June Poetry: Two Poems by Brian Komei Dempster

"Gold and Oak" and "My Son Loses Teeth Across Time, Space, Race, and War"
June 5, 2018

Image Credit: Kevin Dooley via Flickr

In time for Father’s Day this June, Brian Komei Dempster’s two poems offer beautiful and poignant insight into one father’s struggle with a boy who “is an oak” and “can’t grasp // scattered leaves / of our words.” The push and pull between the couplets and single-line stanzas in “Gold and Oak” mimic the father’s desire to connect with a son who often cannot be reached. The war-like and unpredictable battles of fatherhood — especially for the father of a minority child — in “My Son Loses Teeth Across Time, Space, Race, and War” reveal themselves in the poem’s frenetic spacing. Dempster’s poems, similar to the son in these poems, communicate their heart-rending narratives not only with their unforgettable images but also formally in their unspoken white spaces.

— Eugenia Leigh, Poetry Editor

Gold and Oak

The deaf hear music
like gold coins

in their stomachs.
My boy is an oak,

receives the wind

of our conversation
can’t grasp

scattered leaves
of our words. My father's brass,

my brother's string make

sense to him:
Gold comes out clear

from the slide, 
laughter folds inside

the bell’s rim, ducks

fly out, wonk and quack
in air. A sound

forest. Oak hums
bright, then

deep. The bow smooths out

the noise
in his head,

brown eyes lit
from inside,

my gilded sapling. 

My Son Loses Teeth Across Time, Space, Race, and War

Wherever I am is war. Miles and miles from Grace. Don't leave me. Alone  

            with him. I run through storms of words

                                                beneath a sky of glittering teeth. Our son Brendan

          grinds his molars, I block out

          sound. “Traitor.” Sand stings

my eyes, the sun darkens my face. “Spy.” One eye

        on him. Where was she? A tooth

could crack. Disappear. White icicles falling

                                                  into my brain. “Terrorist.” His scream strafes

          the air. Don't yell

so loud. Everywhere I go, I am bound. You're scaring him. I dive

                        into a trench, cover my ears. Strap his helmet, a guard

over his mouth. Eyes

                                                            on him. He falls. Blood fire. A necklace

                                                of teeth. Tongues

          cut. Through the wall, moaning. Who was

I?  “Jap.” She would know.  I didn't mean

                                                      to. My half-white face tinted

red. Liquor flares. Hairpin triggers. His high

            pitch. Morning sirens. Planes steam behind clouds. Dripping faucet

in a stone room. Shiny white pebble, his mouth

                                 bleeding. Stain on linen. My son

            on his knees. He’ll never know

        the pledge. Wounded. Heaving

breath. Voltage that pains, but doesn’t

                                    kill. To not know, but to hear

            in our cells. “We will hunt you down.” A weight

                        against my temple, I begged to leave. Will we make it? Blindfolded. It’s not

too late. I’ll see it coming.

                                                If I wake.



Brian Komei Dempster

Brian Komei Dempster's debut book of poetry, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), received the 15 Bytes 2014 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).