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Prairie Schooner 78.4 (2004) 99-102

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Three Poems


From the beginning, they learned not to feel any.
They're usually good people, praised by neighbors,
Quick to shovel snow from the walkways.
They're reliably cheerful, even with telemarketers,
And their houses are clean from Monday to Sunday.

But it's hard to picture them at night, unable to rest,
Sick from the latest on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Name a current war, and they imagine terrorists
And despots, not toddlers who can't understand
That they mustn't cry because everything depends on it.

Ambiguity is all they can't tolerate.
Stories without resolution, abstract portraiture-
Why stir things up for the hell of it?
They're willing to discuss the new counterculture,
Even read a book you suggest, but as they see it,

The past is over. If they were unloved by their mothers
Or shouted into submission at every stage
Of development, they're fully recovered.
If others keep having kids they can't raise
And quitting jobs, it's from lack of resolve, or bad culture.

They're glad to explain their position: We overcame, too.
Our parents used to be poor. One of them was violent.
We were brought up on unspoken racism and junk food
But turned out OK and not racist. Hey, we're resilient.
We triumphed over rocky beginnings. And so can you. [End Page 99]

Things Chinese

Once, I tried to banish them all from my writing.
This was America, after all, where everyone's at liberty
To remake her person, her place, or her poetry,

And I lived in a town a long way from everything
Where discussions of "diversity"
Centered mainly on sexuality.

My policy, born of exhaustion with talk about race
And the quintessentially American wish for antecedents,
Eliminated most of my family, starting with the grandparents,

Two of whom stayed Chinese to their final days,
Two of whom were all but defined by their expertise
On the food of the country I was trying to excise.

It canceled out the expensive center
Of an intense undergraduate curriculum
And excluded the only foreign language I could talk in.

It wiped out my parents' earliest years
And converted them to 1950s Georgians
Who'd always attended church and school, like anyone.

My father had never paused at two water fountains
And asked a white man which he should drink from,
And never told his children what the answer had been.

My mother had never arranged a migration,
Solo at seventeen, from Taipei to wherever,
But had simply appeared in Gainesville out of ether, [End Page 100]

And nothing about their original languages
Had brought them together. Their children
Had never needed to explain to anyone

Why distinctness and mystery were not advantages
When they were not optional, and never wondered
If particular features had caused particular failures.

For months I couldn't write anything decent
Because banned information kept trying to enter
Like bungled idioms in the speech of a foreigner.

I was my own totalitarian government
Or an HMO that wouldn't pay for a specialist,
And I was the dissident or patient who perished.

The hope was to transcend the profanity of being
Through the dissolution of description and story,
Which I thought might turn out to be secondary

To a semi-mystical state of unseeing,
But everywhere I went there was circumstance,
All of it strangely tainted by my very presence.


All those months I tried to save sleep
like money, and reread the manuals.
Who did I think I was? [End Page 101]

So many before me had never turned back,
surely it was paradise - or a black hole.
When I was seventeen I knew
the fight was for art or nothing,

and while I surely knew something,
it wasn't the meaning of nothing.
Everyone's mother could have been someone.

Now that it's happened, I no longer fear
my middle name, woman under a roof.
Here on earth, a complete escape from abstraction.
Either you're there or you aren't.



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pp. 99-102
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