TEETH – Phil Kaye

Ojichama is what I call my Japanese grandfather.

In 1945, his Tokyo home was burned to the ground.

Grampy is what I call my American grandfather.
In 1945, he was serving on the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La,
sending off American fighter pilots to burn down Japanese houses.

Our jaws have not yet healed.

1906 – Poland.
Grampy’s father is hiding in an oven
He has heard men singing on the street below.
Hyenas my family calls them.
After beers and song, 
the townspeople come in to the Jewish ghetto
for a celebration beating – 
molar fireworks and eyelid explosions
Even when Grampy’s father grows up
the sound of jubilant song 
breaks his body into a sweat.

Fear of joy
is the darkest of captivities.

1975 – Tokyo.
My father, the long-winded student
with a penchant for sexual innuendo,
meets Reiko Hori,
a well dressed banker 
who forgets the choruses of her favorite songs.
Twelve years later they give birth
to a lanky light bulb.

1999 – California.
My mother speaks to me in Japanese –
most days I don’t have the strength to ask her to translate the big words.
We burned that house down Mother, don’t you remember?

1771 – Prague.
In the heart of the city, there is a Jewish cemetery – 
the only plot of land
where Grampy’s ancestors were permitted to be buried. 
When they ran out of room, there was no choice
but to stack dead bodies one on top of the other.
Now the cemetery has hills 
made from graves piled 12 deep,
individual tombstones jutting out crooked,
like valiant teeth
emerging from a jaw 
left to rot.

1985 – My parents wedding.
The two families sit together
smiling wider than they need to
Montague must be so happy,
we can Capulet this all go.

1998 – In the quiet of his Tokyo study,
Ojichama writes letters
addressed to his old four poster bed
on the backs of Betty Page postcards.
Haven’t had a good night sleep
since the night you left. 
Wish you were here.

2003 – I sit with Grampy’s cousin,
91 years old and dressed in full uniform.
I plead with him to untie the knots in his brow.
He says
Hate is a strong word,
but it is the only strength I have left.
How am I to forgive the men
that severed the trunk of my family tree
and used its timber to warm the cheeks
of their own children?

2009 – Grampy and I
sit in silence
watching his favorite:
I look over, 
the infertile glare of the television reflects his face, wet.
Grampy sits in his wheelchair,
teeth gasping out of his gums
like valiant tombstones
emerging from a cemetery
left to rot.

The teeth sit staring,
and I can read them.
Louis Bergman, killed at Auschwitz.
Samantha Cohen, killed at Dachau.
William Cain, killed off the coast of Okinawa.

My voice rushes from the safety of its throat,
I will not forget what has happened to us, Grampy.

And he looks at me with the innocent surprise 
of a child struck for the first time.

Forgetting is the only gift I wish I give to you.
I have given away my only son
trying to bury my hate in a cemetery that is already overflowing.
There are nights I am kept awake
by the birthday songs of children
I never let live.

They often look like you.

A plague on both your houses
They have made worm’s meat of me.


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