Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2011 v10n1
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Counting Things

I wait for the elevator,
it rises from the ground floor
and beeps six times as it

ascends. At first the sound is
far below me, quiet, but creeps up
like a child who plays only

one note on the piano, and
out of harmless fixation plays louder.
The sound also possesses

the same frequency as that machine,
which I never learned the English word for,
that counts heartbeats,

usually of dying people.
In Japanese it is called shin-den-zu,
made of three kanji characters:

“heart,” “lightning,” and “graph.”
I used to confuse the word with shin-den,
made of two characters:

“God” and “dwelling place,”
it means “palace.” Long ago I stood
next to my grandmother’s shin-den-zu,

watched the green waves wriggle and thought
about the biology experiment
I saw in third grade, a worm

with Tabasco sauce sprinkled on it.
It was to illustrate the mechanism of pain
on the nervous system

in simpler life forms.
Since my teacher laughed at this,
the class laughed along.

The green wave is now my grandmother’s signature,
a cursive I would have taught her
if only she had lived long enough.


The Japanese word for number “four”
is shi, which is also the word for “death.”
The word for “nine”
is ku, which is also the word for “suffering.”
Therefore, Japanese hospitals
do not have fourth and ninth floors.

If the hospital is tall enough, it skips
thirteen also since suffering added to death
is too much for one building.

When I was little,
I learned two ways of counting.
One, normally,

the other, superstitiously:
Ichi, ni, san, go, roku, shichi . . . This way
my hands have twelve fingers.


Usually after ten o’clock
my grandmother removed
her false teeth and spoke less.

Anything I did—crunching up my face,
singing through my nostrils—
made her laugh,

hiding her mouth with her right hand,
begging me to stop. “You’re not
at all like your father.”

I turned away to the sink, where
inside a glass of bubbly water, rested
her teeth, diagonally, tired

of chewing. “But mother tells me
my eyebrows look just like his.”
To this, she laughed some more.


A hospital room means
counting things.
The number of visiting relatives I know,

the ones I don’t know,
how many times
they say the same thing,

umbrellas leaning against the wall
and each other,
cords that hold together grandmother

and her heartbeat.
That day I counted normally
up to a hundred and twenty something,

while my father and a doctor
paced the hallway.
Years later my father,

who is a doctor himself,
told me the content of their discussion,
“It took us too long

To get her to the hospital.”
The telling stiffened
his soft face.


The mornings of my childhood
I woke up to grandmother practicing piano.
She would start with the scales,

notes climbing higher until, even now,
they escape my eardrums.
Then, those repeated beginnings

of Chopin’s sonata,
which I never learned the English title for.
Sometimes I heard

the sinking of pedals,
the quick releases that followed.
And always I heard

the sharp reckoning of the metronome.  end

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