Kubota to Zbigniew Herbert in Lvov, 1941

In December 1941, after Lvov had already been seized by Nazis while you labored
diligently by day as a quiet feeder of lice in a virus lab
and joined your heart to the resistance that would rise in Warsaw,
my own country’s agents took me from my home in Lā‘ie,
placed me in a jail cell in Honolulu and interrogated me for many days.
Neither of us had thought of our poetry then, Zbigniew,
not of the caustic sarcasm of your strophes stripped of pious words,
not of the praises of the life I would lose like a lavish field of rice
once bending with weight but blighted overnight by the black cowls of disease.
I told them I was just a storekeeper who liked night fishing — no submarines
was I signaling offshore, nothing but schooling fish did I hope would come
to the sputtering lights of my torches that I stuck in the sand like stakes
for growing beans in my family garden. The ocean knew of my intentions,
lapping softly at my knees, curling in kind, foaming waters
around the bones of my bare feet. And the winds knew of my 
poverty,
sending me a cloudless night sky, stippling the lagoon with stalks of red flames.
But my government questioners cited my language was the enemy’s,
my academy in Hiroshima a military school, my citizen’s heart black as diesel.

They sent me to a barracks on an island in Pearl Harbor
where I could see the burnt wreckage of scores of ships,
hear their moaning steel like drowned sailors who still cry out,
throats choked with oil, from their watery graves,
feel nothing but panic and regret as though a child had died,
my hope wrapped in old newspapers and thrown away like offal
cleaned from a fish the size of a man.

                                                               Then to a ship bound for Oakland,
and by train and truck with men like me, Japanese all, to Fort Missoula,
and a cold wind like a dull razor scraping across my stubbled face.
What was my crime except to belong to an enemy race?
Why can they not see that I love, like them, the promise
that is this land like a wife to whom we have sworn
only faith and practiced devotion? I would wash her feet with water
gathered in a canvas bucket, carry her burdens across canefields
and over the shallows of our bay, ruffled with wind, if she would,
yet once more as on her bridal evening, speak her vows and turn the soft bundles
of her body, heaving like a warm tide in my arms, back to mine.

More Poems by Garrett Hongo