Five Poems on Travel

From Ground Zero to Hiroshima, these poems create a network of perceptions, gently holding the globe as a whole while honoring silent spaces.


I didn't want to speak, because everybody has,

because my grief has no surprises. But I went

to Manhattan, later, and there was a chain-link fence

between the people and the hole. You could press your face

right up, get your eyelashes past the wire.

Push the most flickering and delicate parts of the body

(pupil, lid) into negative space.

A child outside a restaurant waves her hands and wails.

Bonnie, look at the step, her father chides. It's two

and a quarter inches down.

The child stares at the curb.

If you want to be carried, use

your words.

We have no photos of them climbing up to windowsills.

We could not justify such photographs. We can barely

justify the songs.

In the guestbook at the Hiroshima Peace Park Museum,

an American has written: Sorry you started the war. Glad

we finished it. Outside, my friend and I begin to sing

"Dona nobis pacem,"but stop because we feel


In New York, they mark the minutes of impact with silence

every year. In the news photographs, everybody leans:

head on hand, hand on fence.

In the face of silence, sometimes I revert to postures I've seen

in movies, or from my parents.

The young German on the train is frank with me: Look,

we feel terrible about it. But we didn't do it. It's not

our generation.

In the photo that stays with me, a baby frowns up at her mother

while smoke unfolds in the skyscrapers behind. The mother wears

a black tank top, and the shadow of the photographer lies

along her back, slipping along the spaghetti strap, almost edging

underneath. Shadow on skin. Overhead, the fires,

the man, the camera.

She does not look up.

First Week

My new house had a rice maker, a big bed, a water heater, two tables, and no towels.

Ito-sensei brought me two wrapped in cellophane. I


new towels at

my house, she explained—very slowly—when I asked,

since you have to have

new towels for

your guests.

One skin per towel.

When the guests leave, the towels are thrown out.

Ito-sensei brought

me to her house. The door was made of some

dark, dark wood.

Her mother and father bowed to me.

It's not the right word.

I mean they crooked their bodies, kneeling, their foreheads on the mat.

I moved like something very warm, very large.

A savanna concentrating toward a single drop of rain.

I met my desk in the Board of Education.

I drafted drawings for the children who were about to visit their sister school in Wisconsin. What's


that they should know about? Ito-sensei asked me.

All I could remember was the way you don't shower all over the floor in American bathrooms. Keep

the curtain inside the bathtub, I said, and H stands for Hot.

This is my story, I hummed. This is my song.

Another expat told me about a German sausage restaurant in Miyoshi.

And wait'll you hear its name: St. Schwein.

He walked three miles, through several tunnels under hills, through

the sea air, to tell me this.

I had no oven. I adapted all my chicken for the stovetop. My mother’s cookies arrived in the mail.

I hoarded them all the way to Thailand.

I photographed flowers and walls.

I did not take the train to Tokyo for the weekend.

I did not join the local choir. There was a welcome

party. Ito-sensei bought me a $20 piece of sushi.

I don’t remember its name.

I went to the 7-11 at sunset. Sometimes you could see Mt. Fuji

from that hill, if the wind blew hard at the city air,

if the light was gone enough.

You could get everything at a 7-11 in Japan. Including

a bill for your electricity.

I saw you walking

yesterday, a student said, and looked at me

as though I were a word in French

or a leaning mountain, far away.

Mt. Fuji Is Still Active

At first I thought the san you attach to the ends

of mountain-names in Japanese was the same

as the honorific: good evening, Fuji-san.

I will climb you now. To drink

a traditional sunrise from the summit

of the old volcano, you begin the climb after supper

with tourists, locals, boys and their knees,

Japanese women in black skirts

and heels. This is not to say that Fuji is an easy

hike. The saying goes, everyone should climb Mt. Fuji

once; only an idiot would climb it twice.

But I don’t remember a single face.

Now, when I think about the shadow we climbed,

much bigger than the strip of stars we barely

glanced at overhead—The line of the mountain’s

flank was always ahead of us, do you see?

And the terror lay in its slowness, the way it rose

mere steps at a time and still drowned out

the sky. We never saw the sun come up.

There was light, and a simmering pot

of clouds, and utter inhumanity.

I don’t like heights. But still.

Sometimes I wish I’d never learned the language.


When I speak, I transform.

Ningen (a person) to ninjin (a carrot):

we are all carrots here together,

I tell the teachers, weeping

a little into my school lunch.

I thump chopsticks against the tray

and earnestly call them stars.

To scoop up enchantment

with a spoon: to mispronounce.


whitish afternoon, check-in at the hostel

red chill-out cushion as big as your living room

Jeff Buckley in the air with the smoke

long blue ticket with holes punched for each tram ride

french fry restaurant with the curry sauce and special mayonnaise

bikes massed in the parking garage at the train station

red brick of the station, big clock

red light behind the woman in the window

white ruffles and skin

smooth hair might be brown

remembering it without a photo is difficult

the painting at the end of a long, long hall in the museum

the pouring of milk from a jug, blue undertones in the paint

outside, a man skids past on a bicycle

color warring with itself in the Van Gogh museum

orange and red fragmenting the winter light

The Anne Frank Haus is like the rest of the city: connected

to itself.

The east wall of the house is also the west wall of the next.

The floor is still the same wood planking.

The scribblings are there, pencil on wallpaper.

Rocking chair bent after half a century.

The red plaid of the diary cover now pinked a little.

It's stored outside the annex proper

in a display case surrounded by gray tile and plate windows.

So much daylight.

The handwriting collapses to one side.

The whole annex yellow, as if sweat-stained.

In her room, photos all over the yellow walls.

Most frame a woman's face, any woman's face.

They all have dark hair.

They are speechless and young.

They take the place of windows.

About the Author

Sarah Kortemeier

Sarah Kortemeier is a poet and librarian who grew up in the Mennonite tradition; her family roots are in the Mennonite farming communities of Central Illinois. Her first poetry collection, Ganbatte, is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fairy Tale Review, The Feminist Wire, Pilgrimage, and Ploughshares, among others. She currently serves as Library Director at The University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson.