from A Year in Japan (1996)
Spring in the rush-hour train:
the ticket-man, sumo-fat
and hurrying. The frills of his uniform
confettied with blossom.
Cherry in the hat-band, plum-dark
in the splendid epaulettes.
Sunlight blinks between the hulks
of love-hotels. A pyramid, a Palace
of Versailles. Balconies
on the Garden Babylon
backlit, ivy polythene green.
The businessman in the next seat
reads graphic erotica. In each strip
vamps and rapes, demons. Thick
as a Shakespeare. He doesn’t look
at the girl in the seat opposite,
though I watch her, safely sleeping.
Head back, and the sun filming
her face. How the eyebrows are raised
when she dreams. And beyond her, small
in a landscape of water,
the flash of a kingfisher
taking a clean kill
like a lit crack in carnival glass.
Between the rag-slap of docks
and the wind-creak of abattoirs
she stops teaching me names for the flex
of her hand, for birds. In pairs,
alone, the warehouse men
go home. Quiet, faces down.
Later, the saké warm as milk,
she finds the word for them. ‘Untouchables.’
‘How could you tell?” She rubs her hands
against her jeans. ‘Their clothes, the place.
Differences.’ Their name means
Waste-people. They work
with blood, the filth of animals.
Summer: season of poisonings.
In the space of hours, kept meat
rainbows like blacktop puddle-scum.
Eggs are sucked light with hidden rot,
crack open to a curd of gold.
The fishmonger drinks turtles’ blood,
it washes the heart clean and strong;
he recommends it, as he guts.
Evening. Next door a snakeskin hangs
nailed over the windowframe. Drifts
in the wind. Poison for ghosts
and sickness. Mosquitoes whine
and fall quiet with intention.
Down by the docks and abattoirs
the workers sit by the sea-shrine,
dreaming of summer in Japan.
Sweating with slight fever, heads bent,
waiting for the night-shift siren.
She meets the train
at Burning Stone station,
red leaves in her pocket
and the river from the mountain
green as an eye.
The sun keeps rhythm
through the pines. The train beats time. She tells me that
her names translate as Three Eight Sweet One,
Sickle-Hand, and that her town
is famous for carrots, and that
the moon has no face in Japan,
but the shadow of a hare, leapt
from the arms of a god.
Later, under the sod-black trees
she hides her face against the wind
and asks me to teach her to kiss.
‘A Year in Japan’ appeared
in Midnight in the City of Clocks and is © Tobias Hill.
For notes about Tobias Hill and his work in print see One
Day in Hiroshima.