Juliet S. Kono
From “Hilo Rains,” Republished with Permission

Editor’s note: “Hilo Rains,” Juliet Kono Lee’s first book of poetry, was published in 1988 by Bamboo Ridge Press. The poems draw on Kono’s and her family’s experiences in Hilo, recalling plantation life, World War II blackouts, the 1946 tsunami and other aspects of the Japanese American experience. In 1995, Bamboo Ridge published Kono’s second volume of poems, titled “Tsunami Years.” The Hawai‘i Herald thanks Juliet Kono Lee and Bamboo Ridge Press for allowing us to share her moving poems with our readers.


She memorizes the Pledge of Allegiance,
the Star-Spangled Banner.
Everything Japanese is buried:
her Buddha, the Rising Sun, family pictures.
She makes a garden on this mound
and all the days of war, she tends silence.
But late at night, she shakes off
the dead leaves of her reticence
and rising from the garden of her voices,
I hear her whisper,
“Sanae, Sanae, we are Nihonjin,
never forget that!”


Sun-bleached houses
of Shin-machi line one end
of Hilo Bay
like crooked teeth.
Sampans creak and mar
the stillness of this
unsuspecting fishing village.
But soon sea birds take flight,
lecture their premonitions.
Groups of silence
spring to attention.

Curious, we bite
into the porch railing
with our bellies
and watch the tide recede.
Sleep-loosened hair
caresses our faces,
the morning air.
We hear a rumble far off;
something’s coming in.
And before we know it,
a tsunami has us walled in.
The warnings come too late.
We children are hurriedly piggy-backed
by Aunt Miyoko and Mother.
Father rushes out
to start his Model-T.

Namu Amida Butsu.
Mother puts her hands together
in gassho. Water curls
above us like a tongue
lashing; it breaks apart the house.
The kitchen tansu crashes
With Mother’s wedding china.
We lose sight of Grandmother.
We head out for the car
but we never make it.
We all link hands.
Reminded to breathe deeply,
warned to never let go,
we all go under.

The wave’s force shoves us
this way and that.
Our miki neko drowns
clawing the last shriek
of the house. Things
sink in this widening mouth of water
foraging for the young and old,
those weak on their feet,
or in their will.
Life burdens us.
It seems easier to give up
and die. But when air bursts
into our lungs we grow hopeful.
We cling to things we can grasp.
We float with debris
and bodies whose whitened
and astonished faces
all look familiar.
We retch and gasp.

The tsunami tries three times
to gulp us into the mouth
of its watery womb.
Exhausted, finally,
the water subsides and ebbs
once more
mindful only of the moon.
The aftermath leaves people
dazed and horrified.

Flies come in hordes
to taste death.
People come to claim the bloated
bodies of relatives and friends.
Scavenger crabs run about
picking at flesh,
delighting in this new abundance,
while people collapse
in the solemn stench
of putting things to right.


The house has
no paint on its walls.
Wind whistles through
cracks of
mismatched planks.

There is no ceiling.
I look up
to the underside
of a rusted iron roof
supported by

rough-cut beams.
From the porch,
I look down
a sloping canefield
into which

the family men
disappear daily
until dusk. Beyond
the fields stands
Wainaku Sugar Mill;

and beyond that,
tiny Waiakea Village,
facing Hilo Bay.
I sit for

hours staring:
through trees
toward the henhouse
where on its roof
on sunny days

Grandma places
heavy futons to air,
while high-wheeling
Hawaiian hawks
look down

for stray hens;
at the Otas’ house,
surrounded by
wild peach trees,
two enormous

rain tanks
and old, rusted plows,
fingers gaffing the air.
Toward evening,
we women wait

with sewing
on our open laps,
for the parting
of cane to occur
within the fields.

It would announce
men back
from work.
But often,
the weather is bad.

Winds send
rain cascading
sideways across the land,
rippling cane tassels,
dropping nearly-

ripened fruit,
sending in the warm
odor of manure,
of burnt sugar cane,
and the slow fog,

while we keep watch,
swinging our lanterns,
yellow beacons
to guide home
the tired cane-men.


Woman of no recourse,
she hopes Nature
stands on her side
the last years
of formal womanhood,
but it is cruel even now.
At forty-eight,
she conceives another child.
There is no mistaking
the signs. In their green
wholesomeness, napa cabbages
in her garden turn up
their cloned heads to mock her
double chin, sagging breasts
and flattened buttocks.

Exhausted of motherhood,
she goes about the camp
inquiring “ways.”
Other women refer her
to people who may consider it.
Prices she cannot afford to pay.
This leads her
to rely on
old wives’ tales:
the golden ring
riding a horse,
binding the navel,
drinking pomegranate juice.

Afraid for this child,
she lets it stay.


The grocery vendor
from Kawamoto General Store
blows his horn
and Grandma, Grandpa, and I
spill like rice from the house,
shuffle into the unsurfaced road,
crunch the loose lava cinders
like rice crackers,
thinking of things to buy.

The vendor greets us with a bow,
and opens his truck
of smelly imported goods.
Not tempted, Grandma goes
down her list carefully selecting
only things she needs:
Hatada bread, soda-mizu, grape jelly,
candles and incense for the altar,
and some rock candy for me.
I stare from under Dutch-cut
bangs nearly covering my eyes.

The vendor talks story with Grandpa.
Grandma pays the bill.
The vendor bows again
when accepting the money,
then figures change on his soroban.
After securing his truck,
the vendor bows again
as if in apology
or gratitude — one cannot tell.

Grandpa walks ahead.
Grandma follows
carrying the packages.
Opa me, Grandpa, opa me.”
I beg to be carried.

So he squats,
swings me on his shoulders,
and seats me on top of our world.
I turn to wave
at the vendor’s truck
writhing in the dust,
then to Grandma,
her old ways,


I hear the music
ride the updraft
in this valley.
It is not yours. You are thumbing
your way to the North Shore:
being dropped off
at Left Overs
or Thompson’s Corner, first,
before making your way down;
shouldering a radio,
smothering the speaker
in your ear —
the one with the gold star
that glints and steals
studs of moonlight
when your hair whips
away from your face.
I can see the wide
swagger of your body
as it moves.
Shadows of firm bones.
They hold your body
across roads as each
lean and tall muscle
ripples you forward
in your dark, good health —
each sinew curved,
warm as sun.
You live so far
from what connects you.
You have no recollection
of old plantation towns,
of rains that plummeted
like the sheaves of cane,
the song of flumes,
the stink of rotting feet,
the indignities of hard labor.
Your blood runs free
from the redness of soil.
But your zoris
are caked with mud,
your dreams mixed in sun,
wild surf, and turbulent air.
And yet once a year
you come with me
in your dark brooding —
like a craving —
to visit the ancestors’
gravesites to pray.
You say nothing
about being held
to these traditions.
You pray, bow and
burn incense. You travel backward in time
for a brief moment
and say dutiful words,
do the respectful gestures
and I know that
in my longest sleep
you would come
and I would not want.


Thanks to a seed money preservation grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities and support from Kapi‘olani Community College, Juliet Kono Lee ’s “Hilo Rains” is among five out-of-print Bamboo Ridge Press issues that have been digitized and posted on the site until more authors are contacted for their permission. A total of 23 issues have already been digitized; however, Bamboo Ridge Press needs to contact the authors whose works appeared in past issues to get their permission to share their works online. Please contact BR through the website and share your contact information.

The digitized works will be introduced at a celebration set for Thursday, Feb. 13, from 4:40 to 6:30 p.m. in KCC’s Lama Library. The digitized versions of out-of-print and nearly out-of print BR issues will be housed on KCC’s computer server, which the public can access. The ambitious project represents a partnership between Bamboo Ridge, the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities and KCC.

The celebration program will include a talk by University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa anthropology professor Dr. Christine Yano titled, “Bamboo Ridge Goes Digital: Locating Genealogical Futures.” Bamboo Ridge’s founding editors, Darrell Lum and Eric Chock, and Bamboo Ridge writers Juliet Kono Lee and Wing Tek Lum will share their insights on the past, present and the future of Bamboo Ridge.

In the meantime, check out more of Juliet Kono Lee’s fabulous writing at:



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