Kenji Liu: Poems



In a Manhattan church basement, my parents practice English.

Heads bent over thin workbooks, aura of old wood

and painted cement circling their crowns. He’s watching

    fluorescence flit from the new steel bands on their fingers.

Together, they utter the holy words—my name is, where is,

cream and sugar, please, thank you, when do you want it?

The old nuns are kind, though they waved little flags

    at the victory parade.


By now nobody has to explain the three-in-one god. Japan dwells

in Taiwan, the US dwells in Japan, eternally. Now they cohabitate

in the stock market. Baptism by firebombs, atomics, Gojira.

    Hallowed course of study, this Manhattan project.

       My English name is



Two labels, FROM: something something Japan, and TO: Us.

Cardboard box tightly fixed with brown tape and twine.

Just delivered, like me. Packed with Kyoto since too much

    New Jersey isn’t good for our dreams.


It spills all over the clean linoleum, gutted. Brick muscles

of yokan, strung together with nori packets. Digestive

powders and a black heart of congealed herbs

    exhaling menthol slivers and dry orange peel dust.


Four liters of shoyu is better than a blood transfusion.

Probably the only cache in this echoing suburb

dotted with an epidemic of personal space.

    Package disemboweled, my parents read decades in the entrails.


    We empty the cupboards slowly.



 How to Survive a Tsunami

for Kanno Chihiro




Step into its crumbling

gray face the way


you greet


the night’s first dream,

from the back of


your throat.


Incline towards the edifice,

its thousand mouths of




Pierce its neck with

the steeple of your hands.






Diary of Machine #37661

Tule Lake Internment Camp, 1945


We, the republic’s teeth

are ordered to chew this dry ocean bed

in half. Then again.


So we follow the shells,

cracked peach and rose salt fanning

the playa’s milky mirror.


Ghost water rises, falls,

fingers our umbilicals,



Loyalty to all meat and wrappings,



We oil our precious logic

so our words can hinge—


yes, fold the body into a worm,

forward all motion into dust.


Step and swing,

our bare beams weave across

the desert’s threads.


Then to step lightly, as if

the rust and heat is in all of us,

breaking from the mouth.

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