I swear that, in Gardena, on a moonlit suburban street, There are souls that twirl like kites lashed to the wrists of the living And spirits who tumble in a solemn limbo between 164th And the long river of stars to Amida’s Paradise in the West. As though I belonged, I’ve come from my life of papers and exile To walk among these penitents at the Festival of the Dead, The booths full of sellers hawking rice cakes and candied plums, All around us the rhythmic chant of min’yo bursting through loudspeakers, Calling out the mimes and changes to all who dance. I stop at a booth and watch a man, deeply tanned from work outdoors, Pitch bright, fresh quarters into blue plastic bowls. He wins a porcelain cat, a fishnet bag of marbles, Then a bottle of shōyu, and a rattle shaped like tam-tam he gives to a child. I hear the words of a Motown tune carry through the gaudy air …got sunshine on a cloudy day…got the month of May… As he turns from the booth and re-enters the River of Heaven— These dancers winding in brocades and silk sleeves, A faithlit circle briefly as warm in the summer night.
“My dear friend Edward Hirsch asked if I had a poem stuck somewhere in a drawer I might contribute. Just the week before, I’d been looking for old manuscript pages to donate to an auction to help support the National Poetry Series and came across stray lines on notebook pages from 1979, when I was in Charles Wright’s MFA workshop at UC Irvine. I thought I might work them up into something new and, today, I sat down and did it. It’s about the O-Bon Festival in Gardena, California, where I grew up. I’ve written about this annual event in a few poems already, but I think these old manuscript pages might have been the first time I tried writing descriptive lines about it. They went nowhere then, but the envisioning stayed and I wrote subsequent poems through the years out of that gateway I first opened with these failed lines. I saw them, immediately recognized them, and envisioned what I might do with them now, after thirty-five years of laying idle.”