Topaz, Brian Komei Dempster’s debut poetry collection, examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. This volume delves into the lasting intergenerational impact of imprisonment and breaks a cultural legacy of silence. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history.
“Storm Breaks,” from Topaz:
Every war begins somewhere. The boundaries
are me: my face. smile. language. my job. No matter what I did
your father thought I was crossing him. Between
your apartment and mine, we stood a breath
apart, your mouth a border shutting out
gentler words. I grabbed you by the T-shirt
like a bag of rice, you pushed me back, a ball of heat
enveloping us. When a forest ignites, balding the hills,
who lit the match, who flung it into the bed
of pine needles? Out the accusations came, armed
like soldiers barring the way, backing me into your corner,
You never bring flowers to the house. You haven’t even learned
to pronounce my parents’ names. You don’t ever bow
and speak to my father in Korean. And I, half-Japanese,
barely able to speak the first language of my own mother,
Fuck no, I don’t understand. I kicked over
my bottle of Old English, making shards
and gold foam. Not you. Not your father. Cicada hum
through razed fields. Fists filled electric
from our earlier lovemaking. Clouds varicosed with lightning, close
to releasing. I want him to say my name, speak to me
in English. I ignored the siren’s tornado warning. When your collar
ripped, I held on. Your face divided, one half
in lamplight, the other fluttering with diamond-shadows
of elm leaves. Over forty years ago. In Korea. A woman held
down. Her dress pulled up. A Japanese soldier inside. The soles
of our shoes are sticky with liquor, crunching
on broken glass. What could I do? A great aunt.
A grandmother. Your father’s mother? You wouldn’t tell me.
The siren’s next blare. My chest tightened. I looked
down at our feet, the tips of our shoes touched, squashing
the tuft of grass sprouting from the sidewalk’s jagged
fault. Where was I? Who told your father? Did he tell you?
A man’s grunts, a woman’s screams. Static claws
the air, sounds become foreign. Sheaves
of barley, frozen soil. Rain falls into
asphalt’s divide, our black hair damp, cicadas quieted. Beneath
elms, your ribs’ gentle quaking, skies webbing us
with tangled light. When I look back through storm-fire,
we are huddled close, smoldering.
“In Brian Komei Dempster’s debut volume Topaz, named after the Japanese American internment camp where his maternal family was unjustly incarcerated during WW II, there are three overlapping worlds enfolded like petals of a vari-colored blossom… He writes from a sere piety, from eros burgeoning even under the shadow of a sorrowful history, from love of a wife and son, from his life as a caretaker in the temple of his heroic maternal grandfather, a Buddhist priest. In a voice thickened with stoical regret, from a body charged with sexuality and grief, Brian Komei Dempster writes a poetry like no other’s.” —Garrett Hongo
“Topaz is a significant and moving addition to one of the oldest and most firmly rooted of literary genres—the quest…. Dempster brings to his quest both a gravitas of tone and an arsenal of poetic skills mastered through his long apprenticeship in the art of poetry.” —Richard Tillinghast
“…Several cherished relics fraught with family history (letters between grandparents during their enforced separation; a steamer trunk that serves literally as a crib for generations; a military jacket; a jade necklace) help to reify a connection that resonates in the imagination as palpably as their weight is felt against the flesh. This is a truly eye-opening debut by a promising poet.” —J. Allyn Rosser
“But my favorite poems are the eight that are quite sparse, poems like ‘Topaz,’ ‘Sheer,’ and ‘Pearl.’ These minimalistic poems linger, like those fragments of memory that all of us try so desperately to hold on to as time passes and events are drawn further back into the past. These are the poems that Dempster uses to pull the narrative of his own family together. And these are the poems that hold the collection together in a place that is solid and grounded, grounded in family and history, suffering and love.” Read the full review.
“This is a book of astounding richness, one which deserves multiple re-readings. Like the gemstone of its title, it reveals new beauty with every new examination.”
“Topaz moves gracefully, almost seamlessly, between ruminations of his maternal family’s experiences in detention and his own questions about who he is and what implications his family’s history may have on his own.” Read the full review.
“Intimacy in the face of terror is one of the great gifts of language. Nothing is more intimate than home, the place where love lives, strains, and endures. Family and memory are durable, sustaining, despite the long hatchet of history. We know this, but poetry has a special way of reminding how important and necessary communication is. Language and memory are the twin roots connecting us to both people and place, and Dempster’s collection is a sobering reminder of how fragile and powerful those roots are.” Read the full review.
“Against this history, Dempster tells stories of his family: his grandfather painting and performing rites, his grandmother writing between kitchen chores, an uncle who died in the Korean War and another who died of cancer. He watches his father brush his mother’s hair. He watches himself clasp a jade necklace on his wife’s neck. In recounting these devotions through the fractures of history, he finds an identity shaped by traumas he did not directly experience and asks what it means to love.” Read the full review.