Those Who Came Before Us

2018 Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize winner, december magazine
Included in my chapbook Concrete Paradise

On Sawtelle
I hear Japanese flowing
between the laughter of young friends.
One wears a UCLA sweatshirt. In
Little Osaka. In
West Los Ángeles.

Taiko drums boom
through the parking lot
of the West Los Ángeles Buddhist Temple.
July. Oban.
Sending a message of thanksgiving
to all who have gone before us.

Of immigrants from Wakayama
who created a Japanese fishing village
on Terminal Island,
gone over 40 years
by the time I was born in ‘84.
Working class families—fishermen—
speaking in their own lingo. Rapid
rough fishermen’s talk, blended with
Japanese and English. Nisei children
attending Japanese language school
after a day of learning English
at their public school. Before
executive order 9066
sent them to internment camps.
Internment camps set up for people
who only wanted to build community.

Since the late 1930s,
Japanese basketball leagues
populate the Southern California landscape
where a few of my friends and peers, where
Klaude Kimura, as we graduated
from one LAUSD grade to the next,
can come together as a Japanese community,
where basketball exists as one of the few places
for Japanese American youth
to hang out with other
young Japanese Americans.
Where, at game’s end—
heads high, breaths heavy—
they shake hands with their opponents,
sweat dripping from their faces.
Inhabiting gaman.
Some parents bringing game snacks
of rice balls or noodles.

And on Sawtelle I
pass Hashimoto’s and Tabuchi’s nurseries,
smell the richness of wet dirt,
see the splash of fuchsias’
tiny trumpet shaped magenta flowers,
reminders of when,
in the 1930s and ‘40s,
Japanese farmed flowers
and strawberries here.

Now, in the early morning, as Angeleños still sleep,
Klaude Kimura,
UCLA grad,
grabs his surfboard,
jumps in his car,
ready to tear up the Southern California waves.

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