Terrible Goddess

by Yoko Danno

Among piles of dust and ashes lie
yesterday’s fireflies—motherfucker,
mother earth, who swallows all
sentient beings—have you ever
thrown up corpses from indigestion?

“I will defy death by setting up
1,500 maternity homes in a single day
in the land of the living,” god retorts
to his wife, the eater of bizarre food,
the multi-faced goddess with centi-legs

Her white hair floating in the air
like dandelion fluff—rootless,
will-less, antenna-less— she goes
sailing with every shift of wind.―
Tomorrow maybe a turn for a new life

“Animals don’t escape to somewhere,
but from something,*” god says. In time
a moonlit pear tree may grow― but for now
he is singing sweet love songs for humans
under the shadow of nuclear umbrellas

*Quoted from “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel


by Yoko Danno


                          affinities between this butterfly
                          and me―an eternity for the insect
                          but a few-second stay on my palm
                          before i clap my hands in worship

The door bell rang, rang and rang. I reluctantly left my couch and made for the door, as if wading through water. I found nobody at the door except a large, black swallowtail fluttering away. I returned to my comfortable seat and took up the book I had been reading. The pages were blank, all the words gone. I couldn’t even remember exactly what I was reading. It must have been a book on a learn-while-sleeping method by a famous lepidopterist.

                          a swarm of butterflies flutter
                          in an illuminated glass dome,
                          light breaking into winged souls
                          in and out of the rose-wet grotto

In and out―I wasn’t escaping to somewhere but from something―in fear of being caught by a net. Out in the field children were chasing pollinators to pin them in insect cabinets―their summer homework. Every time a boy gave a shout of glee, long grasses trembled like nerve fibers, agitated, restless, as if mediated by the sweep of the net. I was kept alive in a glass cage together with other winged fellows―for eons. The door bell started ringing, louder and louder.

                          screaming i struggled to wake ―
                          i was one of a thousand butterflies
                          in an enormous LED light bulb,

                          my voice silently rising like bubbles

My eyes stopped at the margin of a blank page. A ravine was under my nose, and beyond, an overhanging cliff with a few low pines in the shapes of crouching animals. I sat in a chair placed on the grass-covered plateau and played the bass viol. The undertone echoed back like waves of hunger. The breeze felt salty as if coming from the sea. Somehow I thought of steamed-rice balls wrapped in thin sheets of dried seaweed, which I had prepared in the fridge, just in case.

                          the land shook, suddenly as before,
                          nymphs trembled, terracotta soldiers
                          guarding the underground palace
                          shaken in alarm―attention! forward!

The air was warm and humid. I strolled among palm trees , in an ecstasy, perfumed by orange and yellow tropical flowers. When I stood still, holding my breath, wishing the moment would last long, butterflies came to settle on my shoulders and on my palm, for honey. A bell started ringing again―the closing time of the butterfly farm. I had to leave the Shangri-la. On my way home I stumbled over a stone that had tumbled down the hillside. Yes, I realized, there had been, to be sure, an earthquake.


by Yoko Danno

               Puffing and panting,

               to the hilltop ascending,

               what do I expect to see

               flat surface of a writhing sea?

I wanted to prolong my stay downstairs a little longer so that she might be finished for good in the bathtub upstairs―a horrifying dream. But instead I hurriedly ran up the stairs to pull her out of the water―just in time―while she was still alive. Who was the drowning woman? My indispensable opponent―a flagpole to fasten my tightrope to?

I was struggling for days to write a poem about a woman―without success. The woman appears in the mirror on the wall from time to time when I look at my reflection and sets my nerves afire. I just wanted to ask her how she had managed to escape from her cocker spaniel and the Spaniard, who she said were untiringly stalking her.

She is a big woman, followed by a lot of friends, but whenever I try to observe her closely the spaniel and the Spaniard appear and form a triangle with her. I usually lose sight of her in the ‘magical’ triangle, utterly lost in the fog. Incidentally, a few days ago I read a mystery in which a murderer is ambushed by the assumed victim.

You know what? However hard you try to flee from your giant or your fellow dog, you can’t, because they’re a part of what you are. If you successfully dismiss them, your whole system would eventually fail―that is my fear. There’s no taming one’s nature except practice―practice―practice. The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. Whose words?

I feel a current of humid air from the south and hear the calls of birds hurrying home. Cicadas have stopped singing―sign of a storm. Clouds are gathering. The sky will soon be entirely covered without a break―through which I may have a chance to peep into a world beyond, as vast and deep as a madness for flight. Yes, an easy breakthrough is rare.

It is blowing wild, sleet banging on the roof tiles, my old house creaking badly; in occasional flashes of lightning a pair of trees are revealed―the boughs in common, the trunks joined together like Siamese twins, roars of worry howling across the hill, sending shivers up my spine. Visibility becoming poor, how I wish for a clear night!


by Yoko Danno

I am in my brain,
You are in your brain.
You are in my brain,
I am in your brain.

I feel that time flies faster than ever. Because I digest food more slowly lately? Or am I already traveling around another sun, or another moon? I hope the orbit of my thoughts can be traced more precisely and the geography in my brain explored more in detail. Ethereal fragments of consciousness, along with earthbound urges, should be eventually put together into a meaningful whole. Is there a mastermind behind all of this mysterious integrating process?

I sent a letter to my friend with a wrong address. I didn’t know he had moved. Someone told me he has gone in search of a bird. Where?

In pursuit of the swan, he arrived at the land of Harima by way of Ki, then crossing Inaba he came to Taniha and to Tajima. He followed the bird east-ward to the land of Chika-tsu-Aumi, crossed Mino, chased it through Wohari, past Shinano, and finally in the land of Koshi spread a net at a river mouth…*

The man in the topic was instructed that if he found the bird, the child—an emperor’s son who was unable to speak—would be able to speak. But is it possible, at the present time, to wander over the Japan Island of the 8th century? Let alone to find the bird? I’m told ‘past’ is a mirage, ‘future’ a phantom, and ‘now’ becomes ‘past’ from instant to instant—a flower never stays the same. But then what is the present time exactly? If there’s no ‘now,’ we live only in ‘past’? If so, no wonder he has gone looking for the bird into ‘past’…by the way, I sprained my neck while I was asleep last night.

Ki lies in the Ki Peninsular facing the Pacific Ocean. I once visited there on a school excursion when I was a child. Harima, far down south of Inaba, is the birthplace of my grandmother. Carried in a palanquin, crossing mountains, she married into a sake-brewing family in Taniha, my ancestors’ place. In Aumi is Lake Biwa, home to multiple birds. In Mino cormorants are nurtured to fish for humans. In Wohari I lived with my family for two years. Koshi is present-day Hokuriku, northwesterly coastal area. On my way to Shinano on a sightseeing trip I looked out over the raging Japan Sea through a train window. What has he been doing all the while? Where on earth has he flown to?—the one to whom I sent a letter, I mean.

My letter must be carried around in a postman’s bag in search of his whereabouts. I hope it won’t be abandoned in a box of ‘undelivered mail’ at a post office, since I forgot to write my return address on the envelope. My fatal fault. Once lost, a letter will never be delivered. I may not know whether he has actually caught the bird or not, although I desperately wish to know.

I have recently lost my voice, caused not by a laryngeal cancer, but from hypertension—I need to perform magic in front of old people in a nursing home. Most of the audience is suffering from dementia, but I am warned they are strangely quick-eyed in seeing through tricks. It is rumored they are trained nightly by particular owls to see through the darkness. If only I could regain my voice, I might distract their attention by my mumbo jumbo.

I wonder, however, if we should always expect replies to our letters. Emily Dickinson wisely stored in her small casket the letters to her ‘Master,’ which has kept the world in perpetual suspense and contemplation. Thinking I might perhaps have forgotten to mail my letter, I rummaged all drawers of my desk and cabinet—in vain. There’s no doubt that I posted it—the letter is in my brain.

*Excerpt from “Kojiki” (trans. by Danno), the oldest collection of songs and stories concerning the founding of Japan and the beginnings of Japanese culture, compiled in the 8th century.