TWO POEMS BY AL ORTOLANI
Iced by light mist, the high
school lot reflects the headlights
of the early arrivals—exhaust
snakes from tailpipes, rubber tires
crunch crusts of ice, Jupiter
high in the west, Venus low
in the south, both brilliant
with indifference like
Christmas lights to the blind.
The janitor ministers to thermostats
and salts the stairs as quietly
as a monk. The short bus
labors up the drive. Paras
converge at the side door
and release the hydraulic lift.
The only student is rolled out,
chair balanced at the tip
of the steel edge. A boy, bundled
in a Bronco’s parka, legs
wrapped in sweats, waits
to be lowered to the curb,
his Air Jordans bright,
arranged like distant stars.
After the Book Release Party, Wally Walks
Down 39th Street with a Box on His Head
For a moment, he is the only
one on the street, then a waitress
steps out of Jazz
and lights a cigarette. Her smoke
jets skyward into the falling snow.
He tells her there is a poem in this
and he waves his free arm
into the silence of snow.
She lifts her chin in recognition;
the smoke curls from her
lips into her nose. To his myopic eyes
snowflakes streak the sky
like an impressionist’s brush strokes—
shops closed, neon smudged like
daubs on a pallet. The gray slush
is slick underfoot. If he falls,
volumes of unsold poems
will spill to his feet.
One of them is a sonnet
about his mother at the nursing home.
In fourteen lines he tells
how she remembers him, or at least,
someone similar to him,
who grew old and blank
and one winter night walked
off behind the 7-11
and forgot to return.
Al Ortolani’s prose and poetry has appeared in New Letters, the New York Quarterly, The Midwest Quarterly, The English Journal, The Quarterly, The Laurel Review, Prairie Schooner, Word Riot, Camroc Press Review, and others. He is the author of one chapbook, Slow Stirring Spoon, High/CooPress, two collections of poetry, The Last Hippie of Camp 50 and Finding the Edge, both published by Woodley Press at Washburn University. His third book of poetry, Wren’s House, a collection of haiku, published by Coal City Press in Lawrence, Kansas. Book four, Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead, was published by Aldrich Press, CA. His fifth book,Waving Mustard in Surrender, was released from New York Quarterly Books, New York, New York. His sixth collection, Francis Shoots Pool at Chubb's Bar came out in February 2015 from Spartan Press in Kansas City, Missouri.
POEM BY SARA BACKER
Leaving the City Behind
The first city you picture when someone says city
is your love city, the one you learned by foot,
whose concrete abraded the soles of your shoes,
whose subway map still appears in your PET scan,
whose towers of glass skies and doorways of urine
made you comprehend how rich rich people really are,
how poor the poor.
You rented a studio in a cut-up Victorian:
tiny floor, tall walls, curved window, five locks
on the door. You answered
phones, made copies, added numbers, poured coffee.
This city trained you to sense busses coming,
distinguish Bhutanese and Tagalog, to know
the taste of rabbit from goat.
In the daily treasure hunt of your love city,
you found an all-poetry bookstore with wing chairs
from a thrift store next to a neon stripper bar.
Gradually, you discovered you fell in love
with all your lovers because they were part of the city.
They flattened out and shrank in the nearest field.
Leaving the city is not the same as leaving the city behind.
You leave the city by car or ferry or phone.
You leave behind what has challenged and changed you
into someone who is able, at last, to follow a black swan
without fear, to become yourself outside of the city.
Sara Backer is widely published poet and novelist. She recently won the 2015 Turtle Island Poetry Award.
POEM BY ADEN THOMAS
Trees lend shadows to the grass.
Sometimes that stray dog wanders home.
Sons look for the fathers they never knew in the middle of the forest.
They find the wind still reaches there.
One night, years later
she reaches across the ocean
of sheets to touch his skin.
On the edge of town,
a man holds a suitcase
full of sparrows.
He turns back to see
branches shaping clouds
Aden Thomas poems have been featured in The Kentucky Review, Up The Staircase Quarterly, and Dressing Room Poetry Journal. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
ESSAY BY JOAN BAILEY
The Last Harvest
Yesterday, I harvested the last ingen (string beans) at the farm. I combed the twelve rows of plants in long sleeves and hat, pushing my cart before me, in search of beans just the right length and width, or at least, still young enough to be tender. I discovered enough to fill 14 200-gram bags for the chokubaijo (vegetable stand), less than last week and nothing compared to the crates hauled in the month before. Then, we averaged 70 kilograms a day, sending the best to the local supermarket and bagging the seconds for the stand.
I never minded saying farewell to the sweet corn, the zucchini, or even the cabbage and broccoli. I'd planted, weeded, and harvested them just as I had every season since arriving in Tokyo five years ago. I’d stumbled onto this local organic farm run by Takashi and Shizue Arai less than five minutes from my apartment. I said I’d helped on a friend’s farm in Michigan and showed them pictures of my garden at home. When they asked if would I like to help out sometimes, I didn’t hesitate. I started the next day.
But the beans were different.
Takashi-san and I planted the seeds one brilliant morning in May when wind and temperature still called for a coat and hat. Together we threw the plastic row cover over the curved stakes, pulled the ends tight, and pounded in the metal loops to hold the ends down. The beans are planted in double-sided rows roughly 15 centimeters wide and 12 meters long with a footpath in between. They are spaced roughly four centimeters apart, which is enough to flourish and allow for air flow. Inside their little greenhouse, the beans, always planted two by two, sprouted and put on their first true leaves, stretching their tendrils upward. I helped Testusya and Makoto, two university students who interned at the farm one summer, remove the row covers in early June, setting tall poles on the north side of each of the now sprawling seedlings.
"The wind comes from the south," explained Takashi-san to Testuya just as he had to me when I began. As Tetsuya bent to wrap them about the pole, Takashi-san stopped him. “They will do it themselves,” he said. Tetsuya raised his eyebrows in answer, then stood up and moved on to the next job. The next morning those gangly fronds found their mark, wrapped around the stakes in an almost unseemly grip.
I watched the blooms form - tender, elegant white orchid-shaped flowers - and the tiniest of string beans emerged a few days later. Soon, I ate them for dinner, sharing the season’s beginning with the farmers in a rite C-chan (short for Shizue) established early on. "First harvest," she always said, handing me a bag of the first cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, or cucumbers. Savoring that first summer bean or bunch of winter komatsuna signals a job well done, success, and fortifies us for the long days of harvesting and processing ahead. It also brings a smile every time: C-chan’s as she hands it to me and mine of pleasure and gratitude in return, and then smiles later that evening as my husband and I eat it.
“First harvest,” I repeat, and he nods appreciatively, mouth full. More smiles appear the next morning when I report how wonderful it tasted. By season's end we will dream of this crop, harvesting and harvesting, the thought of another bite making us queasy, but we don't think of that now. We won't next season, either. Each time it’s fresh and thrilling, pure pleasure.
The bean patch becomes a world of its own, a complex and mysterious community that develops as the vines twine up the poles, stretching beyond and then across to each other to form a verdant corridor. Spiders and beetles and other bugs whose names I don't know wander in the leaves and vines. Mosquitoes run thick and sometimes a web, crafted for smaller prey than me, swipes across my face. I never wear gloves despite the countless mosquito bites and the rash that always developed on the inside of both wrists. The simple tug and twist to gather the bean without breaking it or the vine needs just the right amount of tension. Even thin gloves are too thick a barrier.
Neighborhood cats settle in the dappled shade between the plants but scuttle away as I approach with my cart. I hear a rustle of leaves, catch a glimpse of a calico leg belonging to the matron who sits on the wall behind the compost bin to nap or bathe. I'm glad to see her and her kin, their familiar shape a comfort and a help with the rats who occasionally raid the sweet potatoes. I wonder what other large creatures linger here but don't dwell on it for long. The civet, the rat, the snake, the giant toad all pass through leaving behind scat, paw prints, and half-eaten vegetables as their calling cards.
I'm not sure why the beans are so meaningful to me. Maybe because I always find them so clever each summer, hiding behind leaves and vines until they become too big to pick. Try as I might, moving slowly and carefully, determined each day not to miss a single one, it is inevitable that two days later I find one fatty hanging in plain view. “How did I not see you?” I say to the bean before moving on down the row, more determined than ever. There were days when I was sure I could hear them snickering at me. Maybe it's that elusiveness I admire, the determination to outwit me and go to seed. Maybe it is because Takashi taught me to make them using the same simple recipe used for shunpike (edible chrysanthemum greens): soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking sake), sesame seeds, and sugar after blanching, a recipe that changed how I thought about vegetables.
Maybe it is because the beans represent our hardest season, the one where the three of us spend long hours in the field together followed by hours of washing, packaging, weighing and counting, telling stories, eating ice cream, throwing bad tomatoes out the door to roll under the shrubbery, swatting mosquitoes. Those are my favorite memories: days half outside in the sun and air surrounded by the harvest, bird song, the train swishing into the nearby station to pick up the days supply of black-suited salarymen and women, and the occasional call over the fence from customers asking when our little shop might open. The beans represent some of that and more to me.
Planted, staked, harvested, eaten. But for this year the hunt is over. This morning I uprooted the beans as my last job for the day, for the last time this season and as part of my daily life in Japan. We will move away in Spring, closer to my husband’s new university, and I will become a weekend visitor. I sit on the rolling stool, both hands reaching out to pull the worn-out vines from the soil as I propel myself down the rows. Gone to seed for the most part, the pods are big and fat, literally bulging at the seams. As I pull up each plant I murmur a word of thanks. Thanks for the harvest, for the fun, for friendship, for beauty. The stories are endless. I remember, I remember, and I remember. Those beans, so clever, and this Tokyo farm, so special, are wrapped around my heart forever. It isn’t just sweat I wipe away from my face today.
Joan Bailey is a writer currently living in Kanagawa, Japan where she enjoys getting her hands dirty on a Tokyo organic farm as well as in her own garden. Her work focuses primarily on food, farming, and farmers’ markets with a bit of travel thrown in for good measure. Her work can be found in Permaculture Magazine, Urban Farms, Modern Farmer, Metropolis Magazine, and Outdoor Japan.
TURTLE ISLAND QUARTERLY 9
Al Ortolani (2 poems), Sara Backer (1 poem),
Aden Thomas (1 poem), Joan Bailey (essay)