Soak in a hot bath; arrange my futuristic hair, then, the futon & the cushioned tatami. Cut orchids, cut fruit. Set the table for plenty, (but there is only one of me). And here you come— a cricket’s dance in the woods— in a fog-colored zoot suit. Your eyes are red & bleary. I am practicing good purity. I do not get angry. But here comes my father with the tiger’s claw. He paces and frets; I get no rest. The caged animal must be released. Here comes my mother with the serpent’s touch. I know the dim mak: the touch of death, I know the softness of the temples, the groin, the heart. Here come my sisters with the lizard’s tongue to expel the secret in a moment’s hiss. But they are slow on their haunches. I shall strike first. The weir-basket was a snare; the fish within were dying. You promised me fresh fish. You promised unconditional love and providence. Here comes my brother with the ox’s heart to explain the world in a plum’s pit. He is not your kind. You don’t understand his plight; nor does he your fomenting silence. Tiger’s claw, serpent’s touch, lizard’s tongue, ox’s heart. The caged animal is released. I believe in the touch of life. I shall keep my secret always. Although you have lost your way, you have never forsaken me. you have been whole. you have been good.
From Dwarf Bamboo. Copyright © 1987 by Marilyn Chin. Used with the permission of the author.
Grandpa shrugged when the feds at the kitchen door said the pigpen weeds were marijuana, and they were there to cut them down and burn them. “Got lots more weeds—feel free to cut them, too.” Marijuana was in the news a lot when I first heard this story. Mom and I laughed at her father’s innocence, briefly united in patronizing parents. Years later when she told it, she paused and added, “But Dad did have terrible arthritis in his hands, and I wouldn’t bet he didn’t know what he had growing there.” And suddenly I saw the wooden box with the slotted roller in the top, cigarette rolling machine, the knob we’d turn to send a crayon down to the waiting tray. Of course everybody rolled their own in the Depression, nothing damning there. But I felt history cough, twist in my hand, watched my solid mother grow translucent, capable of recasting legend, fact. The last time I heard it, she concluded, “And you know, I wouldn’t care to bet it wasn’t my mother who called those agents in.”
Copyright © 2017 Susan Blackwell Ramsey. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Summer 2017.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
This poem originally appeared in Waxwing, Issue 10, in June 2016. Used with permission of the author.
It’s four in the morning.
I’m ten years old.
I’m beating my mother between the mirror and the shoe rack.
The front door is ajar. A bridge
presses its finger to the frozen strip of water.
Snow falls over it gritting like sand on glass.
Both of us in our long nightgowns.
I stare into her earring hole and aim
at her large breasts not to hurt my knuckles.
I slap her face like I flip through channels.
My father lies at the door. From his shirt
lipstick smiles at me with the warmth of urine.
It’s as if somebody threw at him slices
of skinned grapefruit.
Every time she hits him—I hit her.
Look at this. Look whom you’ve bred.
How can he see from under his pink vomit.
But his body smiles—
cannot stop smiling.
From Collected Body. Copyright © 2011 by Valzhyna Mort. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved.
In the steamer is the trout seasoned with slivers of ginger, two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil. We shall eat it with rice for lunch, brothers, sister, my mother who will taste the sweetest meat of the head, holding it between her fingers deftly, the way my father did weeks ago. Then he lay down to sleep like a snow-covered road winding through pines older than him, without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
Li-Young Lee, "Eating Together" from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.
When I came back, he was gone. My mother was in the bathroom crying, my sister in her crib restless but asleep. The sun was shining in the bay window, the grass had not been cut. No one mentioned the other woman, nights he spent in that stranger's house. I sat at my desk and wrote him a note. When my mother saw his name on the sheet of paper, she asked me to leave the house. When she spoke, her voice was like a whisper to someone else, her hand a weight on my arm I could not feel. In the evening, though, I opened the door and saw a thousand houses just like ours. I thought I was the one who was leaving, and behind me I heard my mother's voice asking me to stay. But I was thirteen and wishing I were a man I listened to no one, and no words from a woman I loved were strong enough to make me stop.
From Palm Reading In Winter by Ira Sadoff, published by Houghton Mifflin. Copyright © 1978 by Ira Sadoff. Used by permission of the author.
I was a caring husband. I bought socks for my family.
My swarthy wife liked to wear these thick woolen socks that came up to her milky thighs.
I had a lover also. People could see me walking around each evening carrying a walking stick.
My most vivid memory, looking back, is of a pink froth bubbling out of my infant's mouth.
Not everything was going so well: one morning, malnourished soldiers marched down our tiny street, bringing good news.
When good news arrives by mail, the cuckoo sang, tear up the envelope. When good news arrives by e-mail, destroy the computer.
When an old friend came by to reclaim an old wound, I said to my oldest son: Go dump daddy's ammo boxes into the fragrant river.
To reduce drag, some of my neighbors were diving headfirst into a shallow lake.
We were rich and then we were poor. A small dog or maybe a cat now pulls our family wagon.
From Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry, edited and translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover. Copyright © 2008 by Linh Dihn. Used by permission of Milkweed Editions. All rights reserved.
Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners, but can't leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes what she passes is green as grass. There are big holes in my thigh where my leg brace buckles the size of dimes. My head pounds from the high pressure. It is awful not to be able to get out, and I fell in the bathroom and the girl could hardly get me up at all. Sure thought my back was broken, it will be next time. Prostate is bad and heart has given out, feel bloated after supper. Have made my peace because am just plain done for and have no doubt that the Lord will come any day with my release. You say you enjoy your feeder, I don't see why you want to spend good money on grain for birds and you say you have a hundred sparrows, I'd buy poison and get rid of their diseases and turds.
We enjoyed your visit, it was nice of you to bring the feeder but a terrible waste of your money for that big bag of feed since we won't be living more than a few weeks long. We can see them good from where we sit, big ones and little ones but you know when I farmed I used to like to hunt and we had many a good meal from pigeons and quail and pheasant but these birds won't be good for nothing and are dirty to have so near the house. Mother likes the redbirds though. My bad knee is so sore and I can't hardly hear and Mother says she is hoarse from yelling but I know it's too late for a hearing aid. I belch up all the time and have a sour mouth and of course with my heart it's no use to go to a doctor. Mother is the same. Has a scab she thinks is going to turn to a wart.
The birds are eating and fighting, Ha! Ha! All shapes and colors and sizes coming out of our woods but we don't know what they are. Your Mother hopes you can send us a kind of book that tells about birds. There is one the folks called snowbirds, they eat on the ground, we had the girl sprinkle extra there, but say, they eat something awful. I sent the girl to town to buy some more feed, she had to go anyway.
Almost called you on the telephone but it costs so much to call thought better write. Say, the funniest thing is happening, one day we had so many birds and they fight and get excited at their feed you know and it's really something to watch and two or three flew right at us and crashed into our window and bang, poor little things knocked themselves silly. They come to after while on the ground and flew away. And they been doing that. We felt awful and didn't know what to do but the other day a lady from our Church drove out to call and a little bird knocked itself out while she sat and she bought it in her hands right into the house, it looked like dead. It had a kind of hat of feathers sticking up on its head, kind of rose or pinky color, don't know what it was, and I petted it and it come to life right there in her hands and she took it out and it flew. She says they think the window is the sky on a fair day, she feeds birds too but hasn't got so many. She says to hang strips of aluminum foil in the window so we'll do that. She raved about our birds. P.S. The book just come in the mail.
Say, that book is sure good, I study in it every day and enjoy our birds. Some of them I can't identify for sure, I guess they're females, the Latin words I just skip over. Bet you'd never guess the sparrow I've got here, House Sparrow you wrote, but I have Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, Pine Woods and Tree and Chipping and White Throat and White Crowned Sparrows. I have six Cardinals, three pairs, they come at early morning and night, the males at the feeder and on the ground the females. Juncos, maybe 25, they fight for the ground, that's what they used to call snowbirds. I miss the Bluebirds since the weather warmed. Their breast is the color of a good ripe muskmelon. Tufted Titmouse is sort of blue with a little tiny crest. And I have Flicker and Red-Bellied and Red- Headed Woodpeckers, you would die laughing to see Red-Bellied, he hangs on with his head flat on the board, his tail braced up under, wing out. And Dickcissel and Ruby Crowned Kinglet and Nuthatch stands on his head and Veery on top the color of a bird dog and Hermit Thrush with spot on breast, Blue Jay so funny, he will hop right on the backs of the other birds to get the grain. We bought some sunflower seeds just for him. And Purple Finch I bet you never seen, color of a watermelon, sits on the rim of the feeder with his streaky wife, and the squirrels, you know, they are cute too, they sit tall and eat with their little hands, they eat bucketfuls. I pulled my own tooth, it didn't bleed at all.
It's sure a surprise how well Mother is doing, she forgets her laxative but bowels move fine. Now that windows are open she says our birds sing all day. The girl took a Book of Knowledge on loan from the library and I am reading up on the habits of birds, did you know some males have three wives, some migrate some don't. I am going to keep feeding all spring, maybe summer, you can see they expect it. Will need thistle seed for Goldfinch and Pine Siskin next winter. Some folks are going to come see us from Church, some bird watchers, pretty soon. They have birds in town but nothing to equal this. So the world woos its children back for an evening kiss.
From Letters From a Father and Other Poems, by Mona Van Duyn, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1982 by Mona Van Duyn. Used with permission.