Brian Komei Dempster


It happened so long ago I say out loud. In places faraway from here.

My fifteen-year-old son Brendan responds to Lunch, bath, eat.

We think he understands many things we say.

Time to let out the dog out I say, and he opens the sliding door.

Follows my wife Grace into our backyard garden

as she plants seeds. We are making our own food so we can survive.

Inside, he throws shoes against our closed door when one of us retreats

into the bedroom, screams so loud we have to put on headphones.

I say, I know you are angry Brendan, hold up his red doll

with the orange hair, jagged teeth, and raging face.

I tell him, We’re stressed. On edge. More angry. The virus. It makes us

stay inside. We are terrified by the daily news. Asians, like us, here,

in our own country—getting bullied, beaten.

I don’t tell him we bought a Brooklyn Crusher bat. He looks up

when I tell Grace “Be careful when you go outside.”

I tell him, Your ancestors were targeted. Locked up, trapped like us.

He stands still when I speak out loud. Grips my arm

when he wants me to stop. Smiles when I fry his hot dogs

and broccoli, melt the tab of butter on top.

Many of them didn’t like to talk about it. There’s strength and pain

in silence. I lather shampoo into his hair, mint’s bite sharp against unseen

corona. I tell him, The five of us are poets who write about it—the harbor

that shook, the war that took them from their homes. Boxcars they rode,

vast plains that swept them up. Your daddy, Brian. Brandon, Brynn—

their names sound like our names, don’t they, Brendan? The other two

are Mia and Todd. We were set to fly through clouds. Be together.

Then the virus came. Shut the world down.

Water pouring over his head, suds carry away hidden germs and poison

cells, I tell him the camps where our families were locked up: Crystal City,

Gila River, Heart Mountain, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz.

My grandfather, Ojichan, with Brandon’s grandfather in Fort Missoula.

Ojichan also in Fort Sill, Livingston, Santa Fe.

Did they look past the rifle towers at the same cloud over the mountains?

Generations later, the five us retrace the paths, recast their footprints.

The shadows of their faces carved in granite.

I dry my son’s hair, say Grandmother was there as a baby. Topaz was

the name of her camp. All of our ancestors, parched in deserts.

I put on his diaper, Grace dresses him, we lock him in his tented bed

where he’s safe. Tan nylon barrack with black webbed windows.

I tell him, Your great-grandparents could barely see through the sand.

The flowers dried up there.

I tell him, Brendan, you are a sunflower. Your grandmother, Renko, is named

after the lotus. She was afraid while Grandfather was gone, miles away.

Some nights you wake up scared. Stay brave. We hear your cries. Her father

came back. She and her family rose from spring mud. Reunited

in Crystal City, they saw him for the first time in years.

I tell him, Even Mommy had a relative that was trapped like us. She died

in Nanking. I say, Like them, in confined spaces, we grow closer.

Shape new gratitude. Discover who we are.

I say, I will tell you a story a day to keep us alive.

I say our names to soothe him, My middle name is Komei. Yours

is Cheung-Hong. Mommy’s last name is Chow. Ours is Dempster.

Grandma’s family, Ishida. The other poets

are Ayumi Malhotra, Kaneko, Saito, Shimoda.

I open our books of dark words, scan our strings of sound. Choose the ones

I think he’ll like. He touches the pages, sits cross-legged, closes his eyes.

I tell him, We are five strong. Rusted thorns bind us. We listen

to those who wanted to tell us, needed to speak before they died. We take

turns, share the chisel, break open the stone.

I tell him, Our ancestors couldn’t leave, Brendan. At least we can go outside.

He plants himself in his blue stroller roadster, kicks the footrests. Perched,

he waits. I wrap a bandana over my mouth, hold his chair’s foam grips,

open the front door, roll him into this new world on thick rubber wheels.

I don’t know how long this will last.

Streets half-empty, voices broken by wind. Neighbors and strangers

wave, float away. Film of yellow dust. Bodies erased. Families

blown apart. We bring them back from baked earth.

Hold them even if we can’t. Our ghosts don’t whisper. They speak

to us, horses and trains galloping through our blood.


An earlier version of this poem first appeared on futurefeed as part of a blog post entitled, “The Afterlife, Part 1: We Take Turns Saying How We Are,” and is dedicated to W. Todd Kaneko, Mia Ayumi Malhotra, Brynn Saito, and Brandon Shimoda.

0-7BRIAN KOMEI DEMPSTER‘s debut poetry collection, Topaz, was published by Four Way Books in 2013 and received the 2014 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry. His second collection of poems, Seize, was published by Four Way Books in fall 2020. He is the recipient of grants from the Arts Foundation of Michigan, the Center for Cultural Innovation, and the San Francisco Arts Commission. His poems have appeared in such journals as The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, North American Review, and Ploughshares as well as been anthologized in Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, & Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008) and Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation (University of Illinois, 2004).

Link to Table of Contents.