Three Poems by Brian Komei Dempster

CROSSING No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home       to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal             hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—


No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home
          to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal
                       hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—a bent post
                                    and a wooden board: No food or gas for 200 miles. The tank

                        needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
           my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz
in the simmering heat? On quartzed asphalt I rush

           past salt beds, squint at the horizon for the desert’s edge: a lone
                        tower, a flattened barrack, some sign of Topaz—the camp
                                     where my mother, her family, were imprisoned. As I speed
                                                  by shrub cactus, the thought of it feels too near,

                                     too close. The engine steams. The radiator
                         hisses. Gusts gather, wind pushes my Civic side
           to side, and I grip the steering wheel, strain to see

through a windshield smeared with yellow jacket wings, blood
            of mosquitoes. If I can find it, how much can
                          I really know? Were sandstorms soft as dreams or stinging
                                      like nettles? Who held my mother when the wind whipped

                                                  beige handfuls at her baby cheeks? Was the sand tinged
                                     with beige or orange from oxidized mesas? I don’t remember
                       my mother’s answer to everything. High on coffee

            and nicotine, I half-dream in waves of heat: summon ghosts
                         from the canyon beyond thin lines of barbed wire. Our name
                                      Ishida. Ishi means stone, da the field. We were gemstones
                                                   strewn in the wasteland. Only three days

                                      and one thousand miles to go before I reach
                         San Francisco, the church where my mother was born
             and torn away. Maybe Topaz in the desert was long

gone, but it lingered in letters, photos, fragments
             of stories. My mother’s room now mine, the bed pulled blank
                         with ironed sheets, a desk set with pen and paper. Here
                                        I would come to understand.




Son, I am weighted.
              You are light.

Our ancestors imprisoned,

in sand, swinging
              between scorching air

and the insult
              of blizzards.

Their skin bronzed
              and chilled

like brass,

to their sorrow




Any noise alerts me. My wife Grace shifts beneath our comforter.
Respecting my uncles long dead, I climb from bed, grab
the bat, climb stairs, walk halls with a thousand sutras shelved
high, my grandparents’ moonlit ink floating on pages sheer
as veils, the word Love rescued from censors. In the nursery
I check window-locks, sense my son Brendan falling in and out
of seizures and sleep. Backed by the altar, its purple chrysanthemum
curtains, gold-leafed lily pads, corroded rice paper, I crouch
then stand at the window to watch silhouettes fleeing
past streetlamps, the gate unmoored from its deadbolt, unhinged
from ill-fitted screws and rusted nails. The front door cottoned
with fog shakes in night wind. Backyard bushes rustle. For now
I let the mendicants crack open our prickly crowns of aloe, soothe
their faces with gel, drop bottle-shards and cigarette butts that slash
and burn our stairs. Inside, we fit apart and together.
Grace and Brendan sleeping, me standing guard.
From my grandfather’s scrolls moths fly out, and I grab at air
to repel the strangeness of other lives circling toward us.



From Topaz (c) 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of “Gatekeeper” was first published in Parthenon West Review.





Topaz, Brian Komei Dempster’s debut poetry collection, examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. This volume delves into the lasting intergenerational impact of imprisonment and breaks a cultural legacy of silence. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history.

Read more at Four Way Books








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About Brian Komei Dempster

Brian Komei Dempster
Brian Komei Dempster's debut book of poetry, Topaz, was published by Four Way Books in 2013 and received the 2014 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry. 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 and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he also serves as Director of Administration for the Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies.