Being of Islands

it was always the kitchen things
that seemed to separate me

from the continent
of promise, the shores
my great-grandmother
alighted on sturdily, stepping
off the dock into a dusty city, nothing
like her Palermo.  The continent
of promise, the thousand blinking
lights my father could not help
counting, flying silently through  
a sky that no longer smelled
of mango trees.  I remember

the boy my father told me
he was, sprinting with classmates
through crowded Taipei streets
to shout, panting, at the vans
full of American tourists,
“Hi! Hello! Blah Blah Blah!”
never knowing if they understood.

How would I have seen him?
This round-faced child, cheeks
flushed with exertion, dark eyes
shining amid the noise and neon,
the smell of drying meats, the tents
crowding the curb selling soybean
cakes and flyswatters, hurling tattered
American greetings at us:
air-conditioned and wide-eyed, Nikons
swinging from our necks. How could he

know, years later, he would return
with one of them—a woman, small
and loud, with a sturdiness in her eyes
that stepped everywhere
before she did, searching humid
alleyways and rooftops dotted
with potted plants—for what?
She seemed to collide

with every passing body
in the hungry din of the night
markets, shouting “没事!”
(no problem) instead
of “对不起!” (excuse me),
and he followed her,

the abrasive pitch of her
misused Chinese, through
the lights and the smoke
until they reached a dim corner
where an old woman sold dumplings
and small tumblers of tea
from the back of her cart.  They
sat on bright plastic stools

cupping the chipped porcelain
with quiet hands, watching
her fold crescents around morsels
of green onion and garlic and pork
in the dark.  And here he was home
again—a boy with scabs on his elbows
screaming “Hi!” at the passing outlines
of faces behind tinted windows.  She,
on his island, found laughter and tea
and a mind like her eyes, always searching

 

and ready for a voice to reach back
in a tongue not his own, that understood
nonetheless, the hurtling warmth
of a word—that a word is an isthmus
always unfinished, in need of another.
And when nothing but the bitter black
vinegar lingered, they looked out at the night
that had fallen around them like petals or snow,
smiling in the silence

they owned.  Years later, in the bright
mid-afternoon, I watched my father knead
dough before his powdered hands rounded
bits of ground pork and green onions
into teardrops he tucked away
beneath thin folds pressed tight
with wet fingers.  In the mornings,

he’d boil jujubes and dried dragon fruit
in a big pot that never left
the front burner of the stove: ladling
the steaming broth into a mug, he’d sit
at the head of the empty table sipping
slowly between bites of 皮蛋, black
duck eggs preserved in clay
and quicklime and I saw the silence
and it was not his.  She had left
and though the cabinet above the counter
where he stacked his books still held her

 

tea in multicolored boxes and tins, she
had taken the laughter and the silence, both.
And when the dumplings he had shaped
with wet fingers went to school with me
in a black Velcro lunchbox emblazoned
red with a dragon, I carried that silence
that was not his, too.  I unfolded its
potpourri corners in my lap, cradled
its edges against the lunchmeat-filled
mouths spitting questions about pets
and my chopsticks, until it unfurled

itself like a serpent.  Remembering
the weight of its fangs, it rose
like a cloud.  My Nagasaki.  
If my father’s father
could have looked from the deck
of his carrier, floating in the port
of Keelung, to see the ash
and dust blossoming over the ruins
of his occupiers’ city, would he think
of my father, his son?


              Could he know the bright blinking lies
of a shore, the silence of a kitchen,
empty in sun?

Terrorists

The neighbor kid behind me

in line, twitching,

with black widow bites down his arms,

 

about to implode

into obituary.

Or the one in the vacant lot

 

packing powder in a pipe

to blow himself away

in a blizzard of dirty pigeons.

 

There’s the guy on the bus

with inflammable breath,

nudging me.

 

God don’t let that be

my bombshell daughter naked

in a sleeping bag on a public bench

 

with gaps in her teeth, picking at scabs.

I say to myself

behavior isn’t contagious,

 

the spray from that vomiting vagrant

can’t infect me with DTs.

But that youth who was caught

 

letting himself into my home

to stash contraband

and steal heirlooms—

 

please tell me he’s not

my tunnel-eyed son,

quick with excuses,

 

plotting a fix.

Carol Amber

Bacteria breeds in the potato bin, white
spores on the windowsill. The stove
top is lined with cold cuts, half-eaten
yogurt. Tea bags line her sink, Sweet Flag,
Burdock, Bitterroot. Her milk is outdated,
the salami petrified. Mice coagulate
at the periphery of crackers
and chips. I offer to clean
but she says, no, blocks the refrigerator
as if I am about to steal
her oranges. She worries I might
spill the milk, break the eggs.
The pantry smells like dog urine,
her own hair a disarray of tanagers.

The supermarket calls to her like a siren.
She can’t refuse its colored cans,
its cool freezer breath, stacks of lemons,
limes, apples, grapefruits, oranges,
its tussle of bananas and string beans.
She worships its bakery, sprinkled
donuts and caraway rye—buys more,
shops every day, sometimes twice.
She is in her element, pushing
the wheeled cart like an old friend,
focusing on the grocery list
tattooed to memory—aged cheddar
in case her son visits, Cheerios
for her grandson, goat’s milk
for her daughter, ice cream
and steak in case the neighbor
stops over, hungry.

Her dog carouses the yard with bristled
neck fur. Pine needles shed onto shingles
and an eave hangs loose like a strand
of hair escaping the barrette. The dock reins-in
boats—paddle, pontoon, kayak, canoe—
tethered like patient horses,
their marshy pasture a lily pad haven
full of turtle breath, frog dynamics, how wetlands
too harbors words—oasis, cattail, snake.

She pours us tea, one that claims
to detoxify, to soothe the throat. Honey
dissolves in the agitated swirl
of our spoons. I mention a home,
as if it’s a nesting word, as if she’s a porcelain
doll and I’m placing her in the doll house.
I promise she can take her dog
and her array of crackers. When I tell her
she can return in the spring,
the word Bitterroot sticks in my throat.

Little World / After a Series of Rejections

You      can safely e merge        to sit   with magenta   tulips   ,
orange day    lilies    shouting

surprise(!)    in their inaudible – to – humans –  language.  . ..   Dandelions make
punctuation    marks   in short   isomorphic    sentences of

manna and buffalo grass.     You   are struck
by the    watery    sounds       grackles    make.   It’s fabulous ,

and they are forgetful                of  you ,    which is also            grand,    gathered
as they are    in the crabapple     and hopping in   miniature

crescendos   ~ ^ ~ ~ ^   they’ve made      a discovery,   these   branches     this
bark : new     country,       paradise,     the real

estate     they have    longed     for .      How far out
on a limb are you willing to go? ,  ,     perched

on     the radical          reaches     of
nerve      nebulae . … .       Into the blue  

beyond      .  . …   .
a less  bird-like    sotto voice   chimes : “that’s your grandmother’s

language”     &       “ it’s   getting     hot”   – –
Y ou move   beneath

the   crabapple,       grackles
scatter.   In the halo of        sentence-diagrams

there’s a buzzing       Gertrude
vibrated    along   with.     You watch    a bumble bee     go     at it

with a blossom,   and a     smaller       black     drone     hovers :
amateur   observing a    pro.   The speaker

phone       makes an ugly   sound •     from inside
the house ,  as though    calling for   a

doctor.   The message     says
not   to     leave   a          message     ,,   someone

ornery    or desperate  or    oblivious   does so
anyway.   Your   beloved is

in the    painting   studio     laughing   at the    astrological
forecast     that has    interrupted the    jazz

show.  Briefly,
s/he hammers  a     board .   When you first crept   out

the door  you were     startled
by      branches    of the lilac   ,   how exactly

they  were         capillaries craning   their angular
snake-like     necks   , forest     explosions !     (radiant

ends ).    This     has   everything       to do    with
the limb-
ic    system ,       your  thin   malachite     t-shirt

a  pond –
w/     gold   sparkle ,     which   floats    , ,

and the emerald   ink      you write  in     every
spring  b/c you have   a need  to

talk to   yourself      in   color  after     the spanipelagic   wash
of   winter.    The black dog    drinks

from the bird’s   oval   basin     & lies down       covered
in     the  cadmium       heat of the nearest

star . Light     is    amniotic   , we swim ..       More banging
sparks   up   static  in      the studio.        You have   only

so much   sand   left       in   the eternity
symbol   ,       how are you      going to
count  it ?

( The   dog   rolls   on his    back
r olls   back     on his    side

snorts     . )       The virgin constellation    sits at a  tilt  ,
rock-nested.   She’s  seen     more  gracious

rotations  ,    but       remains
in the prayerful      position.   On the other side  of

dishevelment ,       stone and latilla       steps    hide
the insignia     of   crab          beneath

sage.       It isn’t that      you
are crabby    ,  it’s that  your    efforts  are       beginning to

resemble    a      gust       hitting      a    cluster
of densely packed particles.         Perhaps  your

elements are     perplexed . Wind
is      ephemeral.

The    dog           leaves   the   rays
in   favor   of   a      gray

the    crabapple             casts
,, (  The dog  ,     at least     , thinks

you might  have       something to     offer. )  The grackles
have decided      you are a non-
threat,   so move in      as   close

as      the nearest       apple  .
Chuck chuck  chuck ,    the shiny     crow     says,

Pheew.   Perfectly normal             bees
descend     to       lower   branches ,     close to your

hat, which is
human.   Nature          adores you ,

what more   can you want ?
The         unknowable           answers

w/ last night’s   dream :   B.H.     exhorts   ‘A.S.   to   WRITE !

A   Klee-like         twig-drawing   appears :       rectangular dwelling
containing a flower-in-a-pot, a stick-tree ,   and a stick-person

etched     in the skin of
an   upper   arm   ,

a     shot in the   dark

( like the doctor gives ) of the lyric :
( according to Donne ) :

a     little     world
made                                                                  cunningly   .”

 

And so, it is.