancestors revisit household shrines
and try to stir up guilt. Armed with small scythes,
the three of us ascend the mountain path
to graves that haven’t been tended in years.
I wonder what the ancestors would make
of me, a twice-divorced American—
depends how hard I work. We scythe in silence
while micro-showers range, leveling grass
and weeds of Sayaka’s father’s family.
Her father has no grave. He wasn’t liked.
A few charred bone fragments rest in a vase
now lost to years of clutter, maybe tossed.
The day after he died, Sayaka heard
her mother, Omma, sing for the first time
in decades, like she sings to herself now,
her voice soft and delicate as ash.

Our sickles whisper to the dead, my mind
adrift. Last week, after an hour on Skype,
the interviewer ended with “good luck.”
I knew I didn’t get the job—good luck
being a cordial notch above “fuck you.”
When my mom emailed after I’d left the States,
“I hope you find what you’re looking for. Good luck,”
I knew what it meant—the last I’d hear from her.
I pull and cut above these dead who aren’t
my blood, who lived when we were enemies,
thousands of miles from where my own blood dwindles,
dies in the unforgiving sandy flats
of Southern Illinois. What does blood
mean anyway but food for mosquitoes,
a few dead ones stuck to our sweaty necks.

A toad escapes my blade. We re-pile stones
that toppled from the rains and shifting earth.
Omma stands. Her whispered song trails off.
At last our work is finished here. We swig
cool barley tea, bow to the ancestors:
“We did the best we could,” we say. “Good luck!”


Back from the yellow morning fumes
of traffic, street food, and factories,
I ease open our door to find
the whole apartment smells of milk.
My wife shows me her tired smile,
while Genji nurses at her breast,
sweet milky scent mingling with warm
formula used for supplement,
the breakfast tea and coffee made
with a few dollops from mournful cows,
the homemade tofu pressed from soymilk,
coconut milk for tonight’s curry.

“Daddy, what kind of milk is this?”
my daughter asked me every morning,
puzzling into her oatmeal bowl.
“Today it’s crow’s milk,” I would say.
“I thought so! I always wondered what
crow’s milk tasted like. Delicious!”
When feeding babies, there’s too much time
for minds to drift into memories
and schemes like bottling Sayaka’s milk
and making MILF cheese. There are enough
sad men in the U.S. and Japan
that it could pay for Genji’s college.

The neighbors down the hall are fighting
again. They need a few swigs of
unpasteurized milk of human kindness,
which has a short shelf life
and curdles with a drop of fear,
and which is why I wait until
Sayaka’s finished nursing, her breasts
depleted, our baby safe asleep,
before I talk about the tests,
the enlarged prostate, possible cancer.
We don’t know what to say, so I
apologize in Japanese
for being mendokusai, a pain.

Before we’re even born, disease
and death begin suckling us,
and as adults we continue to nurse
when sleeping. Our chins tremble. Our mouths
suck nothing, lips and tongues still seeking  
solace in our deepest dream-state
at dawn, that hour we fancy the world
is new and fat with innocence.

Richard Newman is the author of three books of poetry, most recently All the Wasted Beauty of the World, and the novel Graveyard of the Gods. His poems and stories have appeared in American Journal of Poetry, Best American Poetry, Boulevard, Crab Orchard Review, Poetry Daily, and many other magazines and anthologies. In a previous life, he served as Editor and Executive Director of River Styx magazine and reading series. He currently lives with his wife and son in Morocco, where he teaches at Al Akhawayn University. “Grave Scything in Takachiho” first appeared in Book of Matches.



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