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.
From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Chen Chen. Used with permission of BOA Editions.
junk yard, Goodwill, crushed cans, buy-1-get-1-free, re-runs, dead leaves in the pool, no lifeguard, landlord no English, bounced check, smog check, two—no, need three jobs, back entrance, under the table, no ride after school, loud dogs, mean neighbors, no neighbors, someone died there, FOR RENT sign, up for months, rusted carts, bruised fruit, free bones, just ask, beef tongue, chicken broth, chicken hearts, clouded eye of fish on ice, fry it extra crispy, the house smells like patis and Windex and roses from the rosewater bath to heal the kidney, traffic, church is packed, late for church, not going to church, news of a shooting, news of a robbery, news of the boy raped at prom, pictures of the teens in court, animals!, those crying parents, his crying parents, Rodney King, Reginald Denny, everyone’s yelling on Ricki or Jerry or Maury or Montel and Oprah is on the cover of her own magazine, dentist office, insurance voucher, no social, permanent address, temporary address, magazines with the address torn off, it’s your first time, the handsome dentist says, he touches you and you feel special and rich and white and American and healthy and taken care of, T.C.C.I.C., keep in touch, have a nice summer, we’ll be friendz 4 forever, never change
Copyright © 2019 Jan-Henry Gray. This poem was originally published in Quarterly West. Used with permission of the author.
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.
From Celebrate America in Poetry and Art, edited by Nora Panzer and published by Hyperion, in association with the National Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Alberto Rios. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Where did the shooting stars go?
They flit across my childhood sky
And by my teens I no longer looked upward—
My face instead peered through the windshield
Of my first car, or into the rearview mirror,
All the small tragedies behind me,
The road and the road’s curve up ahead.
The shooting stars?
At night, I now look upward—
Jets and single-prop planes.
No brief light, nothing to wish for,
The neighbor’s security light coming on.
Big white moon on the hill,
Lantern on gravestones,
You don’t count.
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Soto. Used with permission of the author.
Little poem, you are too young to remember
the smoking gun, the con man on TV
who looked like a supervillain, or the hominid
skeleton dug up in Africa and given the name
of your childhood dog. You never heard a word
about the IRA bombings, nor did The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre terrorize your sleep. Having no use
for money, you do not understand the concept
of stagflation, nor did you marvel at the satellite
images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. How much
you have missed in the span of half a century!
I want to swaddle you in yesterday’s headlines
and send you back down the river, no wiser
than the day you came blaring into the world.
Copyright © 2019 Elizabeth Knapp. This poem originally appeared in Poetry Northwest, Winter & Spring 2019. Used with permission of the author.
In color photographs, my childhood house looks fresh as an uncut sheet cake— pale yellow buttercream, ribbons of white trim squeezed from the grooved tip of a pastry tube. Whose dream was this confection? This suburb of identical, pillow-mint homes? The sky, too, is pastel. Children roller skate down the new sidewalk. Fathers stake young trees. Mothers plan baby showers and Tupperware parties. The Avon Lady treks door to door. Six or seven years old, I stand on the front porch, hand on the decorative cast-iron trellis that frames it, squinting in California sunlight, striped short-sleeved shirt buttoned at the neck. I sit in the backyard (this picture's black-and-white), my Flintstones playset spread out on the grass. I arrange each plastic character, each dinosaur, each palm tree and round "granite" house. Half a century later, I barely recognize it when I search the address on Google Maps and, via "Street view," find myself face to face— foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted a drab brown. I click to zoom: light hits one of the windows. I can almost see what's inside.
Copyright © 2010 by David Trinidad. Used with permission of the author.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
The river is famous to the fish. The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so. The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse. The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek. The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom. The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors. The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured. I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back. I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with permission of Far Corner Books, Portland, OR.
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Copyright © 2017 by Ada Limón. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 15, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
From The Language of Spring, edited by Robert Atwan, published by Beacon Press, 2003.
The wind was a care-free soul
That broke the chains of earth,
And strode for a moment across the land
With the wild halloo of his mirth.
He little cared that he ripped up trees,
That houses fell at his hand,
That his step broke calm on the breast of seas,
That his feet stirred clouds of sand.
But when he had had his little joke,
Had shouted and laughed and sung,
When the trees were scarred, their branches broke,
And their foliage aching hung,
He crept to his cave with a stealthy tread,
With rain-filled eyes and low-bowed head.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on March 14, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
The night air is filled
with the scent of apples,
and the moon is nearly full.
In the next room, Jim
is reading; a small cat sleeps
in the crook of his arm.
The night singers are loud,
every evening until they run
out of nights and die in
the cold, or burrow down into
the mud to dream away the winter.
My office is awash in books
and photographs, and the sepia/pink
sunset stains all its light touches.
I’ve never been a good traveler,
but there are days, like this one,
when I’d pay anything to be in
another country, or standing on
the cold, grey moon, staring back
at the disaster we call our world.
We crave change, but
turn away from it.
We drown in contradictions.
Tonight, I’ll sleep
blanketed in moonlight.
In my dreams, I’ll have
nothing to say about anything
important. I’ll simply live my life,
and let the night singers live theirs,
until all of us are gone.
I won’t say a word, and let
silence speak in my stead.
Copyright © 2020 by William Reichard. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 19, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.