Sunday Apr 14

Thorburn-Poetry Matthew Thorburn is the author of three books of poems, including Every Possible Blue (CW Books, 2012) and This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser, 2013). He lives and works in New York City. For more information, visit here.

The Shrine Island

After the earthquake, the tsunami,
after the villages washed away
and the reactor exploded and couldn’t

be cooled, after it became too much
to count the lost, Emperor

Akihito came to the television
studio to speak to his people. Keep going,
he said. You must live to see tomorrow.

He sat at a bare table. He sat before
a paper screen in his charcoal suit, a sharp

part in his pale gray hair, and looked
straight into the camera. But he spoke
in a courtly language most viewers

in Japan couldn’t understand.
We switch off the TV, head for the subway.

We’re late, but sneak into our family
circle seats after the overture.
We strain to follow along

as a deep-voiced Spaniard brings
the first Chinese emperor back to life

for more than three hours
by singing in English. Where are we
again? And there’s this, too,

just for the record: in night school
at The New School, struggling to learn

a little Mandarin—“Ni mama zai ja ma?
Hen hao”—I keep remembering
more high school French.

Deng Laoshi (“First lesson is this
means Teacher Deng”) wants to know

where my mind’s wandered off,
but I can’t help caressing these keepsakes
I’d thought gone for good: maillot

de bain, boucle d’oreille. The world slips
away sometimes, and sometimes

slips back, between words. Je ne joue pas
du piano. Je parle Chinois
un peu. French sounds like cursive,

English like printing, Chinese like
the solid whump-thump of a hand-cranked

printing press, but Japanese—
whether it’s the emperor in his old
fashioned, embroidered prose

or a pink-haired kid hawking iPods
and iPads under the bright lights

of the Ginza—Japanese sounds like
the sweep of a brush dipped in dark
ink, a fast foaming river, water

birds rising on glossy black
wings, like the rush and clack of hooves

on stone. Back in Japan on the shrine
island of Miyajima, deer wander the alleys
and lanes, eat whatever they want,

tame as dogs. Messengers of the gods,
they’re called. Narrow hipped,

white spotted. With damp black
noses, bright dark eyes. I wanted to
pet one—they’re not much bigger

than big dogs and walk right up to you—
but thought of lice and ticks and

backed away. This was years ago,
the maples ablaze with feathery red leaves.
Lily and I wore ourselves out

hiking up and down Mount Misen
then stumbled back to the landing,

hunger-drunk and numb. Already dark
now, late and getting later, and because
we sat inside the ferry’s cabin, out

of the cold but away from a window,
enveloped in engine hum

and that constant rocking, we couldn’t feel
the boat moving. Didn’t understand
the captain’s terse words over the PA

or recall what a quick trip it was
from Hiroshima to this island

or remember how the ride home—
any ride home—always feels
quicker than the ride there, and so

we rode the ferry all the way around
and stepped onto the jetty

on Miyajima again. We were so tired
we did this twice, like a bad
joke, a bad dream, though the deer

greeted us each time—bounding
forward on skinny legs, clicking hooves,

nosing our pockets to sniff out
any salty food—as if they’d never
seen us before, or seen us

only once long ago, and felt so glad
that now, at last, we’d finally arrived.


Give me a sign if
you’re out there, if you’re
that light swaying, swinging
between trees, that light
growing faint, drifting deeper
into the shadowy woods,
if you’re that pale glow

between the elms and alders.
What star do you steer by,
dear? Where are you going?
Tell me you can hear
this, if that’s you who pauses
beside a ragged oak,
head cocked to one side
like a doe, light bouncing back
from your dark eyes,
if that’s you moving under
starlight and moonlight,
waiting for a gauze of cloud
to dim the world just so

you can slip away
once more. Tell me,
are these your footprints
I find in the morning in the dark
wet earth, faint traces
in the muck and loam
that slowly fill with water?