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1. The new year

I hold up my basket made of many eyes;
tiny slits between reeds narrow
at the winds circling the house. My brother
and I have twisted and bound rice straw
into shimenawa, strung these homegrown
holy ropes around the yard
to ward against dangers we can’t see.
Our hung basket must now watch for us
as we go inside the house, and stay there.
News reports are constant, and full of
numbers. We cannot understand yet
where this virus will take us.
I bite my cheek, accidental pain.
The wind’s breath is full of salt from the sea.

2. Kotoyōka

It is the eighth night, and I can smell drying ink.
It is the eighth night and I can hear the rustle of paper.
I look up from my cell phone to see a gleam in the window,
hear footsteps, hold my breath.
Outside are the reckoners:
a one-eyed child holds the hand of a one-eyed crone.
I make my eyes wide so they know I have seen them.
I hold up the bright phone screen, itself another way
to cast light, move my hands to make an eyelid,
blinking. I see you, my shadow says across the window.
The child flinches into the gray
silk tatters of the woman’s sleeve.
The old woman presses her lips together, nods.
holds up a curled paper filled with brushstrokes.
I see you, she mouths against the window,
hiding away from the people who need you.

3. Tanabata

Cough burns my lungs like a country’s forests
on fire. My brother looks back at me
from every closing, sliding door.
He will wait. He will clean. He’ll stay away
as fever rages. Last night’s mikaribaba
did not stop for me; this tight mask of pain
is something new, unasked-for.
I look up and the sky is a bridge of stars.
The television yōkai glares white.
Its screen shows molecular spikes
and the blood draws
and the bodies beyond partying
sprawl drunkenly in trucks.
Inside the TV’s square corners
doctors shake their heads at my chances,
politicians elbow-bump in black
and blue suits. Each breath I take
is a coin box that defines my existence.
What will you place in the gasping
slit
of my lips?

4. Bon odori

Now dead, I step outside, squinting at the sun,
Straw sandals dancing lightly on the cobbles.
What is uncomfortable about the streets
is all that sweetness, cherry blossom petals
and the smell of green grass now
seem further away, dappled with rain
and emptied smudges and with me,
and a white mask, and all the dead spirits
walking with me.

They say women who die young
tend to become vengeance yōkai
and it’s true, all it’s too true.
Beside me, death’s fingers could find
anyone’s nape. Sure as plague spreads
I have more than one name
rustling my list in black ink.
So foolish to be outside.
I have come to cast my vote against
your future, gentlemen. I have more
than one eye on your lies
causing so many to die here.

Prompted by Matthew Meyer’s yōkai research at http://yokai.com/yakubyougami/ and other sources.



Betsy Aoki is a 2019 National Poetry Series Finalist. She has received fellowships from the City of Seattle, the Artist Trust Foundation, and Hedgebrook. Her poetry publications include Uncanny Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Seattle Times, Nassau Reviewterrain.org (Letters to America), and Southern Humanities Review. Find more at http://www.betsyaoki.com.
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