Poem of the Week | May 21, 2018

This week, we are proud to offer a new poem by Derek N. Otsuji. Otsuji is Assistant Professor of Language Arts at Honolulu Community College. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Crab Orchard Review, Poet Lore, Salamander, Sycamore Review, and Threepenny Review.


Apprenticed to a blacksmith as a boy
—this second son without inheritance—
each day, to clear the clangor from his head,
wipe the forge fire from his eyes, quench his skin,
he’d climb a tree in the cool of the evening
and look in the direction of his home.
At eighteen he’d emigrate, shod horses
for supervising lunas in the cane, forge
machetes for paid field hands, and spangle
Cuban gamecocks with shiny metal spurs
for the sport of the camp Filipinos,
so that his bride was kept from field labor.
Women who toiled alongside their husbands
called her “Okusan,” a name for proper wife.

Author’s Note:

This poem is based on the life of my paternal grandfather, who worked as a blacksmith for the California Packing Company on the island of Molokai. The poem’s details were collected from conversations I’d overheard at family gatherings, when my uncles got together to “talk story” about the “old days” and plantation life. I’ve taken one poetic liberty with the poem’s otherwise faithfully recorded details. The California Packing Company is a pineapple plantation, but the poem makes reference to sugarcane, also a big part of Hawaii’s agricultural history. The music of the poem seemed to call for the substitution, which is historically plausible, if not literally true in the specific case of my grandfather’s life.

Back in 2008, I started to piece together these bits of oral history and shape them into a poem, which, loosely speaking, is an unrhymed sonnet, with the volta, or turn, occurring just before the concluding “couplet.” I did not set out to write a sonnet. Rather, I stumbled upon the form by happy accident as the poem’s narrative arc began to emerge organically from its assembled details.