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.