For weeks school children had crafted
paper boxes to hold the candles. Grandparents
and grandchildren, mothers and fathers, tourists
and travelers, had labored at tables in the park,
to decorate the lanterns that would float downriver,
like the words of a song just beyond memory.
The music though, lingers in those dark places
that words cannot enter. They are filled
instead by thousands of small red circles,
peace signs, calligraphy names, and badly drawn
families holding hands. Occasionally, I spot
a Canadian flag, or messages in proper English;
but it seems shame can follow us
from the years long before we knew shame.
There are no American flags here, anywhere.
Poles of varying lengths are brought out,
and planted in the shrubbery surrounding
the last crumbling symbol of shock and awe.
One building that remained after the bomb
was left alone, a black fence was erected,
and when stones drop from the façade,
they are not replaced. The sun comes through
the space where walls should be. The air
around me chimes with the constant clicks
of digital cameras. As the sun descends,
the river is bisected by a string of skiffs,
loaded with paper lanterns. The riverbanks
fill with flesh, preparing for nightfall.
None of the foreigners know what to expect.
I stand five feet from the first ground zero,
and five years from the last. The candles
slowly consume a small portion of the night.
The masses of people blur in the candle light
as they pass. Colors only exist near the tiny flames,
the living have traded their space for memories
of the dead. Shadows and ghosts play
on the sidewalks, while the candles scream
their light through the thin, colored screens
floating downriver. Thousands were consumed
here in a ball of flame, and now thousands live
on through those fleeting children of infernos.
Did Prometheus make his eternal sacrifice
in the name of irony?
The lanterns emerge from the banks,
and from the river itself. Though scattered
at first, they are all joined by the current,
one fiercely glowing tapeworm of regret,
squirming out of sight. A few of these lights
never make it to the current though, some
toss in the wind, fade to black, and sink.
What happens to the world, when its symbols
die? One lantern among thousands, one digit
in a statistic, one overturned grave, among
a mountain of granite. How much of ourselves
is floating down this river? This train of lights
shimmers like an oil slick rainbow
in a parking lot puddle. It is an unexpected
moment of clarity. I walk to a nearby bridge,
and the dead swim beneath me, and appear
on the other side. Already, the lanterns dim.
No longer held by children, or released
into the water by widowed grandmothers
these candles lose their power.
The dirt shoveled over our loved ones fades
into a rhythm, when we can no longer hear
the hollow thuds of the earth hitting the casket.
For some though, the dead return, like a story
in a lost corner of the family quilt. Pictures
swim back into the present, after they fall
from the dusty shelves. For me tonight
feels like the dull throbbing of a muscle
falling asleep. When I move back
to the broken building, one of the candles
has lit its paper prison. When I lean in, I see
a peace sign slowly disappearing in the curled,
black radius of the fire before I blow it out.
Some of us will leave our footprints
in the apocalypse, as others watch their candles
float silently downstream, distantly aware
that somewhere in the procession of flames
is their own prayer. Even if they don’t know it,
someone they love, as someone I love,
seethes in blue, or green, or red, on the water,
and moves away, carrying a tiny, bright piece
of us with them. This city is a struggle,
a daily battle against the idea that time heals.
Time is measured here by how much has been erased,
by how much of the past will never return.
So they build a paper fortress against the erosion
of memory, and watch it burn, year after year,
like those blue beams piercing the sky,
from the footprints of downtown New York,
like the names of the fallen, the faces
of the forgotten, and the words of wisdom
the dead offer in their silence, in the melody
of ten thousand candles, hissing,
as they tumble one by one into the sea.
Other poems about Japan: Translating Silence and This is where the dead live
Thanks to etouffee for his assistance