The Game of 100 Ghosts
smoke in a forest fire
settled and everyone sat
a circle of candles.
So begins Terry Watada’s The Game of 100 Ghosts, a book of poems inspired by a Japanese tradition known as Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. As Watada describes in the excerpt above, participants gather in a circle lighting one hundred candles and relate tales of loved ones who have passed on. After each tale, a candle is snuffed out, and when the final tale is told, those gathered in the circle await a visitation of a spirit. Watada imagines himself gathered around this circle, relating stories of loved ones, invoking the spirit of the game while staying true to traditional poetic techniques.
By far the most prominent poetic technique is enjambment, whereby a poet continues their thought onto the next line without proper punctuation. For example, in the poem “the last dream," Watada ponders the notion of whether or not his mother or father dreamt one last time:
did he dream a
dream? did okasan
in her coma? did
in the ambulance on
to the morgue?
dark thinking eyes closed
for the last time
Such a technique allows us to see that Watada’s thoughts are running together, as if his mind is in disarray following the death of his mother and father. Nearly every poem employs this technique signifying that Watada’s remembrances of his family do not come easy; it is a difficult game to play and the disorganized, tangled thoughts that run together emphasize this struggle.
Along with enjambment, Watada masterfully employs empty spaces, often eliminating stanzas altogether, furthering the sense of loss and emptiness that comes with death. It is in the poem, “those were the days of roses, of poetry & prose and” that Watada showcases this unique technique. In the poem, Watada’s friend, Roy, is saying goodbye as he lies dying, and soon the images of their youth spring to mind—images of clubs and women and songs. And then Roy utters:
"I’ll talk to you soon," he said with faint hope
sigh, bent over and perhaps
The empty spaces, along with the content of the message make it feel as though the reader, too, is falling just like Roy, who comes to the painful realization that his life was not everything it was meant to be. This sense of loss, emptiness, and despair is emphasized throughout 100 Ghosts, and Watada’s use of enjambment and empty spaces represent grief and emptiness beautifully.
For these reasons, The Game of 100 Ghosts may be too grim for some, and it’s true: Many of the poems resonate with a deep sadness that is difficult to overcome. As Watada himself relates in "A Period of Glowing Life and [Happy]-ness," however, his job is something more: “the longer I / live the more life / takes / away. / I remain its chronicler.” Watada sees himself as a symbolic "Speaker for the Dead," to borrow a phrase from Orson Scott Card, bringing the dead back to life through his words. And while much of the tone is somber, there is a sense that, by remembering the dead, the poet reaches a sense of catharsis. The Game of 100 Ghosts is as much for those who have passed on as it is for Watada, who uses his poetry to alleviate some of the pain and trials of losing a loved one. This is a very moving and understandable prospect, and seen from this light, the somberness of the poems disappears.
In fact, it is this personal touch that gives the poem’s more significance. Watada dedicates the poems to three people—his brother Hideki, close friend, Mike Shin, and his son, lovingly called "Bunji"—all of whom have passed on. His mother, father, and grandfather also have poems dedicated to them as well, and their inclusion feels necessary given the premise of the book; we can imagine ourselves sitting in the circle of candles with Watada as he talks of his dearly departed family members—both a grieving and healing process.
The Game of 100 Ghosts concludes with “A Visitation,” where the final candle is snuffed out and Watada sees the visage of his brother, who speaks of his life, his regrets, and the peace that he has found on the other side. But in the end, it is not the ghosts who achieve peace, it is the poet himself: “[Last night I dreamed / I was running, dragging the wind / along with strong arms].” And so too, Terry Watada succeeds, dragging—or to use a better word, carrying—the wind, the spirits of his family, into the afterlife. They can rest in peace now, but so too can Watada, whose strong voice (his arms) give the departed a kind of second life—their own brightly lit candle.
The Game of 100 Ghosts may be a somber requiem of life and death, but it is deeply rooted in traditional Japanese tales, familial ties, and established poetic techniques. It is a book as much about tradition, family, and love as it is about death and mourning. Each poem is like a candle, each tale (like our lives) as brief and fragile as a flame, and though it may be extinguished, we may live on in the memory of the people who loved us. Watada reassures us that we can measure ourselves against the coming darkness with the light of our words—a lone candle in the dark.
Cardoso is a writer of science fiction, comedy, and sometimes both. He has published one essay and graduated from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in English.