this is an apple [a poem]

sour apples – ma

sliced them for me, a

snack – large slices, on

a yard sale saucer.

 

tough-skinned and green, no

blemish, no spot, they

burned their way down on

an empty belly.

 

early you learned there’s

no puckering no

squinting no faces –

this is sweet, she said:

 

this is an apple.

 

you forget there are

other apples and

other kinds of sweet,

names like blush and pink.

 

there they are on the

shelf, shined and pouting.

yes you see and you

don’t recognize them.

Earth Dogged [a poem]

what is the

time between

new years called?

that floating

time between

sunpath and

the last pass

of the moon?

 

when do you

wish, and what

for? and when

do you sweep

the floors? when

do you wear

all of your

luckiest things?

and do your

ancestors

know where to

find you this

side of the

ocean? and

when do you

cut your hair?

 

do you start

over when

they say it’s

time to start

over or

do you start

over when

THEY say it’s

time to start

over or

 

do you hold

your breath for

the cover of

moonless night,

just like an

animal,

to give birth

secretly

to yourself

in a world

that is now

not so new?

 

who is there

holding your

hands over

incense and

do/can they

recognize

you anew?

what is that

time called, that

time between

new years, and

 

what do you

call yourself

while you are

new and yet

renewing?

 

Reformation [a poem]

The dream begins in darkness, the
waking in the cold,
the rising onto floorboards that have
long ago grown old.

And the dream is limitless in
colors I can’t see, a
panoply of rising tides, a
new cacophony –

A dream that is worth kingdoms, a
dream that shatters walls, a
dream that endures while the dreamers
pass and empires fall.

And we dream in broken English
and we dream in sound a
dream that’s fat and queer and good and
Black, yellow, and brown.

And we dream the reclamation
and we dream of liberty
from the dream that held the poorest
in captivity.

And we dream in worry, and we
dream of worlds to come, and we
bleed and sweat and toil for the
New Jerusalem.

While five hundred years have passed, the
dream remains the same:
unnamable, incomparable, and
you must light the way.

Flight of the Butterfly [a poem]

My mother left this morning for Shanghai
where she will take a train to her homeland.
I call before she departs from O’Hare.
She’s distracted and she speaks in flutters –
neither here nor there, which is who she is.

I wonder if she feels like a mother
or like a daughter in her father’s house,
or if the low and steady pain of loss
of her own mother from across oceans
keeps her like a ghost circling our lives.

She is going now, mother-butterfly,
seeking homecoming in a land where she
has not yet made the hurricane of us.
She speaks Mandarin – city dialect –
unlike the humble drawl of her people,
and on the phone, I reply in English,
but I say to her, “上帝保佑你,”
and she thanks me in the voice of a child.
All our ancestors stoop to carry her
thirty years ago, half a world away.

Mothertongue [a poem]

Lately I’ve wondered
what I’d say if I
spoke my mother’s tongue
fluently, freely,
what I’d say to her.

What my mother would
say to me if she
spoke my language too,
fluently, freely.

I could tell her jokes.
She would not panic
and misunderstand
“police”/”policy.”

She could share with me
family history.
We could drink hot tea
and water the seeds
and speak of angels,
of God and the Dao,
and we could gossip.

All I stand to give,
could she stand to gain?
Would there be laughter
and would there be pain?

The Sweetest Little Racist Lady

Picture1
The view from that grey house

It had been some time since my wife last returned to the island where she fished for lobsters – a sea-scrubbed postcard landscape twenty miles east of anywhere. She was fresh out of school and still fishing then, and she wasn’t married. This time, she brought me.

She received a hearty homecoming: invitations to dinner, long hugs, and island gossip. Folks came by, one by one, across the little grey, gambrel-roofed home where my wife and her family would stay overnight between long shifts.

One of the passers-by – let’s call her Elaine – was particularly enthusiastic. “Look how you’ve grown up!” she clutched my wife’s face between her hands.

And like all kind strangers, she turned to acknowledge me too. “And I’m thrilled,” she said to my wife, “to meet this exotic flower of yours.”

Now, I’d been practicing the art of assuming good intentions, and it served both Elaine and me well that day. “Oh, I’m not exotic at all – just another Mainer now, like you.”


There’s a misconception that racism comes only by the hands of hateful people and malicious intent. But racism isn’t one weapon that wounds in one way.

Racism is a prism through which reality distorts.

Sometimes, hateful people look through the prism at a group of children walking home from school and call it a gang. Sometimes, the sweetest little lady cups your wife’s face, welcomes her home, and turns to greet you through a different facet of that same prism.

This particular facet of Elaine’s prism is called Orientalism.* Orientalism pre-dates Edward Said’s publication. It pre-dates the United States. It’s a school of thought originating from Europeans’ first conceptions of Asia, and it maintains that Asia (the “Orient”) is in every way the opposite of Europe (the “Occident”). In often insidious and purposeful ways, American holders of power and influence have continued to espouse the idea that Asia – and Asian people – could never be compatible with white America (or even Black and white America).

Orientalism leads white Americans to consider Asian Americans, even a born-Midwesterner like me (who loves mac n’ cheese and cherry pie), eternally foreign, exotic, and un-American. To be called an “exotic flower” wasn’t hurtful to me. But it deserves to be addressed because these words stem from a deeper learning passed on through ages of anti-Asian sentiment that leads to far more dangerous consequences.**

Elaine wasn’t a hateful person. She wasn’t even unlikeable. And she had viewed me – spoken to me – through the prism of racism. But the opposite of racism is not kindness. (Nor is the opposite of racism “color-blindness.”) The opposite of racism can maybe be described through the vernacular of my faith: repentance – turning and choosing a different path. The opposite of racism is repentance and justice and power and freedom. The opposite of a prism that obscures reality is a cloudless, limitless sky.

 

 

 

* Now is probably also the time to remind readers that “Oriental” is not to be used to describe humans.

**Recent examples include the murder of Tommy Le, the rise of anti-Asian violence both before and after Trump’s election, and far too much more