Guest Poet Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee

On Yoshitoshi's Woodblock Print of Master Fujiwara Subduing a Thief with His Flute-playing

One night
          so an old Japanese tale goes, 

          within the moon's light
          a flutist's hypnotic tune
          overwhelmed a thief

          because the flutist, Master Fujiwara
          could tame the wind.
          He would inhale it/exhale it/ transform it,
          beneath confident, aged fingers
          into shakuhachi* sounds that 
          wailed sadly like the dragon, and 
          fluttered madly like crane's wings.

One day
          I stared into the woodblock print
          containing their images, and
          imagined myself under the 
          dark clouds that slowly drifted
          before the full moon.
          I could feel the breeze blowing around us
          causing hair and clothing to 
          billow in a cadence, and 
          I could hear the wind gently hiss
          though the tall grass behind the two men.

          I longed, but was unable, to leave
          compelled to stay
          though fearing the thief
          would turn his sword on
          both Fujiwara and myself
          should the master
          cease playing, but in the

          shakuhachi'd winds
          spiritual flute blew faintly
          yet, it got louder

          and louder still, until
          I realized that as he had the thief
          Fujiwara had captivated me
          overwhelmed my soul
          with the power and beauty of his flute-playing
          so that likewise,

          within the moon's light
          the flutist's hypnotic tune
          had overwhelmed me.

* Japanese bamboo flute

August, 1998

Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee's Questions:

Does it work that I put myself into the art work?  It's hard to do that and not sound totally cheezy.  And, should I get more descriptive in the second to last stanza about exactly what "captivated" me about his flute-playing, or is it sufficiently implied within the rest of the poem?

Correspond with Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee at
with your ideas about this poem.


nichi, getsu, ka, sui, moku, kin, do*

--she'd sing
as she quickly swayed her hips in a circle,
her own ten-year-old's sassy hip-sway
because for my daughter
it was easier to remember
the weekday words I'd taught her
as her own song and dance.

"Just add --yoobi to the end of each,"
I'd tell her, "and you have the
days of the week."

I wasn't fluent in Japanese
but I could, as least, teach her the days of the week.

           nama mugi, nama goma, nama tamago!**

          --I'd say
          clapping my hands simultaneously
          like my mother taught me.

          "Just keep this thythm,"
          she told me, because
          it was easier to remember
          the cadence of her native language
          through this meaningless
          tongue-twister she'd 
          learned as a schoolgirl.

          She wasn't permitted to make me
          fluent in Japanese
          --my father objected to it--
          but she could, at least, teach me its meter.

To not forget
the sound of tiny red fish eggs
crackling in a frying pan,
the smell of which alwasy drove
me and my father, laughing,
out of the house,

or the sticky texture
of the rice we all ate
          nichi, getsu, ka, sui, moku, kin, do
          --seven days a week!
          sometime with breakfast,
          often with lunch, invariably with dinner,

to not forget my mother's meal
raw egg on steaming rice
sprinkled sesame seeds, hot wheat barley tea
on the table next to our meal
of spaghetti, tossed salad, cold Lipton iced tea
...and rice,

          is to remember
          the after-dinner smell of
          Buddha's incense burning,
          then the sound of a three-chime invocation,
          then the timbre of mother's chant-voice

          namyo ho renge kyo***

          --she'd repeat
          as she'd bow her head, palms together
          the way her mother taught her
          because it was easier to remember
          to give thanks to Buddha for her food,
          her healthy family, in this fashion
          and because living in America
          made Japan for her seem far away

          so that in these ways she could, at least, make it
          easier to remember.

*     Japanese for weekdays, Sunday -- Saturday
**    Japanese for "raw wheat, raw sesame seeds, raw egg"
***  Buddhist chant

August, 1998

Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee's Questions:

Questions is food overplayed in this poem, or does it work overall?

  Does the "To not to remember" transition work, or do you have a suggestion for a better transition?

Correspond with Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee at
with your ideas about this poem.

When Fiction-writing Class Finally Ended

Now that the days of character treatments,
plot-building and endless line-edits have passed

and now that my thoughts are
no more stretched long
with rambling, fiction-writing words

I can, once again,
concentrate on saying things
with a poet's terseness

and I can return to where
I had been before
fiction-writing class began

--sitting with a very old friend
near a little pond 
where together
we watched a frog
jump into the pond,
and listened to the water's 

August, 1998

Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee's Questions:

Do I sound like I'm whining, or are my sentiments about fiction-writing presented in a balanced fashion? 

Is the reference to Basho subtle enough, too subtle, does it work?

Correspond with Elisa Yamakita Nicholas-McGee at
with your ideas about this poem.

The Albany Poetry Workshop