In Sacramento, I was a newspaperman, but now I stuff
newspapers into cracks around the door frame, between
the floorboards and into knotholes to keep sand, wind
and rattlesnakes out of our barracks.
Here at Topaz, the Jewel of the Desert, I have become a carpenter.
I use my hands to make life in the camp bearable for my family.
When we arrived, our shack held nothing but four army cots.
For mattresses, we were given bags to be filled with straw.
I salvaged lumber from the yard to build crude furniture—
a table, chairs, and a few shelves. Emi borrowed a broom and
swept out the dust, then sewed curtains by hand to hang in
the window. My son made a pull toy from the lids of tin cans.
Mama came with us. She was an Issei and a poet.
One day she wandered into the desert and never came back.
I fashioned a box with no nails to hold her ashes.
Emi made an ikebana from tumbleweeds.
Beneath the shadows of barbed wire, I have discovered
the beauty of tools. How a plane can subdue the harshness
of wood, its cold steel a comfort in my palm. How a level,
with its bubble that does not freeze in winter, can offer levity.
I have learned how to face a sandstorm with a strip of cardboard
plastered with glue, then to use this sandpaper to smooth out
the incongruities of our lives. I have been shown the miracle
of precision and balance—how a hammer can straighten out
the bent backs of nails and make them useful again.
Originally published in Prairie Schooner, 2006
Included in the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery (Sante Lucia Books, 2008)
Published in What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps (Katsura Press, 2009)