Poem of the Week | October 15, 2018

This week we are excited to present “My Mother in Tanforan,” a new poem by Brian Komei Dempster.

Brian Komei Dempster’s debut book of poetry, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), received the 15 Bytes 2014 Book Award in Poetry. His second poetry collection, Seize, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in fall 2020. Dempster is editor of From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps (Kearny Street Workshop, 2001), which received a 2007 Nisei Voices Award from the National Japanese American Historical Society, and Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement (Heyday, 2011). He is a professor of rhetoric and language at the University of San Francisco, where he also serves as Director of Administration for the Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies.

My Mother in Tanforan

Horses live here with us
             Mama told me.
Straw scratched
             through, wings hovered
above my nose.
             In the stall
I shuddered
             underfoot: rope cinched
around stomping
             legs, hooves running near. A wash
of noise. There’s what
             you think
             and what really
happens. The horses
             were gone my sister Tae tells me.
Believe this: as a baby
             I knew
smells of manure. Dirt flaked
             from my hair. Beneath spouts
I shivered, needles
             of ice poured
on my skin. I sense it: hands
             swaddling me
in coats. A tag
             with our prisoner number
flapping against my face. Whinnies,
             moans behind boards.
Shhh. I kick
             the air. Flies
scatter, people hide, the buzz
             stops. The ground
quiets. Pretend
             we’re horses. Mama’s back, a bent
saddle, I climb
             on. We gallop across mud
through gates, over
             fences. A dry
green. I think we are
             far away.

Author’s Note

When I ask my mother about her unjust imprisonment during World War II, she tells me, “My memories are hazy.” For her, this saga is scattered bits and pieces, fragments of experience.

My mother was an infant when her father, a Buddhist priest, was forcibly removed from their family’s church home in San Francisco’s Japantown. She was later taken away—along with her mother, sisters, and brothers—and sent to Tanforan Racetrack, the wartime detention center in San Bruno, California. In my own research about Tanforan, I uncovered a startling truth: some barracks where detainees lived were converted horse stalls.

This poem, written from her perspective, attempts to reconcile gaps in her memory and gather up the shards. As she reconstructs the past, the sight and smell of horses run through her mind. The speaker is presented with—and must process—contradictory information; it is impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. Did horses live there or not? What really happened? We are left with questions.

After Tanforan, my mother and her family were imprisoned at Topaz concentration camp in Utah, where they remained separated from my grandfather for several years. This piece gives voice to my mother’s own story and, at the same time, pays homage to all Japanese Americans who endured incarceration: their resilience in the face of dehumanization; their search for freedom beyond the confines of barbed wire.