Poem of the Week | May 27, 2019

This week we are delighted to present “Easter Cherries” by Miho Nonaka!

Miho Nonaka is a bilingual poet from Tokyo. Her first book of poems, The Museum of Small Bones, is scheduled to appear from the Ashland Poetry Press in 2019. Her poems and essays have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Tin House, American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans and Helen Burns Poetry Anthology: New Voices from the Academy of American Poets. She is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. Nonaka’s poems recently appeared in our issue 41.4 (Winter 2019): “Influencers.”

 

Easter Cherries

 

Far from home, weeping cherries started blooming
for the first time outside the church:
this is their fifth Easter in Chicago.

Not breathtaking like those clouds after clouds
of blush petals along the Sumida River,
but darker, wispy flowers drooping downward.

Still, our pastor insists on a cherry viewing.
The youth spread a mat under the trees, and
instead of traditional mochi balls in three shades,

we snack on stale, craggy cookies—a donation
from Costco, one of their tax reduction tools.
The pastor wants a picture with his wife

and two daughters, both single and perfectly
bilingual. They take turns translating jokes
and sermons into English for the non-Japanese

like my husband. Their mother calls them her
“kingdom soldiers,” who partake of every
discomfort required of their parents’ mission,

their untranslatable lives. The weeping branches
are nothing but an obstacle for our children;
they feel no longing when flowers scatter,

consumed in gathering cheap plastic eggs
strewn over the grass. Triumphant, my son holds
his Peeps like tiny pyramids in glittering sugar.

He understands, but does not speak my
mother tongue. Chick by chick, he tears off
and swallows its neon marshmallow body

while I wonder why I ever allowed myself
to believe that one day, I would feel less
alone. The pastor in his leather jacket might well

pass for a middle-aged Yakuza, if he’d not
one afternoon, received God’s calling
in bone-dry California, waiting for an oil change

on his beat-up Toyota. Our elder, Mr. Aoki,
who lost his engineering job in the city just
before retirement, lectures on how to make

salted-cherry cakes using a bread machine.
Mrs. Aoki pours green tea in everyone’s
Styrofoam cup, apologizing for its bitterness,

urging us to take more American cookies.
No saké accompanies our Easter cherry-
viewing, but the pastor’s face has turned pink,

and in silence, we take in how much his
hairline has receded over the last year
or two. We have no lyres to hang on the trees

but our hearts. What opens our hearts to these
blossoms is their momentary pause
marked by the clarity of their leave-taking.

Sitting upright on the mat, his eyes tracing
the petals, another elder, Mr. Suzuki, whispers:
“Will there be such flowers in heaven?”

 

Author’s Note

Hanami, “cherry-blossom viewing,” is one of the things I miss about living in Japan. On my sabbatical four years ago, I took a thirteen-hour flight to Japan with my son, specifically for the purpose of catching the cherry blossoms. While we walked down the street lined with great cherry trees, my son was only interested in pushing the buttons on every single vending machine on the way (to be fair, he was two). I was lost in the beauty of the blossoms, when I noticed my mother tearing up. She sniffled and said, “I’m sorry you had to miss this all these years.”

Perhaps the Chicago weather is too harsh for the ornamental cherry trees we have in Japan. The kind planted around the Japanese church put on fewer, darker flowers, though we still look forward to them every spring; “our heart flutters,” as the pastor’s wife once said. The poem echoes Psalm 137:2: “On the willows there we hung up our lyres.”

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