As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Marilyn Chin in response to a video of her reading her poem “Hospital in Oregon” aloud. Marilyn Chin wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Marilyn Chin also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
During this pandemic we have lost many of our wise elders, who raised us, advised us, and paved the way toward our comfortable futures. Many of us were raised by our grandmothers. Even President Obama moved Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, into the White House so that she could help care for her granddaughters, Malia and Sasha. Grandparents are strong pillars of our society. They should be honored and praised.
I am deeply concerned that in this Covid crisis some people regard our elderly population as expendable. Covid exposed the ageism in American society. We live in a culture that yearns for perpetual youth, a culture in deep denial about aging and death. The white body bags coming out of nursing homes are heart-breaking. Our older citizens are more than a statistic. They helped to build the complex and beautiful world that we inhabit.
“Hospital in Oregon” is a very personal poem. I wrote the first draft while visiting my grandmother on “Pill Hill” in Portland, Oregon. Her organs were failing. The doctors gave her morphine to soothe her pain “for her last hours.” Many of you were intrigued by the deerfly. “Deer” refers to Deer Park, where Buddha gave a famous sermon. But the image of the deer leaps into the second stanza and transmogrifies into a deerfly delivering my grandmother back to “the ancient valley.” Some of you say that is a kind of “heaven,” and you are right. I conceived “the ancient valley” as a spiritual place that cannot be totally defined or desecrated. The Buddhist idea that we are a part of nature and the cycle of life and death is non-judgmental. “Dust to dust”: the journey is the same for a fly or for a human being. We shall all return to the earth that birthed us.
I want to share what a student poet from Milwaukee, Nicholas, wrote in his letter. He examined the deer image thoroughly:
I am curious about the simile [likening] her lifeless eyes to that of a deer. Deer in the western world often are shown to be symbols of holiness, vibrancy, and strength. The Legend of Saint Eustace tells the story of the Roman general who looked at the animal’s eyes, and the light of Christ shone out of them and the voice of God spoke to him through them. In Eastern cultures, deer are shown to symbolize longevity. In Buddhism, deer are often represented beside the Dharma wheel as Buddha was a golden deer that spoke to men. In Tibetan legends, deer are often shown with cranes protecting the “immortality pill.”
I was very moved by your personal and heart-rending stories about your grandparents and other loved ones. Poetry is the genre that is closest to our hearts. Thank you for sharing how you mourned and cherished those for whom you so greatly cared. I hope that we will emerge from this pandemic crisis a stronger and better nation.
Marilyn Chin reads "Hospital in Oregon" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Ms. Chin,
My name is Nicholas, and I am a high school student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have never been deeply interested in poetry, but your poems "Hospital in Oregon" truly resonated with me. It made me think not only about where I came from, but how that translates into who I am now.
I've been a fan of you for a long time and I've always wondered how you receive inspiration for your works. To be honest, I always wanted to be a writer or a poet, but I just can't seem to get the eureka moment. Are there any suggestions for getting the eureka moment?
Firstly, I liked the length of this poem. Poetry can be extremely abstract, and then the work becomes fairly long, I sometimes find it hard to digest all of the writing. However, your poem was a perfect length for a reader such as myself. Additionally, I really enjoyed the imagery you used in your writing as it enabled me to feel like I was a part of the poem itself.
When you wrote, “Shhh, my grandmother is sleeping, They doped her up with morphine for her last hours.” I could feel my goosebumps rising. As I understood the urge to deny that your loved one is dying and that all of this is just a messed up dream. I was raised by my grandparents, not that my parents weren’t there for me, it was just a part of my culture. When my grandmother was on her deathbed, I remembered how she would put her hand on my head and reassure me that everything was going to be ok. After her death, I felt similar to the first line of the poem. I was in denial of such a horrible thing happening, as it all just seems so surreal. I remember myself crying, shivering, waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. I find it ironic how we don’t appreciate what we’ve got until it's gone. I learned to train myself to think positively and be thankful for what I have.
However, I was intrigued by the line “Her eyes are black and vacant like a deer’s.” I am curious about the simile of her lifeless eyes to that of a deer. As deer in the western world often are shown to be symbols of holiness, vibrancy, and strength. As in the Legend of Saint Eustace, it tells the story of the Roman general who looked at the animal’s eyes, and the light of Christ shone out of them and the voice of God spoke to him through them. In Eastern Cultures, deer are shown to symbolize longevity. In Buddhism, deer are often represented beside the Dharma wheel as Buddha was a golden deer that spoke to men. In Tibetan legends, deer are often shown with cranes protecting the “immortality pill”. In Chinese, the deer character has the same pronunciation as the Lu character in Sanjixing: "Fu, Lu, Shou."
Finally, another one of your works that I connect with is your poem “How I Got That Name”. As a second-generation Chinese American, my parents are from a completely different culture, and so I was raised multi-culturally. I didn't quite fit in with my classmates, but I couldn't relate to my parents either. I was stuck in the middle between two entirely different worlds, and as a child, of course, I chose the one I was living in as it was easier.” Your poem allowed me to see the light of my actions as I realized how I have tried so hard to assimilate with the American culture without realizing that I am losing my own identity.
Your poems often make me ponder deep questions that simply cannot be answered. That is why I love your poem. Do you have any parting advice for someone who is trying to find their way into poetry and writing in general?
Thank you for your lovely letter. I can tell that you are a poet at heart by your thorough research on the deer image. You covered both eastern and western myths and beliefs.
My advice is to Just keep reading and writing and remember to always have a notebook at your side to write down your good ideas. Don’t worry about finding the “eureka” moment! Those moments will come. The muse often surprises us with fine gifts when we are not looking. I am so happy to know that sensitive, smart, and engaged young readers and writers like yourself are out there to take on the literary mantle!
I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother’s death and how you miss her terribly. I still miss my grandmother and often speak to her spirit for advice. They will always be in our memories and in our hearts. Try to write about her life: it’s a way to remember and cherish the wisdom of her generation.
Write on, young poet, I look forward to reading your work in the future!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
My name is Daniella and I’m a Freshman at the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at the City College of New York. I read your poem “Hospital in Oregon” and I felt it so strongly. Hearing you read it touched my heart further.
When I was almost seven my brother was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I only went to visit him when I had to. I only went when it could be the last visit with my adorable, little brother. To me he was an innocent ball of love, a blessing that only recently lightened my life. Less than three years prior I held his hand for the first time and watched his spirit join my family. Your poem brought me back there. The words about this hospital in Oregon brought me to the hospital that held my brother in New York. It brought me back to when I thought I was about to lose him. I felt your poem, but it wasn’t the first time I felt that way. You brought me back to a place that I never wanted to be, but I am endlessly grateful. Your touching poem brought me the feelings I felt then, feelings that were forgotten.
This hospital was responsible for keeping my brother alive for years and since he’s been home and well I have taken it for granted. I yell at my brother and fight like siblings do because it’s normal but since I read the poem we haven’t fought. I’ve played games with him, prayed for him, thanked whatever higher power there may be for him, and looked forward to thanking you for the miracle I forgot, the miracle of my little brother Ben. I’m so unbelievably thankful for this poem and for your bravery to revisit that feeling that I wouldn’t allow myself to remember. The feeling that someone you love is slipping through your fingers into a finite complete ending, without you. I wonder if that wasn’t your intention at all? Did the speaker in your poem even feel similar to the way I felt? I assume that it was very different and that the answer to my questions are both no, but it doesn’t change the power and the emotion you provoke within your reader.
I can’t relate any poem to yours because I never felt any poem like I did yours. I’ve experienced good poetry and many poems have affected me but none came close to “Hospital in Oregon”. It was the right time for me to hear it and the recitation allowed the words to linger and ring in my ears. I’m also so grateful to my English teacher, Kelli Hesseltine, for this assignment. Without this assignment I doubt I would have come across your poem and I would have never known how much I needed to read it. Thank you for reading, writing, and sharing this poem with the world. Thank you for sharing it with me.
Sincerely, with gratitude and love,
New York, NY
Thank you for your kind letter.
I was very moved by your tender expressions of love toward your little brother, calling him an “innocent ball of love.” I am sorry to hear that he suffered through leukemia, a devastating illness. I am glad that he survived with flying colors!
I wrote “Hospital in Oregon” for my grandmother in a moment of personal pain and contemplation. I am so glad that you found solace and illumination through reading it. Illness is a big part of life and we must face our challenges with courage. Poetry is an art form that is close to the heart. I am glad that my poem “provoked” strong feelings in you, my dear reader. I am so glad that Ben is well and that he is by your side.
Best wishes to you and your family,
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Ms. Chin,
Your poem, “Hospital in Oregon,” transported me to a deep recess in my mind, a memory that I’ve kept tucked away for years. As a child, I visited my great-grandmother’s apartment in South Korea. Nearing the end of her life, she was hooked up to a mechanical ventilator and barely able to breathe or move on her own.
It’s funny how the human mind remembers. I can’t recall the time, the place, or what year it was when we visited, but I remember the smell: the sickly, yellow, pungent scent that wafted through the entire apartment. The gentle settling of dust, time, and fading memories. I remember her hands: so fragile, so wrinkled, so weak. Her laborious breaths, the whispered dialogue between my parents, the tears my mother shed when my great-grandmother—her halmeoni (grandmother)—couldn’t recognize her.
I was horrified at the thought that one day, that could be me. I had lived my whole life as the maknae (youngest), always getting my way, so I couldn’t bear to imagine being unable to lift a finger to change my fate. I was hyper-aware of the passing time, slipping through my fingers like sand. The ever-present beeping of the machine rang in my ears, and my clenched fists hung rigidly at my sides.
I admire your mastery of “show and not tell”, the way that you conveyed the situation and location without ever having mentioned the word “death.” I found myself holding my breath as you spoke, afraid to wake your grandmother I could vividly imagine lying in front of me. The line “Her eyes are black and vacant like a deer’s” immediately sparked the memory of my great-grandmother’s eyes: grey and milky, unseeing, and unable to fight the weight of her lids. I closed my eyes when I heard it.
But there was a certain quality to the poem that drew me in and left me unable to click away from my uncomfortable reliving. It brought me back to one summer day where I had sat on a chair outside and listened to the sounds of nature. The reverent silence, broken only by the wind brushing through the thirsty trees and the chirping of the cicadas somewhere in the distance. In the midst of that solemn verse, I wonder: why did you choose to plant the image of nature?
When we got to my great-grandmother, she was already lost to us; she had gone to a place where we could not follow. My only hope for her is that at the end of it all, she was cooking for her granddaughter (my mother), dancing with my great-grandfather (who died before her), and finally getting her happy ending to a difficult life raising eleven children (following the Korean War).
There’s a line from the song “Lost Stars” that has always stuck with me: “God, tell us the reason youth is wasted on the young.” Meeting my great-grandmother was my first real encounter with sickness and death, but I was too young to fully understand. I simply felt uncomfortable, out of my element, and desperate to return to my world of normalcy and laughter. I expected my mother to feel the same, but when we got back to the car all she had to say was that my great-grandmother had lived a long life, a happy one, and that it was time to say goodbye. To this day, I wonder: did she really mean those things? Is learning to let go something that we get better at as we age, or are grown-ups the same scared children hiding behind their layers?
I felt lost in reverie as I traced over your poem. Looking back now, I do wish things could have gone differently. I wish that I could have held my great-grandmother’s hand and adjusted her pillows. I wish that I could have comforted my mother and said thank you to my great-grandmother’s caregiver. The deerfly was able to hear the sounds of the ancient valley because it had come from a background of sickness, but I had flitted in from the shade of two healthy trees—my parents—and so all I heard was the silence.
In the movies, death is usually dramatic and immediate, a harried confession, a bullet through the head. But death can also be a relatively quiet and peaceful affair. I think your poem beautifully captures the sensation of being an onlooker in private. It eased some of my anxiety and regrets surrounding death, so thank you for bringing me into that intimate moment.
I have always been scared of death, of having the people I love taken from me. I’ve known others who wanted death more than anything and saw it as an escape from their suffering and hopelessness. To those people, I found that my words were never enough to comfort them. Do you know of anything that might convince them that life is worth living?
I think both ways are wrong. We should neither be scared of nor long for death, because worrying about it doesn’t push it off and chasing after it doesn’t bring it any closer. I suppose the only right way is to live—we may be on borrowed time, but what really matters is how we spend it. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life worrying about how it will end. To those that are lost, I want to tell them the same.
Death is coming for us all. Why hurry?
Thank you for your beautifully written letter.
You were very fortunate to be able to visit your great-grandmother in her last days in Korea. Although you were upset by seeing her confined to a ventilator, she was probably very happy that her loving family was able to travel such a long distance to be with her.
There are so many memorable passages in your letter. Your lines about your great-grandmother’s eyes: “Grey and milky, unseeing, and unable to fight the weight of her lids”—are deeply moving. I hope that you will continue to write about your family and expand on your gift.
I am glad that my poem was able to “ease” some of your “anxiety and regrets around death.” Henry David Thoreau said, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” You are a maknae, the youngest one, who will carry the torch of your family. Your great-grandmother was probably very proud of you! Keep writing beautiful passages, young poet!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
It was the “Shhh” that grabbed my attention when I saw the video of you reading your poem “Hospital in Oregon”. My mother is known for her particularly powerful “shhh”s. They fill our house now that we are all at home and at each other’s throats. “Shhh” is the sound we make in my family when we are desperate for silence.
Next I thought of my own grandmothers. I thought of them safe and sound, as I do more often now than ever. I am grateful, even if Baba can get on my nerves through a Zoom call.
It wasn’t until the line, “She says she can hear my grandfather calling” that I began to think of my great-grandmother, G.G. I remembered her lying in a hospital bed, left speechless and motionless by a stroke. No matter how doped up she was or how vacant her eyes were, G.G. would never hear my great-grandfather calling. For her, the afterlife wasn’t even an afterthought. It was just: You’re alive, then you’re not.
Everything about this memory is gray. Like in your poem, even the trees outside appeared sickly. My Baba’s skin was as gray as her hair when she tried to explain to me why she was so sad. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t old enough to be, but I wasn’t young enough to not feel bad about it either. I just wanted to tell my emotions to “shhh”.
This is just how it was with G.G: She was sick, then she wasn’t. At 96, she made a complete and remarkable recovery from her stroke. This scare prompted her move to a nursing home, where she lived until her death four years later.
Four autumns ago: The beginning of highschool. G.G’s decision that she was ready to die. Only my father travelled from Toronto to Montreal to say goodbye. He described to me how tired G.G. was, and how peaceful. He played me a 40-second voice memo. A snippet of a candid conversation between G.G. and Baba. I hear G.G.’s voice saying, “actually it’s very, very nice… not wanting to do anything, just to relax.” And then silence, as together they listen to the wind, and the sound it makes: “shhh.” “Together, they listen to the ancient valley.”
What was I doing while G.G. listened to the wind? Most likely at school, busy, in a lesson. Removed from death. Now I am surrounded by it. We are all deer, the coronavirus like deerflies flitting around us. I am haunted by the outbreak in the nursing home where my great grandmother spent her last years. I imagine her still there, fighting the virus as she fought against her stroke at 96. Or, embracing the virus as she embraced her death at 100. Welcoming the deerfly as it “flits from ankle to elbow, then lands on her ear.”
Now I walk to my window. I crank it open. I listen to the wind, and the sound it makes: “shhh.” I have to agree with G.G.
Thank you for writing this poem. Thank you for reminding me to approach my next Zoom call with my Baba with gratitude. Thank you for prompting me to listen to my father’s voice memo again. Thank you for opening my ears to the wind.
I am so glad that your GG and Baba left you a memo of your GG’s last days. Your GG must have lived a rich, amazing life. 100 years old! How lucky to have lived such a long life! She was ready to enter “the ancient valley.” She yearned for quietude, for the “shhh” of eternity. Yes, do Zoom with your father often. During this terrible pandemic, we must appreciate our families more than ever.
We must live to the fullest with love and gratitude!
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
Hello, my name is Vanessa and I’m currently a junior at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School. I was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland but my family is from El Salvador. I come from a strong and hardworking family who has taught me that life isn’t easy, but I need to keep pushing forward.
As I read your poem “Hospital in Oregon” I thought of my grandmother and how she has been in the hospital multiple times and every time I see her laying in those beds it doesn’t get easier. My grandma has pulmonary hypertension and is currently under hospice. I've always been very close with my grandmother ever since I was little. She has always secretly told me I’m her favorite out of my siblings and has always taken my side whenever I would get in trouble. I have a special bond with her, and I will always be grateful for everything she has done for me. Your poem made me think about all the happy memories I have with her but also the sad ones. For example, when it states “she says she hears my grandfather calling” I think of how a couple months ago when my grandma was in the hospital, she told me when she was sleeping, she had a dream of her mother telling her “Mi hija come whenever you're ready”. My grandma told me that she is ready to go whenever God calls her. At first, I didn’t want to hear it; I wanted her to have faith that she is going to live for many more years but then I realized one day I'll have to let her go. That day will be the hardest day, but it also made me realize I must make the most of my time with her now and make every moment count. Reading your poem opened my eyes to see my grandma in a different light. A question I have is what do you want people to take from reading your poem? Also, it would be an honor if you could visit our school and read some of your poems.
Silver Spring, MD
Thank you so much for your heart-warming letter.
Your grandmother heard her mother calling, “Mi hija, come when you are ready!”
My grandmother heard my grandfather calling, “Lao Po, lai le, lai le! ”
Perhaps God was calling them, perhaps Buddha was calling them.
I am so glad that my poem can bring our grandmothers together in a magical way.
Chancellor Marilyn Chin
Dear Marilyn Chin,
This is Yichen, a junior in high school. I am from Shenyang, China. Your poems always speak to me on the aspects of my Chinese roots and family, and I can hear your voice of inheriting Chinese traditional culture and weaving history into ongoing social issues. My English class recently began discussing poetry, and your poem, “Hospital in Oregon,” caught my eye immediately, and I am so thrilled that I can finally write to you.
Two years ago, my parents notified me that my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. While studying overseas, the news struck me like a thunderbolt. As a child raised in the traditional Chinese way, my grandmother accompanied my entire childhood and watched me grow to a young man. After finishing my school year, I flew back to China urgently. In the ward, she was wearing that amiable smile again. Holding her wrinkled hands, I can feel her blood flowing. All the precious and indelible memories started retreating into my mind, and sudden inexplicable scenes emerged. Her eyes are exactly “black and vacant like a deer’s.” As deer always carry the powers in nature that are not easily subdued, I would pray that both my grandmother and yours would go through this tough trial. Best wishes.
I rarely encountered italicized sentences in poetry. When I heard you reading this poem, I would assume that “Must’ve escaped from those there sickly Douglas firs” was actually your grandma’s saying. This reminded me about one of the beliefs in Buddhism, reincarnation 轮回转世, the spiritual essence of a living being starts a new life in a different physical form or body after biological death. Do you believe that people will have their second life after their physical death? I was wondering why you chose deerfly and sickly Douglas firs specifically, was it what happened in reality or do they symbolize something? I knew that Douglas fir represents a symbol of truth, hope, and promise, which I inferred that sickly Douglas fir symbolizes weakened body. Therefore, I considered your second stanza as escaping the weakened body to pursue happiness otherworld.
This poem’s charm, to me, is how the imagery and casual diction all integrate into a moment of silence. I can imagine the voice of the melancholy yet calm speaker observing the peaceful scene of the hospital ward. I would like to thank you for being a part of the Dear Poet Project, not only because of the great opportunity for students to connect with poets, but because I was introduced to your poetry feast as a result, and presenting intriguing themes that equal the power of the message.
Kansas City, MO
Dear Marilyn Chin:
Hi there! My name is Beth, and I’m a freshman in Cleveland, Ohio. I am writing to you because I related to your poem, “Hospital in Oregon.” I was very impressed with how such a small work of literature can hold so much meaning. Furthermore, I found it significant that a stranger can write something that profoundly applies to my life.
When I was thirteen, four of my great grandparents all died around the same time. I was pretty shattered. It was the first time I faced death- and it was heartbreaking. It was frightening to see my great grandparents, who fought in wars and survived the wrath of Nazi Germany, falling into the clutches of illness. I always viewed them as people who have been through it all and can survive anything, and old age overtook them. I feel that your line about the deer fly, how it “ flits from ankle to elbow, then lands on her ear” (Chin), expresses this, how the fly can flit about the grandmother, showing how even the tiniest of things can now overtake her.
However, I think a reader can find comfort within the poem. When you say that the grandmother “hears my grandfather calling,” it shows that she is going to a better place. Not all people believe in heaven, but I do. I think this line shows that after a long life of triumphs, hardships, and everything in between, the grandmother is going to a good place. She will be surrounded by the people she loves, and be free from the pain of sickness the elderly endure. This applies whenever we lose someone; it alleviates the pain, knowing that they will be okay. The poem ends, saying that the grandmother and the deer fly “listen to the ancient valley” (Chin). For me, this adds a sense of calm, adding to the message that the grandmother is going to a better place when she passes away, being reunited with her ancestors.
I do have a few questions about your poetry. Were you close to your grandmother? I feel that to convey that amount of emotion, you probably were, and I’m very sorry for your loss. Is there something you admired about your grandmother? Like I stated before, I appreciated my great grandparents’ will never to give up. Or, is this poem fictional, and not about your grandmother? Is it a metaphor for something, or is there a hidden message you are trying to convey? Regarding poetry in general, do you use it to connect to people? I enjoy writing short stories, but I can’t figure out how to inject them with as much meaning as your poetry. Do you have any suggestions?
All in all, I would like to thank you for sharing such a powerful and emotional poem. It touched me, and I’m sure it impacted many other people around the world. Losing someone we love is inevitable, but we can work through the pain by sharing our feelings with others.