The Knifemaker

Sanjomachi, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

 

 

I was born in a city of blademakers,

in a neighborhood where days

are consumed by cleavers, scissors,

saws, swords, and paring knives.

 

My father taught me that iron

and steel are tissue like human

muscle; tools become part of the body,

our hands serve the blade—

 

it takes the life from our fingers.

His sashimi knife could cut the wings

from a fly, peel flowers

and fishnet from a white radish.

 

After the Niigata earthquake in July 1964

my father drank shochu while trimming

salmon, and lost three fingertips,

pale as pickled ginger on the cutting board.

 

He stopped making knives then,

and sent me to sharpen razors

for old Kawashima, a master

swordsmith during the war

 

whose peacetime blades mowed stubble

from the chins of survivors,

their hair gray as cigarette ash,

their faces shut like folded hands.

 

In the workshop, I learned to dip steel

blades in murky green baths of nitric

acid, the metal flashing—gray carp

that surface hungry in a mossy pond.

 

Today on the Vernal Equinox, I eat red rice

and beans, salted with black

sesame seeds, hundreds of eyes

peering up from the bowl of my hand.

 

Can you imagine

the loneliness: what I love I cannot

give to another. People talk

as if a knife could steal from us—

 

as if the blade were a thief, thin and cool,

hiding in the kitchen of our homes,

lying among utensils that deliver

the food to our mouths.

 

We’re warned of the risk of a knife

as a wedding gift, the threat of a blade

coming between friends, lovers,

neighbors, a knife as a promise

 

of departure, the danger

that what we cherish

will become smaller—

the fine dice of our lives.

 

I can tell you if your eyes tear

when cutting an onion, the knife

is not sharp enough, that the onion flesh

weeps from being bruised

 

and a good blade will make even poisonous

blowfish taste delicious—fugu sliced

as thin as petals, translucent as the skin

of a woman’s eyelids fluttering in sleep.

 

The cat leaps in through an open window,

my father prunes a tree in the yard.

His garden blossoms under the subtraction

of excess, that equation of denial

 

in which not all absences are meant

for reprieve. My knife understands

silence, separation and loss—my knife

creates by what it takes away.

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