What I’ve written for you, I have always written
in English, my language of silent vowel endings
never translated into your language of silent h’s.
Lo que he escrito para ti, siempre lo he escrito
en inglés, en mi lengua llena de vocales mudas
nunca traducidas a tu idioma de haches mudas.
I’ve transcribed all your old letters into poems
that reconcile your exile from Cuba, but always
in English. I’ve given you back the guajiro roads
you left behind, stretched them into sentences
punctuated with palms, but only in English.
He transcrito todas tus cartas viejas en poemas
que reconcilian tu exilio de Cuba, pero siempre
en inglés. Te he devuelto los caminos guajiros
que dejastes atrás, transformados en oraciones
puntuadas por palmas, pero solamente en inglés.
I have recreated the pueblecito you had to forget,
forced your green mountains up again, grown
valleys of sugarcane, stars for you in English.
He reconstruido el pueblecito que tuvistes que olvidar,
he levantado de nuevo tus montañas verdes, cultivado
la caña, las estrellas de tus valles, para ti, en inglés.
In English I have told you how I love you cutting
gladiolas, crushing ajo, setting cups of dulce de leche
on the counter to cool, or hanging up the laundry
at night under our suburban moon. In English,
En inglés te he dicho cómo te amo cuando cortas
gladiolas, machacas ajo, enfrías tacitas de dulce de leche
encima del mostrador, o cuando tiendes la ropa
de noche bajo nuestra luna en suburbia. En inglés
I have imagined you surviving by transforming
yards of taffeta into dresses you never wear,
keeping Papá’s photo hinged in your mirror,
and leaving the porch light on, all night long.
He imaginado como sobrevives transformando
yardas de tafetán en vestidos que nunca estrenas,
la foto de papá que guardas en el espejo de tu cómoda,
la luz del portal que dejas encendida, toda la noche.
Te he captado en inglés en la mesa de la cocina
esperando que cuele el café, que hierva la leche
y que tu vida acostumbre a tu vida. En inglés
has aprendido a adorer tus pérdidas igual que yo.
I have captured you in English at the kitchen table
waiting for the café to brew, the milk to froth,
and your life to adjust to your life. In English
you’ve learned to adore your losses the way I do.
What remains of my childhood
are the fragmentary visions
of large patios
like an oceanic green mist over the afternoon.
Then, crickets would forge in the wind
their deep music of centuries
and the purple fragrances of Grandmother
always would receive without questions
our return home.
The hammock shivering in the breeze
like the trembling voice of light at dusk,
the unforeseeable future
that would never exist without Mother,
the Tall tales that filled
with their most engaging lunar weight our days
—all those unchangeable things—
were the morning constellations
that we would recognize daily without sadness.
In the tropical days we had no intuition of the winter
nor of autumn, that often returns with pain
in the shadows of this new territory
—like the cold moving through our shivering hands—
that I have learned to accept
in the same way you welcome
the uncertainty of a false and cordial smile.
Those were the days of the solstice
when the wind pushed the smoke from the clay ovens
through the zinc kitchens
and the ancient stone stoves
of the secrets of our barefooted and wise Indian ancestors.
The beautiful, unformed rocks in our hands
that served as detailed toys
seemed to give us the illusion
of fantastic events
that invaded our joyful chants
with infinite color.
It was a life without seasonal pains,
a life without unredeemable time
a life without the somber dark shadows
that have intently translated my life
that slowly move today through my soul.
De mi infancia solo quedan
las visiones fragmentarias
de los patios tendidos
como un naval terciopelo sobre la tarde.
Entonces, los grillos cuajaban sobre el aire
su profunda música de siglos
y las fragancias empurpuradas de la abuela
meciéndose en la noche
siempre recibían sin preguntas nuestra vuelta al hogar.
La hamaca temblando con la brisa,
como la voz trémula del sol en el ocaso;
el futuro imprevisible
que jamás existiría sin la madre;
cargadas de su peso lunar más devorador;
—todas esas cosas inalterables—
eran las constelaciones diurnas que reconocíamos sin tristeza.
Entonces no se intuía el invierno,
ni el otoño que retoña con dolor
entre las sombras de este territorio
—como el frío entre las manos doblegadas—
que hoy he aprendido
de la misma forma en que se acepta
la incertidumbre de una falsa sonrisa.
Eran los días en que el solsticio
acarreaba humaredas polvorientas
por las ventanas de las cocinas de zinc
donde el fogón de barro milenario
el secreto de nuestros ancestros sabios y descalzos.
Las rocas deformes en nuestras manos
la ilusión de eventos fabulosos
que invadían nuestras gargantas de aromas desmedidos.
Era una vida sin dolores estacionales
Vida sin tiempos irredimibles:
Vida sin las puras formas sombrías
que se resbalan hoy lentamente por mi pecho.
She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.
I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.
In Mexico and Latin America, celebrating one's Saint's day instead of one's birthday is common. I was born in Nogales, Arizona, On the border between Mexico and the United States. The places in between places They are like little countries Themselves, with their own holidays Taken a little from everywhere. My Fourth of July is from childhood, Childhood itself a kind of country, too. It's a place that's far from me now, A place I'd like to visit again. The Fourth of July takes me there. In that childhood place and border place The Fourth of July, like everything else, It meant more than just one thing. In the United States the Fourth of July It was the United States. In Mexico it was the día de los Refugios, The saint's day of people named Refugio. I come from a family of people with names, Real names, not-afraid names, with colors Like the fireworks: Refugio, Margarito, Matilde, Alvaro, Consuelo, Humberto, Olga, Celina, Gilberto. Names that take a moment to say, Names you have to practice. These were the names of saints, serious ones, And it was right to take a moment with them. I guess that's what my family thought. The connection to saints was strong: My grandmother's name—here it comes— Her name was Refugio, And my great-grandmother's name was Refugio, And my mother-in-law's name now, It's another Refugio, Refugios everywhere, Refugios and shrimp cocktails and sodas. Fourth of July was a birthday party For all the women in my family Going way back, a party For everything Mexico, where they came from, For the other words and the green Tinted glasses my great-grandmother wore. These women were me, What I was before me, So that birthday fireworks in the evening, All for them, This seemed right. In that way the fireworks were for me, too. Still, we were in the United States now, And the Fourth of July, Well, it was the Fourth of July. But just what that meant, In this border place and time, it was a matter of opinion in my family.
My ancestors are made with water—
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;
when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.
Our mothers burn with a fire
that does not let them be;
they whisper our names
nomenclatures of invisibility
honey-dewed faces, eyes sewn shut,
how to tell them
the sorrow that splits us in half
the longing for a land not our own
the constant moving and shifting of things,
which words describe
the clenching in our stomachs
the fear lodged deeply into our bones
churning us from within,
and the loss that follows us everywhere:
behind mountains, past oceans, into
the heads of trees, how to swallow
a tongue that speaks with too many accents—
when white faces sprout
we are told to set ourselves ablaze
and this smell of smoke we know—
water or fire, or both,
because we have drowned many at a time
and left our bodies burning, or swollen, or bleeding
and purple—this kind of language we know,
naming new things into our invisibility
and this, we too, call home.
A crate of peaches straight from the farm
has to be maintained, or eaten in days.
Obvious, but in my family, they went so fast,
I never saw the mess that punishes delay.
I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,
stored it in the coolest part of the house,
then devoured it before any could rot.
I’m from the Peach State, and to those
who ask But where are you from originally,
I’d like to reply The homeland of the peach,
but I’m too nice, and they might not look it up.
In truth, the reason we bought so much
did have to do with being Chinese—at least
Chinese in that part of America, both strangers
and natives on a lonely, beautiful street
where food came in stackable containers
and fussy bags, unless you bothered to drive
to the source, where the same money landed
a bushel of fruit, a twenty-pound sack of rice.
You had to drive anyway, each house surrounded
by land enough to grow your own, if lawns
hadn’t been required. At home I loved to stare
into the extra freezer, reviewing mountains
of foil-wrapped meats, cakes, juice concentrate,
mysterious packets brought by house guests
from New York Chinatown, to be transformed
by heat, force, and my mother’s patient effort,
enough to keep us fed through flood or storm,
provided the power stayed on, or fire and ice
could be procured, which would be labor-intensive,
but so was everything else my parents did.
Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids,
who grew up to confuse work with pleasure,
to become typical immigrants’ children,
taller than their parents and unaware of hunger
except when asked the odd, perplexing question.
Mother fetches the fruit from the mango grove
behind closed bamboo.
Rips its paper-leather cover during midday recess,
before English class, describes their dance
peaches plums cantaloupes before my first-world
eyes. When the sun blazed on the dust,
she let the mellifluous fluids
fall on her assignment books.
Where the mangos were first planted, mother,
an infant, hid under gravel
swaddled by Lola, my grandmother,
after my mother’s aunt and uncle
were tied to the trunk
by the Japanese. Mother and daughter living off
fallen mangos, the pits planted in darkness,
before I was born.
We left the Philippines
for California dodging
U.S. Customs with the forbidden fruit,
thinking who’d deprive mother of her mangos.
Head down, my father denies that we have perishable
foods, waving passports in the still air,
motioning for us
to proceed towards the terminal.
Behind a long line of travelers,
my sisters surround mother
like shoji screens as she hides the newspaper-covered
fruit between her legs. Mangos sleeping
in the hammock of her skirt, a brilliant batik
billowing from the motion
of airline caddies pushing suitcases
on metal carts.
We walk around mother
forming a crucifix where she was center.
On the plane as we cross time zones, mom unwraps
her ripe mangos, the ones from the tree Lola planted
before she gave birth to my mother,
the daughter that left home to be a nurse
in the States,
who’d marry a Filipino navy man
and have three children of her own. Mother eating
the fruit whose juices rain
over deserts and cornfields.
—after Czeslaw Milosz Let’s say he actually did not arrive on a boat— that the relentless colonel never found his subtle throat hidden under the trance of the clave or thunder hands that spoke repiques of those crimes Let’s say he went to Nueva York on the assumption Mario Bauzá Machito or Tito (Rodríguez or Puente) could make his legs & hips move in a constellation of joy Let’s say he merely tried to hear the echo of his arms flapping through a factory like a red rag fastened to that fan Let’s say the cold often froze his vowels tan Caribeña tan resualosa y mermelada— Could the immigrant even mute the melody of his tongue— They say it is silence that makes music But this will be like drumming on a distant tuft of cloud like the colonel cutting the sound he never found But it takes years of forgetting for a stranger to breathe the saltwater or glance at a pile of stones & say I arrived through this portal This is now my home . . .
I like to say we left at first light
with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
around Piano Island, a place I never read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
says they took me to, & that I loved.
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?
They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,
& I say Yes it’s coming back, I say Of course,
when it’s No not at all, because when I last saw them
I was three, & the China of my first three years
is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,
my dream before I knew the word “dream,”
my father’s martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste
of history. I like to say we left at first light,
we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous
kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,
& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say
we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,
who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.
I don’t like to say, I don’t remember crying.
No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don’t remember
feeling bad, leaving China.
I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off
on some secret adventure, while the others were
still sleeping, still blanketed, warm
in their memories of us.
What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me
for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
too male for crying. When my father said Get out,
never come back, I cried & ran, threw myself into night.
Then returned, at first light, I don’t remember exactly
why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims
my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright
to see what had happened, reaching toward me with her hands,
& I wanted to say No. Don’t touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left
unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,
my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,
before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.
I’m not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me
is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.
It’s been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,
her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has trouble
recalling who, why. I feel awful, my mother says,
not going back at once to see her. But too much is happening here.
Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
least forgivable English word.
What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?
How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is
my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,
English-to-English) mother’s voice? She might say:
We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,
in early spring. Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.
It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass
& metal of the airport—scent of my mother’s just-washed hair,
of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride over,
how I did not know those flowers were already
memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the plane,
the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names
I once knew, & my mother’s long black hair—so impossible now.
Why did I never consider how different spring could smell, feel,
elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost
country. First & deepest severance that should have
prepared me for all others.
an essay on assimilation
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g of "becoming." Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea, when my father the paperson in the late 1950s obsessed with a bombshell blond transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn." And nobody dared question his initial impulse—for we all know lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency. And there I was, a wayward pink baby, named after some tragic white woman swollen with gin and Nembutal. My mother couldn't pronounce the "r." She dubbed me "Numba one female offshoot" for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die in sublime ignorance, flanked by loving children and the "kitchen deity." While my father dithers, a tomcat in Hong Kong trash— a gambler, a petty thug, who bought a chain of chopsuey joints in Piss River, Oregon, with bootlegged Gucci cash. Nobody dared question his integrity given his nice, devout daughters and his bright, industrious sons as if filial piety were the standard by which all earthly men are measured. * Oh, how trustworthy our daughters, how thrifty our sons! How we've managed to fool the experts in education, statistic and demography— We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning. Indeed, they can use us. But the "Model Minority" is a tease. We know you are watching now, so we refuse to give you any! Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots! The further west we go, we'll hit east; the deeper down we dig, we'll find China. History has turned its stomach on a black polluted beach— where life doesn't hinge on that red, red wheelbarrow, but whether or not our new lover in the final episode of "Santa Barbara" will lean over a scented candle and call us a "bitch." Oh God, where have we gone wrong? We have no inner resources! * Then, one redolent spring morning the Great Patriarch Chin peered down from his kiosk in heaven and saw that his descendants were ugly. One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd. A third, the sad, brutish one may never, never marry. And I, his least favorite— "not quite boiled, not quite cooked," a plump pomfret simmering in my juices— too listless to fight for my people's destiny. "To kill without resistance is not slaughter" says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death. The fact that this death is also metaphorical is testament to my lethargy. * So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin, married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong, granddaughter of Jack "the patriarch" and the brooding Suilin Fong, daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong and G.G. Chin the infamous, sister of a dozen, cousin of a million, survived by everybody and forgotten by all. She was neither black nor white, neither cherished nor vanquished, just another squatter in her own bamboo grove minding her poetry— when one day heaven was unmerciful, and a chasm opened where she stood. Like the jowls of a mighty white whale, or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla, it swallowed her whole. She did not flinch nor writhe, nor fret about the afterlife, but stayed! Solid as wood, happily a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized by all that was lavished upon her and all that was taken away!
By the East River of Manhattan Island Where once the Iroquois canoed in style— A clear liquid caressing another name for rock, Now the jumping Stretch of Avenue D housing projects Where Ricans and Afros Johnny Pacheco / Wilson Pickett The portable radio night— Across the Domino sugar Neon lights of the Brooklyn shore Window carnival of megalopolis lights From Houston Street Twenty kids take off On summer bikes Across the Williamsburg Bridge Their hair flying With bodega bean protein Below the working class jumping like frogs— Parrots with new raincoats swinging canes of bamboo Like third legs Down diddy-bop 6th Street of the roaring Dragons Strollers of cool flow When winter comes they fly In capes down Delancey Past the bites of pastrami Sandwiches in Katz's Marching through red bricks aglow dragging hind leg Swinging arms Defying in simalcas Hebrew prayers inside metallic containers Rolled into walls Tenement relic Roofs of pigeon airports Horse-driven carts arrive with the morning Slicing through the venetian blinds Along with a Polish English Barking peaches and melons Later the ice man a-cometh Selling his hard water cut into blocks The afternoon a metallic slide intercourses buildings which start to swallow coals down their basement Mouths. Where did the mountains go The immigrants ask The place where houses and objects went back Into history which guided Them into nature Entering the roots of plants The molasses of fruit To become eternal again, Now the plaster of Paris Are the ears of the walls The first utterances in Spanish Recall what was left behind. People kept arriving as the cane fields dried Flying bushes from another planet Which had a pineapple for a moon Vegetables and tree bark popping out of luggage The singers of lament into the soul of Jacob Riis Where the prayers Santa Maria Through remaining fibers of the Torah Eldridge Street lelolai A Spanish never before seen Inside gypsies. Once Cordova the cabala Haberdasheries of Orchard Street Hecklers riddling bargains Like in gone bazaars of Some Warsaw ghetto. Upward into the economy Migration continues— Out of the workers' quarters Pieces of accents On the ascending escalator. The red Avenue B bus disappearing down the Needle holes of the garment factories— The drain of a city The final sewers Where the waste became antique The icy winds Of the river's edge Stinging lower Broadway As hot dogs Sauerkraut and all Gush down the pipes of Canal After Forsyth Park is the beginning of Italy Florence inside Mott Street windows— Palermo eyes of Angie Flipping the big hole of a 45 record The Duprees dusting Like white sugar onto Fluffed dough— Crisscrossing The fire escapes To arrive at Lourdes' railroad flat With knishes she threw next to Red beans. Broome Street Hasidics with Martian fur hats With those ultimatum brims Puerto Ricans supporting pra-pras Atop faces with features Thrown out of some bag Of universal race stew— Mississippi rural slang With Avenue D park view All in exile from broken Souths The horses the cows the chickens The daisies of the rural road All past tense in the urbanity that remembers The pace of mountains The moods of the fields. From the guayaba bushels outside of a town With an Arowak name I hear the flute shells With the I that saw Andalusian boats Wash up on the beach To distribute Moorish eyes. The Lower East Side was faster than the speed Of light A tornado of bricks and fire escapes In which you had to grab on to something or take Off with the wayward winds— The proletariat stoop voices Took off like Spauldine rubber balls Hit by blue broomsticks on 12th Street— Wintertime summertime Seasons of hallways and roofs Between pachanga and doo-wop A generation left The screaming streets of passage Gone from the temporary station of desire and disaster I knew Anthony's and Carmen Butchy Little Man Eddie Andrew Tiny Pichon Vigo Wandy Juanito Where are they? The windows sucked them up The pavement had mouths that ate them Urban vanishment Illusion I too Henry Roth "Call It Sleep."
—from "The Bordercrosser's Pillowbook"
Fulgencio's silver crown—when he snores
the moon, coin of Judas, glaring
at the smaller metals we call stars
the tips of my boots
the stones in my kidneys
a tear on the cheek
the forked paths of a zipper
the blade of the pocketknife triggering open
the blade of the pocketknife seducing the orange
the blade of the pocketknife salivating
the blade of the pocketknife
the word México
the word migra
the ones who brought your father here, come. Bring
with them whole almonds, dried berries & clementines
wrapped in cloth. Their clothes & smart shoes too.
They come looking for the place I've taken your father.
Looking for the New York City that could rival home.
Your Abba loves the East Village, its graffiti, trash
& all the languages on all the streets. On 14th & 1st,
we visit the Phillipines. Elvie's Turo Turo.
But this trip, he wants to see more. So,
we travel to Little Philippines, Queens, 69th
off the 7 train, off the 7 the whole of Queens
opens wide for us. Travel agents & whole-
sale, send anything back for cheap, travel
for cheap, return, return. We buy OK
magazines by the handful for gossip
Tagalog with English subtitles, glossy
photos, Pacquiao, his chiseled grin, everywhere.
And we eat. Krystal's where they serve
marinated pork belly, sinigang na baboy,
kare-kare, pancit bihon, & lumpiang sariwa,
I listen close to it all. Deep fried ruffle fat,
poolee noodles with shrimp, milkfish.
Your Abba fake orders pork blood stew
but I am sure I would eat anything here
because this is how much I trust the two
who brought your father up in the world.
We eat sing-sing & pork in tamarind soup.
This is how to say snack in Tagalog: Merienda,
Merienda is snack. This is how to say ice-cream
in Tagalog: halo-halo, halo-halo
is ice-cream. This is how to leave your country.
Don't look back. You will only see the islands
melting away. Halo-halo. This is how to say snack in tagalog.
Merienda. This is how to feel of one place & of one more.
Back home, we sit, get caught up. I read
about mansions in Manila, how to make millions,
facelifts & silken hair, red lips, muscles & beauty.
In Tagalog, I muddle through, while your Abba
laughs, translates, translations get muddled too.
This is how to raise a baby in two places at once, & how
it feels to live and move in two worlds. At once.
she ambles toward El Norte she remembers as she steps
wasps & spiders webbed in between the corn in Fowler
her mamá Concha’s story the fire she fanned to clear
the path through the thick burned stalks all this
she almost-touches the blueberries in Skagit Washington
& the line of men wrapped as cocoons and dark as amber
flecked honey at the line the only store in Firebaugh where
you can cash your check shirts twisted & whispered & upright
down in Illinois in Cobden you go through the back door
of Darden's bar to buy drinks for the foreman El Cuadrado
María’s coming home after returning to Atizapán de Zaragoza
where she works at la Tortillería next to la Señora Muñóz
it is an abyss smoked & metal flat and deep with nixtamal
“Good pay in South Georgia” she says “I’ll work the
cucumbers” feet in water skin see-through peels & peels
off & off then on Saturday bussed to Walmart bussed back
to camp season after season the crossing higher alone
or with groups of three the coyote says “I am leaving you
here at the bottom of this mountain you Indians know how
to climb” she remembers Guadalupe Ríos say from the edge
of Santa María Corte in Nayarít “Nosotros los Peyoteros
sabemos caminar We know how to walk” María de la Luz
with an address in her net-bag her son who was taken many
years ago 1346 D St. San Diego will she recognize Juan
is the street still there who is he now who am I now who
will he remember you this ancient trail of grandmothers &
deportadas “I know how to walk” María de la Luz prays
as she ascends the black mountain as she moves her body
tiny as she listens to the sudden rush of things fall among
thorns & hisses María de la Luz notices a band of light
Let's not forget the General Shuffling out in his gray slippers To feed the pigeons in Logan Square. He wore a battered White Sox cap And a heavy woolen scarf tossed Over his shoulder, even in summer. I remember how he muttered to himself And coughed into his newspaper And complained about his gout To the other Latvian exiles, The physicist who lived on Gogol Street In Riga, my grandfather's hometown, The auxiliary policeman from Daugavpils, And the chemical engineer, Who always gave me hard candy, Though grandfather spit And grandmother hurried me away When she saw them coming.
Amphibians live in both.
Immigrants leave their land,
hardening in the sea.
Out of water.
In Greek, amphibian means
“on both sides of life.”
Terra and aqua. Shoreline.
In fresh water:
immigrants give birth
in early stages. On land,
amphibians develop lungs.
Immigrants develop lungs.
Through damp skin
and sleep breathlessly.
Skin forms glands.
Eyes form eyelids.
Amphibians seek land; immigrants, other lands.
Their colors brighten, camouflage.
They’ve been known to fall
out of the sky.
Fully at home in the rain.
We have to bury the urns, Mother and I. We tried to leave them in a back room, Decoyed by a gas lamp, and run out But they landed behind us here, at the front gate. It is 6th hour, early winter, black cold: Only, on the other side of the rice-paper doors The yellow ondol stone-heated floors Are still warm. I look out to the blue Lanterns along the runway, the bright airplane. Off the back step, Mother, disorganized As usual, has devised a clumsy rope and shovel To bury the urns. I wonder out loud how she ever became a doctor. Get out, she says Go to your father: he too Does not realize what is happening. You see, Father is waiting at the airfield in a discarded U. S. Army Overcoat. He has lost his hat, lost His father, and is smoking Lucky's like crazy. . . We grab through the tall weeds and wind That begin to shoot under us like river ice. It is snowing. We are crying, from the cold Or what? It is only decades Later that, tapping the cold, glowing jars, I find they contain all that has made The father have dominion over hers.
President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island in 1906, watched the people from steerage line up for their six-second physical. Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling of aliens who were ill infect the healthy? Yet for years more it was done. I imagine my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s polyglot, reverberating vault more terrible than church, dazed by the stars and stripes in the vast banner up in front where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too, to a room like a little chapel, where her mother might take Communion. A man in a blue cap and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman? (Papa would have known, but he had sailed all alone before them and was waiting now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)— a man in a blue cap reached for her mother. Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?) he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye, then turned its lid up with a buttonhook, the long, curved thing for doing up your boots when buttons were too many or too small. You couldn’t be American if you were blind or going to be blind. That much she understood. She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch her own face next; she figured she was ready. She felt big, like that woman in the sea holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.
Even though I’m an immigrant,
the angel with the flaming sword seems fine with me.
He unhooks the velvet rope. He ushers me into the club.
Some activity in the mosh pit, a banquet here, a panhandler there,
a gray curtain drawn down over the infinitely curving lunette,
Jupiter in its crescent phase, huge,
a vista of a waterfall, with a rainbow in the spray,
a few desultory orgies, a billboard
of the snub-nosed electric car of the future—
the inside is exactly the same as the outside,
down to the m.c. in the yellow spats.
So why the angel with the flaming sword
bringing in the sheep and waving away the goats,
and the men with the binoculars,
elbows resting on the roll bars of jeeps,
peering into the desert? There is a border,
but it is not fixed, it wavers, it shimmies, it rises
and plunges into the unimaginable seventh dimension
before erupting in a field of Dakota corn. On the F train
to Manhattan yesterday, I sat across
from a family threesome Guatemalan by the look of them—
delicate and archaic and Mayan—
and obviously undocumented to the bone.
They didn’t seem anxious. The mother was
laughing and squabbling with the daughter
over a knockoff smart phone on which they were playing a
video game together. The boy, maybe three,
disdained their ruckus. I recognized the scowl on his face,
the retrospective, maskless rage of inception.
He looked just like my son when my son came out of his mother
after thirty hours of labor—the head squashed,
the lips swollen, the skin empurpled and hideous
with blood and afterbirth. Out of the inflamed tunnel
and into the cold room of harsh sounds.
He looked right at me with his bleared eyes.
He had a voice like Richard Burton’s.
He had an impressive command of the major English texts.
I will do such things, what they are yet I know not,
but they shall be the terrors of the earth, he said.
The child, he said, is father of the man.
The days unfold like maps. Fresh dirt in the garden, black as cake, grows warm. The roses perform a silent recital, each playing its part from memory. I wait for my father the way men wait for a train. I wait for my father the way a dancer waits for music. My mother is a curtain in the window. She calls me in to fit my shadow for a suit. I keep still as she pinches the tape around its wrist. Around her neck my mother’s pearls clink like teeth. Your shadow grows faster than you do, she says. She says that waiting is a kind of dancing. At night I dance with the stillness. My blood waits behind my chest like a man behind a locked door. My father waits in another country.
Never step back Never a last
Scent of plumeria
When my parents left
You knew it was for good
It’s a herd of horses never
To reclaim their steppes
You became a moth hanging
Down from the sun
Old river Calling to my mother
Kept spilling out of her lungs
Ridgeline vista closed
Into the locket of their gaze
It’s the Siberian crane
Forbidden to fly back after winter
You marbled my father’s face
Floated him as stone over the sea
Further Every minute
Emptying his child years to the land
You crawled back in your bomb
It’s when the banyan must leave
Relearn to cathedral its roots
My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city, Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name. Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient, I see that the word of my city is that word from of old, Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, Rich, hemm'd thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded, Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies, Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown, The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas, The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model'd, The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business, the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the river-streets, Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week, The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors, The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft, The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide, The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form'd, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes, Trottoirs throng'd, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows, A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men, City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts! City nested in bays! my city!