Isako Isako

Isako Isako is a new volume of poetry by Mia Ayumi Malhotra, released September 2018 from Alice James Books. Isako Isako follows a single family lineage spanning four generations of female Japanese Americans to explore the chilling historical legacies of cultural trauma―internment, mass displacement and rampant racism―in the United States, and how it weaves together with current events. “Malhotra sets forth a yearning that knows no bounds—after all, as the poems remind us, survival is nothing without remembrance.” —Lantern Review “Isako Isako is a carefully controlled whirlwind of ideas and impressions that reminds us that the scars laid down today will still be visible generations from now.” —Japan Times

A Decade Later, You Return to Your Childhood Home

No one knows the exact whereabouts
of the ovaries; some things we’re not
meant to remember. After your mom

died, you left your childhood home
for good. Ten years later, it’s intact
only in memory. We siphon slowly

through the city, watch the skyline
slide past. Crossing the Washington
Bridge, you’ve come home at last,

where some things we’re not meant
to hold. Tumors are most frequently
found in the ovaries’ epithelium.

Pressing hand to pelvic crest, I imagine
the incision, sutures. Steel instruments
easing each organ apart. Though this

is where we all began, no one wants
to return. Memory takes its retreat,
shuts the lights off, room by room.

Still, something stirs. Life’s germ shifts
Imperceptibly—the future, a tiny, single-
celled fact, a body humming with secrets.

One Day You’ll Look in the Mirror and See Lions

May you not fear what lies ahead.
          May the moon’s full face
                    light your own, milky
with tears. May it ferry you into mystery.
          May your body, luminous
                    in its skin, so thin the bones
                              glow through, brim
                    with whispered prayers,
          lacrimal and lesser wings.

May the lion’s mouth be shut.
          May its head sink to the ground
                    at your approach, splendid
          in your cotton nightie, an apparition
of joint and socket plainly revealed.
          May you stand and be spared.
                    Please, all I ask.

Cast in greenish light, your hands rise,
          tendril-like, to receive
                    a fullness your daughter,
          drawing near, feels spilling
onto her fingers. Poor soul, you can see
                    the fear lifting like smoke
          off her skin. Don’t fight, you want to say.
Come, stroke the beast’s shaggy head.
          Pull open its terrible maw, see
                    for yourself, not the teeth
          you expect, but the gentle rumination
of bovid incisors, muted tongue.
          Come, child. Lie with the lion.
                    The ox, the lamb.

At the Cliff House

                     (San Francisco)

Hedge grass, juniper. The cliff bares 
its back teeth. Stone-faced, you slip 
a black knot over your wrists, fuse 

the ends with flame. How many times 
have you stopped short, breath 
jerked from the throat? To lose 

yourself in the fall; to have lost it all 
to need, affliction. Crank the heart’s 
ugly lever, set this machine back 

into motion. The bronze star points
north but never resolves. North-northwest, 
east-northeast. May you find your way 

by its burnished light. Here, take this 
talisman of good faith. A handful of
broken rocks, bullets for the journey.

The Kind of Morning

                    (Vietnam War Memorial)

The kind of morning a plane could lift into from runway and          disappear
          swallowed by fog: wing tip, cockpit.

The kind of morning that clings to face   coat   wet seams of umbrella
          nylon spread like surrender across

ribs, which in this tamped-down light appear skeletal. What we don’t see

up top, a snub-nosed bomb dropped into jungle      disappears the minute it’s released

swallowed by jungle canopy  ropy vines.

A child runs screaming          trails shreds of skin      white
          feet bare.

Names start at the ankle.   Mist gathers in ghost patterns—
          looking down I see tennis shoes, notched rubber soles.

How sleek, invisible the undergrowth

swift multiplicity of black granite pushing against itself, pressed into earth
          feet step independent of volition

faces made flat   shiny    pressed into stone.

Harsh geese overhead mistaken for gulls, firebirds
          (no we’ve not forgotten)

what mistaken for silence becomes a fall, a slide without side rails

each step notched into the next widening, stacking granite higher
          above the head          and heavier.

Atop the head there’s a blue of sorts   but I see only gray
          fog that clings, will not let go

that mistaken for names        (propagates is the word) swiftly replicates itself
          widens then splits.

Breathing’s difficult now. The constriction of apex, its terrible reach, spectacle seamed
          black on black

made ghosts, made echoes, made a red plastic geranium crimped in half    draggled in gravel

a sore remnant.

Rain runs fingers through names.   Like all good men, keeps accounts from the house
          there on the hill          what you see once lifted from the pit

slatted runway into air, up top where breathing’s easier, where color’s turned back.

Up steps up pillars    behind the white lattice, Mr. Lincoln in his counting house
          eating bread and honey.

Granite seeps from sight as through a sieve
          gashes in vision sucking it past in pieces,  splinters

the sign for a man whose name begins with a cross
          circled off        a closed circuit                     pricked as if by the point of a knife.

Snow crunches   under foot                                   again the grackle of geese.

Isako, Last Spring

Isako Isako have you run to your end.
Isako Isako is there an end and if so is it near.
Isako Isako will I see you again.
Isako Isako you are mostly bone. My hand on your spine as you lower onto the white couch.
Isako Isako I turn the pages of your life and find you on every spread. Eyes solemn beneath schoolgirl bangs. Foot turned to accentuate the line of your body. An Isako for every age.
Isako Isako I bring you a Kleenex. I clip a hangnail and file the edges smooth.
Isako Isako I want so badly to smooth the hair from your forehead. The way my daughter likes it when I sing her to sleep.
Isako Isako you have so many faces.
Isako Isako if I could reach out and touch one it would be enough.
Isako Isako if I could take your words in my mouth. Press your cheek to mine and watch the skin dissolve.
Isako Isako outside your window the cherry tree is in full bloom. Every branch lit with pink blossoms. A riot of renewed life.
Isako Isako when I see you again it will be with a different face.
Isako Isako you reach through time to take my hand.
Isako Isako yours is such a small hand.
Isako Isako the air in the room suddenly stirred. My hand clasped in your lap.
Isako Isako my hands now brim with you.
Isako Isako this page my hands this voice your breath.
Isako Isako I can see it now.
Isako Isako there is no end.
Isako Isako I is you.


I felt the room go cold when she died,
looked at her lying there, thought how still
she seems. How smooth, like time had erased
the particularity from her face, worked
some strange alchemy to make her less
of herself, more like the women I’d seen
in black-and-white portraits on the mantel,
stoic immigrant faces from another time.

There was her body, and then it was just
a body. I wasn’t there for the cremation—
they put her remains in a cardboard box,
passed it slowly through an incinerator,
as the family stood behind a glass wall.
They say they watched until the flames
were through. That after the burning,
there was nothing left to see.

I once lost my way home from school,
crossed mistakenly through temple
grounds and found myself in the middle
of a funeral. Greasy smoke, the scent
of scorched hair and skin that clung
to my clothes. The whole village, wailing,
gathered around the stink of burnt flesh,
and in the center, a dark shape that spat
and blackened on the pyre, glowed
white-hot and then burst to ash.