Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Poem: August Rain

At some anonymous minute at five in the morning
I sit on a white stool on a black aluminum-gated balcony,
watching the orange glow of the street lamp in our alley.
My husband says that a South Asian family lives in the house
where lights come on just now and a shadow robotically prepares coffee.
I imagine Dad sitting here like I am, smoking a cigarette, already knowing
all the neighbours’ daily and nightly routines. He’d know their names,
how many kids they have, where they came from, if they were nice
or assholes, if they sold weed. And they’d know him—
the friendly chain-smoking American Vietnam veteran
whose daughter never comes out of the house because
she’s writing another book. They’d know
she was ill all the time, has three kids,
and her no-good ex-husband cheated on her when she got cancer.
They’d know that this American and his wife were from Pennsylvania
and this American hated Vancouver because he’s from
the country—American country—and it’s too rainy
and noisy and expensive here.

Turn my head to the left to figure out the distribution
of orange glows. One at every second house.

The crows are usually here, squawking out their morning roll call,
but they are keeping dry in the thick of some evergreen.

The rain woke me up. In the city that always rains,
we haven’t had much of it lately. Some are waking up
to the gentle knocking of an old friend, one who rarely goes on vacation
and is back. Even Dad wouldn’t have minded this rain.

The glitter of wet gravel,
the silky reflection of the orange glow on the roof of the doghouse,
wetness, light
dancing in the dark and otherwise.

Dad never visited this house.
We moved here when he died.
Or by design—something knowing we would need a new start.
Yet this is where his ashes lie—
in a house he never knew in the city that always cries.

It’s the wrong season to remember Dad.
It wasn’t sunny much when he was here.
But the rain woke me up
to sit on my balcony, and listen.

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17 Days: Day 4

There was a lot of driving for me to do,
with Mom in the car, between Arch Rock and Lebanon,
and of course we got lost the first time,
Mom’s directional accuracy not even close to being a broken compass,
just off off off, in the spaces where I’d have to
interrupt her Buddha sermon and ask her,
foolishly, LEFT?, RIGHT?, STRAIGHT? MOM?
ending up having to go backward to the first point
where we got lost—and let me tell you,
all red and brown barns look the same, so
thank goodness I remembered the one that had
“Jesus Saves” painted on the roof,
near the McDonald’s with free wifi so I could
Google-maps-screen-cap the rest of our way to where Dad was.

There seems to be no end in sight when you’re driving
through trees like that, and your mother is barrelling at you
with her reasons as to why your father has cancer,
like how he was shovelling snow a couple months ago
and hurt his shoulder, which was the same time he had
a big fight with your sister and her husband about what
was supposed to have happened at Christmas
or around it but did not—
all that combined was why your Dad has cancer.

It was then when I said, “That’s not how cancer works, Mom,”
that I missed the left Google Maps told me to make in 0.2 miles.
As if I knew better how cancer works.

The last five miles of the drive are the longest
because you are almost there, and the road is so wide
but the speed limit is a snaily 15 miles per hour
for no other reason than to honour the sacred drive
through the sacrifice of many young people
who probably barely understood how they were being used
before they couldn’t be used anymore.
As if you know better how war works.

Finally, we pulled into the handicapped parking space
I eventually stopped feeling guilty about parking in
because Mom said we were just as injured as anyone else anyway,
and we got there first, or at the right time,
so park there, take the spot, hang up the tag,
we won’t be here for long
before we have to drive back again.

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17 Days: Day 3

This might be the day he comes home.
We don’t know yet, but we wait.
Coming home again.
First time, from the war.
Second time, from the country where the war was,
with a new wife and someone else’s kid.
Third, fourth, twelfth, thirteenth times from rehab
of different kinds,
when I pictured it like my dad going to summer camp,
making crafts and participating in trust falls
to get rid of everything that threatened to tear us apart.

This time coming home, not to live again but to die,
to live a very dying life
with all the gear that goes with that.

Dr. Rachael fixing for him to come home meant
getting him out of bed to shuffle down the hall,
but first get him out of bed.
On his own two feet and everything else he had previously taken for granted—
we have to get him to stand on that, one oedematous leg at a time.

Getting permission to go home is the golden ticket, we think.
At the first hint of its possible issuance,
I make phone calls to men who drive trucks made for moving
cross-country, but instead carry oxygen tanks,
modified toilet seats, and anything else with wheels and brakes.

Where we live, you can’t keep an illness like that a secret.
It’s everybody’s business, and everyone has an opinion.
They’ll see the trucks and the nameless men
in uniforms delivering all the things needed
to make dying less horrible.
They’ll part their flimsy floral curtains
and look out their windows and mutter prayers
under their breath, spittle hitting their chins,
but they won’t notice cuz they’ll be too busy praising Jesus
that it wasn’t their driveway those trucks were pulling up in.

I think these thoughts as I’m on hold with
the medical equipment company receptionist,
as the nurse helps Dad bring one leg out,
as Mom hovers over the nurse because she knows her husband
better than this American woman does.
Dad’s done all this before.
All of this, to come home.

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My whole body hurt. The pain thundered in my head.
Writhing, pulling pillows over my eyes, trying to lay
softness over the inner beating I was taking
like a mother trying to soothe a child with hushes
and hugs when the child’s knee is torn open,
bloody and full of pebbles,
my head—my bloody fucking head crowded with
so much pain, I had to give it an 8.

Back to the Pain Scale. How familiar I am
with this “universal” scale of measurement, yet
how perplexing it is, still. The Pain Scale.

“How much pain are you in, on a scale of 1-10?”
I’m in pain, and I’m supposed to give you a computation/
quantification of this pain. “I feel a 7.”
What’s a 7 anyway?

Three babies, one cancer diagnosis, ten surgeries,
and I’m-not-going-to-count-how-many friends I’ve watched dying—
none of that made me understand The Pain Scale until Day 2.

Were we truly on the cusp of spring, or still courting it to fight
past the stubborn frigidity of mid-March? I know it was that
fickle overcast in-between weather that Mom and I walked out of
and into the hallway of the first floor,
a first floor unlike normal hospitals that are new, sterile,
adorned with plaques announcing the names of the big donors
who made possible their disaster-ready modernization.
This hallway: a grey cement vein through a building
that hadn’t been touched since the 70s.
After all, it was, it is, one of those hospitals of the forgotten
in a country that always claims to never forget.

Around the dimly lit corner, Mom and I took the elevator up
to Camp Courage, to Dad’s room where he lay against all wishes,
shackled by tubes and tanks.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your pain?” Dr. Rachael asked.
And there it was, the gesture I myself have made so many times:
the shoulder-shrugging, wrinkled-nose expression made during
an exercise of best-guess approximation, like we’re suppose to
rate Miss America on her talent portion, that is to say,
beauty (and how she walks) is in the eye of the beholder.
Isn’t pain as well?

Then she showed us a picture.
Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 8.59.35 AM

“Forget numbers,” she said. “Which face is you?”

Dad reached out his shaky finger to the sad face next to the teary one.

“So about an 8,” she said, ordering meds accordingly.

I scribbled on the back of Dad’s breakfast menu:
FullSizeRender (1)

Dad nodded and smiled. “Nice try, Dad,” I said.
Dr. Rachael said Dad could go home when his pain was a 6. Just 2 points less.

But 2 points. This wasn’t basketball. This was cancer. And there was the faulty nature
of numbers and pain.

Still, Dad was shooting for a 6. Or the less orangey-yellowy, less frowning face.

We’d start to understand The Pain Scale between us, when I would ask
and he would answer, until he couldn’t say numbers anymore,
when for all of us, it became a pain without faces, without numbers.

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I assume we all have our own rituals
beginning today, even though today is March 9, and back then it was March 10—
it was a Monday, and that matters more.

I picture Mother kneeling, kowtowing to his picture and all the Buddhas,
goddesses, and all-seeing eyes at her altar, wooden prayer beads
around her neck falling forward as she does, supplicating
my father’s still nascent soul into someplace good,
so her soul will go someplace good someday too.

I picture Sister going about her day as usual,
nothing remarkable or special to note
except for the sadness that’s always there is deeper today,
and she tries to not know why.

I woke up today almost not knowing how today already has changed me
from yesterday, when I lay in convalescence from a malaise I’ll always have.

One year ago, I was on my way to where Father lay—
or I had pictured him lying, scared and confused,
or more likely resigned. On a plane, in the clouds,
I wondered why teleportation had not yet been invented,
why five hours is sometimes too long, sometimes not long enough.

Today I bring the heavy blue ceramic urn from the altar in my bedroom
to the kitchen table. I select small smooth pebbles and tiny seashells
to fill the candle holder. I can’t find my candles in the dark
where my husband sleeps.

I turn on the burner on the electric stove to 8 and wait
for the tip of my lavender incense to glow red.
Incense in the urn. Ashes to ashes.
(Oh god, Daddy, my heart!)

I make a pot of chamomile tea, three pinches of dried flowers
from the container to the pot, hot water hitting the flowers,
steam rising to meet my muffled sobs. I want to WAIL WAIL
CRY SHAKE at this utter bullshit,
but I know better than to wake my family like that.

So it will be. For the next 17 days, I will remember
each of those last 17 Days, now knowing how they were numbered
on Fate’s calendar,
each morning lighting incense on the stove,
my tears sizzling when they hit the burner,
upon contact, water and fire, brief pop,
just like his last breath,
the final laboured one after 17 days-worth.

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By this time next week

I’ll be in Vietnam. I can’t seem to adequately describe to anyone how profoundly terrifying this is to me because every time I say that I am going to Vietnam and that I’m nervous about it, the person with whom I’m talking dismisses my statement and says, “Oh, but you’re going to love it there!” And I have a big problem with that. Here’s why. You are not me. You did not grow up half-Vietnamese, half-White with two parents who were scarred by war in very different ways. You did not grow up not understanding the language your mother spoke but looking like you should. You did not grow up watching your father medicate himself against the visions he kept seeing of gruesome deaths of his friends. You did not have the nightmares that I have had about a place that you heard about all the time, but only in a limited context that you knew was far from the whole horrific story. You are not going alone with your Vietnamese mother, whose brain is super-fucked up from the sudden death of her husband of 44 years, who took care of everything that had to do with her survival in a country far from her family—your Vietnamese mother who can’t trust anyone because of all the times the people she did trust betrayed her and threatened to kill her or her family—your Vietnamese mother who knows this is likely the last time she will ever step foot in the country from which she came. You are not traveling with that baggage, Person I’m Talking To. So please, do not tell me how much I’m going to love it there just because you did, because the Vietnamese were so warm and accommodating to you and your Western ways, with your guidebook and your curiosity and fascination, with your conscience void of trauma–don’t tell me how much I’m going to love Vietnam because you don’t have a fucking clue.

I might. I might not. I don’t know. I just don’t want to be told. So don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything. I’m used to not being told.


Vietnam, February 2015 (40 Years Later, soon)
Part II

He’ll guide me to the places
He always hid from me but wanted to show me
at the same time, when He could show no one else,
not even Her in their closest moments.
She only understood so much in the way
of the mythology of the GI Saviour born from/
strayed from/returned to Jesus Christ,
like how it was when He couldn’t rescue Her anymore,
and then it was Her turn to rescue Him,
console Him at the cross.

He was supposed to show me the places where
tourists marvel at the spectacle of war
as shown by the victors, while confiding in me
in good faith, the cynicism of governments
versus humans—people who become inhuman
with their power, in their power
while blood thickens mud.

So I’m told that this country is full of perfume,
sweat, sorrow and joy—the beauty of overcoming
this Thing that people visit, then leave all the time
because it is a country of dreams, so so so many of them—
but don’t forget the people left behind.

He couldn’t forget. She tried.
Except when tradition told Her to remember.
And still, She tried.
He’ll guide me to the places They couldn’t forget,
those places I know from which I truly came.

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When Souls Go Somewhere

The rain, the soul of the world crying with me,
made me feel more hollow,
an unending blackness of WHY
sighed like that last breath breathed out,
an eternity of last sighs.

The light turns red, and our car stops by
a homeless guy in a mud-splattered poncho
with a warped cardboard sign about
being homeless and having a terminal illness.
“Hey Buddy!” I shout inside my head.
“Life is a fucking terminal illness!”

And it sucker-punches you in the gut,
the light turning green and how things are still going,
but he is not.
He stays glued to that hospital bed, head still beading
with cold sweat, breath shallow,
aggressive cadence on the chest until the last beat,
he stays there, and he can’t feel you touch him anymore
but all that is in you washes out so fast you can’t breathe,
just like him, you want to choke on that last breath, just like him,
you want to stop moving, just like him. But you can’t.

The car pulls up to the curb. The rain keeps on.
I open the door. I steady myself
because this is today. This is one foot
in front of the other.
This is me, and how he used to be.

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Vietnam, February 2015

Rickshaws. Rice paddies. An old war. Napalm.
“The Vietnamese people are so nice, so accommodating,”
I’m always told,
White people reassuring me that my Vietnamese half isn’t inherently demonic,
like the American soldiers were told. No—
“They are not people. They are things that you must kill by any means.
They are not human.”
And that was Dad’s first memory of Vietnam.
Me—I don’t have memories yet, but I’m sure glad those people are so nice.

Eagle Brand medicated green oil. Chay-yaw. Buddhas and their altar. My ghost family.
“You’re American like your daddy,” Mom tells me. “Your sister—she Vietnam.”
I can’t prove otherwise,
my tongue and throat conspire against me when I speak Vietnamese as I know how.
But I try to show Mom how much I like durian…
just like White people who’ve been to Vietnam on vacation or for research,
how they say they’re experts in durian and nuoc mam. They tell me this
after they try to make small talk on planes, asking
“Where are you from?”
And I say, “I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but now I live in Canada.”
And they say, “No, but where are you really from?”

Alcohol. PTSD. Heaven and earth and reincarnation.
Temples 90 minutes away. Church with an outhouse down the road,
by the crick.
I don’t know how it’s going to be when I go.
I’ve gone there in my mind so many goddamn times,
my migraines and insomnia from all that jetlag catching up,
but I know it’s not the same.
I just know there’s a demon I have to face.
I don’t know if it’s me.
I don’t know what it is.

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That porch swing, white paint chipping and flaking,
those two rusty chains and the hooks that hold them up,
the chains also hold up 90% certainty that we won’t crash
when we sit down, that we won’t splinter upon impact
on the oil-stained concrete…that swing swung us back and forth,
between the past in the back, almost hitting the cherry Chevy Nova parked
behind it, and the future at the front of our extended legs,
toes en pointe toward the hills basking in the orange ooze
of the sinking sleepy sun.

That porch swing was our time machine.
We got older and younger all at once with each launch.
Sometimes we became timeless,
or forever.
But we knew we’d always have to land at some point,
and get up,
and walk away.

Perfection of everything swung on that swing.
If I wanted to, if I could, I’d unhook the swing,
carry it across lands to find different rusty hooks to attach it to,
and it would be something “different,” as Pappy would say
in his sweet feathery husky twang,
to fly into the past and future in other spots,
but I would never be able to find that hill,
that sunset,
that cherry Chevy Nova and the oil stains the car tattooed
on the porch.
That swing, there, will always hold us up.
We’ll never fall down in time.

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Houses, Homes #9: Pipes

His pipe collection. The walnut pipe holder for it.
Little curves to cradle the bowls, the stems held in place
in the two rows of three holes close to the handle. I know I’ll never smell anything
like that again—
the sweet earthiness of tobacco residue, the scorched wood, the plastic tips
where Dad’s lips would hug the stem in a tight embrace,
breathing in moments of calm, solace,
like when I put my face in my baby’s neck and inhale,
just like that.

Second-hand smoke didn’t exist in the 80s,
so I’d breathe along with Dad. He never told me to go away
when he needed to puff, and I’d watch mini plumes billow from the bowl
and out his mouth, a smoke snake trailing up and
disappearing into heaven.

Smoke lay in his beard. His bristly beard
that tickled my cheek. I can remember that tickle
but not the hug that brought me that close to him.

His pipe collection organised to be something that marked his days
from a particular time when tobacco came in a big tin can,
just like coffee. And I’d open the tobacco can just to smell,
like I would with the coffee. But Mom, she didn’t know

what those pipes were meant for
in this moment,
and now they are all lost, lost, lost,
and fallen. Probably broken, cracked, fractured,
buried in the earth somewhere with all the rest.

I wish I could hold a pipe in my palms,
holding the thing where his breath would pass in and out,
his breathing that he never thought anyone would care about,
but I do.

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