Richard Oyama: "What Memory Is" & "Where I Came From"

Richard Oyama has had work appear in Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, The Nuyorasian Anthology, Breaking Silence, Dissident Song, A Gift for Tongues, Malpais Review, Adobe Walls and other literary magazines and small presses. The Country They Know (Neuma Books 2005) is his first collection of poetry.
These poems are premiering on Cultural Weekly.
*****

What Memory Is

We dispute the memory
Of our memories. He says
Mine is colored by emotion.
I think he has alcoholic
Blackouts, holes in
The pockets of his memory but
Don’t say this. What
Good? He remembers Sandie Shaw
And Claude Thornhill so
What point? But we
Rehash the old John vs. Paul
Debate anyhow. In the bar
I notice he’s got a
Blind look of nullity from
The booze, waiting for
The click in his head to go off.
He starts nodding on the subway
Before realizing he needs to take
A piss, jumping out and
Stepping between the cars
But there’s no time, leaping
Back in before the doors
Close. Oh shit, he says,
Lurching awake. We’re on
The wrong train. Where
Are we? I ask. In the
Ghetto, he says. We
Disembark, walking up to
The Bed-Sty street where I keep
Watch while he pisses
Next to a white van as
The owner slides in. I
Explain my friend’s just
Using his van as cover. He
Zips up. We see
Two cops and duck back
Into the station. He tells me
A CCTV camera caught him for
Illegal pissing and was
Fined $100. I
Hail a cab. I think to ask
Him what’s that limestone building
In the park but he’s
asleep. The lights
Flow past. In
Park Slope I pay the cabbie.
As the sky lightens
Birds trill a morning song.
I say what a glorious time
Of day it is.
***

Where I Came From

1. Row House
The dusty pick-up is parked to the left,
A vestige of the agrarian in Manhattan all but
Gone with the knife-grinder and his stone wheel,
The shoe repairman whose leather smells of the barn,
The Good Humor truck and its calling bell.
My brother documented the going.
The curved car hoods are flecked in soot.
The sun slants westward then stops dead:
The building’s penumbra. The traffic light is halfway up the pole
Then the park’s blurred foliage.
To the left is a leafless tree
Hemmed by asphalt in a dirt square. There’s the faintest
Hint of spring. We’re the corner row house.
The first floor is white brick, redbrick
The rest. Our story, the fourth.
The fire escape zigzags above. The jump would shatter a leg.
The columns and lintel are neo-classical, an order that
Fails, the facade a blank, indifferent face to
The unruliness inside.
2. Assent
My brother snaps them in assent.
Both look down, pensive. Ozu’s parallelism.
My father fills the foreground,
Thinning hair decorously parted, you can’t see his ear
Stick out, monkeyish, in profile but
The eyebrow as cartoonish as Groucho
Or Kahlo, his high forehead unmarked.
His jaw is charcoal where the nerve jumps.
He wears an overcoat and a plaid muffler
Against the cold. Behind him
My mother looks at the thing. What
Is it? Her hair fulsome and black as a wave,
Her eyebrows penciled, her eyes slitted and unreadable,
Her mouth a boat low in a lake. What surprises is
The absence of tension. They’re in our store,
Its calligraphic banners,
Fluorescent chill, the fishbowl image of
Harlem projects. What are they thinking?
They keep their own counsel.
3. Rebound
My brother captures me in my
Turning. It’s the year after Nam, before Tet.
I’m disguised in his olive army jacket over
A blue Tech sweatshirt. Snow
Gutters in the curb and garlands a denuded tree
Supported by two poles to the left of what
Looks like a hearse. But a lot of
Those Fifties cars were big-bodied
With headroom. My hair is a conservative Beatle cut
Even in 1966. The horn rims give me
A poetic sincerity that as a teenager have I
Earned? It’s as though my brother spied something of
The pained seriousness, alertness, ambition
Latent within. I face halfway toward our building, waiting for
The basketball to jump into my open arms.

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