Martin Rock

On Forgetting My Tongue in Japan


Not that I left it in someone else’s mouth
or severed like a shelled mollusk
but when the words of my first language
became less available I wondered
if the fish in my salt water tank
could be returned safely to the ocean

if the tinkerer’s cat would know what to do
with the wings attached
to her shoulder blades and if, after flight,
she would remember how to walk again.

Is it better to strut
in one’s own backyard or to stumble
through unfamiliar halls
on someone else’s feet?

Where flight is admired it is resented
and always in Japan
I am as anomalous as a cat with wings.


There are gaijin who have spent decades
here and haven’t made the switch

those whose tongues have begun to dissolve
without replacement whose open mouths

reveal maladroit stubs like parrot tongues
though parrots after a year can talk

about the weather or earn their keep at a bar
which makes me think of the Mynah bird

outside Starbucks by Sanjo Bridge who sits
and talks to passersby

repeats the phrase “sugoi ne! sugoi ne!”
which translates roughly to “isn’t it great!”

And all the passersby agree “yes!”
“it is great!” “Sugoooooooiii!” they say “sugoi!”

But I don’t see the greatness in a bird
with a few catch phrases who knows nothing

of conjugation not to mention the whole gamut
of forms relating to social hierarchy

(in which I sometimes feel I am below the bird)
the thousands of kanji and three

separate alphabets. Or maybe the mynah
is a cynic like the rest of us

which makes me wish that I could also
as a kind of hoax do nothing but repeat

its mantra about how great it all is
and look at me here jealous of a talking bird.


If we agree with Wittgenstein
(which in this case at least we do)
language is the cage and the door
is open and the Mynah is right
about all that greatness even though
at times I’d rather put him in a pie
than admit it and another truth which by now
you might have guessed is that I’ve not
lost my tongue entirely and flown
from one cage to the next although the other day

I forgot the word for jidouhanbaiki
until I pointed it out to a friend and she said
“vending machine” pulling the word
from a shelf in the aisle marked “machines”
right there in bright bold letters in her mind
but then “vending machine” is a good first word
to forget compared with “expand” or
“pneumonia” or “Creole”

which is how the wallpaper
of my mind has been shaping up recently
words bumping into each other and
grammars mingling in the corners so that
“as for this heya for which the te-buru ga
ookisugi daneeh” makes more sense to me than
“The table is too big for the room”
and now I’ve got the department
of language working overtime

while the center for a better tomorrow
is losing ground
and it seems that it would be a good time
to go back to America

and all its problems where I may just be a guy
in search of a cage to call home
but at least people won’t look at me
like a talking bird
if I choose to smile and nod my head
and say Ohio.

Martin Rock is the author of Residuum (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, winner of 2015 Editor’s Choice Award) and the chapbooks Dear Mark (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013) and Fish, You Bird (Pilot, 2010, co-written with Phillip D. Ischy). With Kevin Prufer and Martha Collins, he co-edited the critical volume Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life and Work of an American Master. He holds an MFA from New York University and is a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at University of Houston. He lives in Oakland, where he is Associate Director of Communications at the Exploratorium. You can find out more, here: