He will not light long enough
for the interpreter to gather
the tatters of his speech.
But the longer we listen
the calmer he becomes.
He shows me the place where his daughter
has rubbed with a coin, violaceous streaks
raising a skeletal pattern on his chest.
He thinks he’s been hit by the wind.
He’s worried it will become pneumonia.
In Cambodia, he’d be given
a special tea, a prescriptive sacrifice,
the right chants to say. But I
know nothing of Chi, of Karma,
and ask him to lift the back of his shirt,
so I may listen to his breathing.
Holding the stethoscope’s bell I’m stunned
by the whirl of icons and script
tattooed across his back, their teal green color
the outline of a map which looks
like Cambodia, perhaps his village, a lake,
then a scroll of letters in a watery signature.
I ask the interpreter what it means.
It’s a spell, asking his ancestors
to protect him from evil spirits—
she is tracing the lines with her fingers—
and those who meet him for kindness.
The old man waves his arms and a staccato
of diphthongs and nasals fills the room.
He believes these words will lead his spirit
back to Cambodia after he dies.
I see, I say, and rest my hand on his shoulder.
He takes full deep breaths and I listen,
touching down with the stethoscope
from his back to his front. He watches me
with anticipation—as if awaiting a verdict.
His lungs are clear. You’ll be fine,
I tell him. It’s not your time to die.
His shoulders relax and he folds his hands
above his head as if in blessing.
Ar-kon, he says. All better now.
If you believe in the magic of language,
then Elvis really Lives
and Princess Diana foretold I end as car spin.
If you believe the letters themselves
contain a power within them,
then you understand
what makes outside tedious,
how desperation becomes a rope ends it.
The circular logic that allows senator to become treason,
and treason to become atoners.
That eleven plus two is twelve plus one,
and an admirer is also married.
That if you could just rearrange things the right way
you’d find your true life,
the right path, the answer to your questions:
you’d understand how the Titanic
turns into that ice tin,
and debit card becomes bad credit.
How listen is the same as silent,
and not one letter separates stained from sainted.
Deadly Sins? Please — let’s replace Pride
with Modesty, especially when it’s false.
And thank goodness for Lust, without it
I wouldn’t be here. Would you?
Envy, Greed — why not? If they lead us
to better ourselves, to Ambition.
And Gluttony, like a healthy belch, is a guest’s
best response to being served a good meal.
I’ll take Sloth over those busybodies
who can’t sit still, watch a sunset
without yammering, or snapping a picture.
Now that makes me Wrathful.
Not so much the desire
for owning things
as the inability to choose
between hunter or emerald
green, to buy
just roses, when there are birds
of paradise, dahlias,
delphinium, and baby’s breath.
At center an emptiness
large as a half-off sale table.
What could be so wrong
with a little indulgence?
To wander the aisles of fresh
new good things knowing
any of them could be hers?
With a closet full of shoes
unworn back home,
she’s looking for love
but it’s not for sale —
so she grabs three of
the next best thing.
The only time I ever heard my fathe
r speak his native Cantonese was on vacation
when we’d stop at a Chinese Wok or Chop
Suey restaurant. He’d yammer at the waitress
until she brought out the owner, stunned
my father, who didn’t look Asian, spoke
perfect Chinese. He’d finagle us a
Happy Family Meal, or something else
not on the menu. Then try to teach us kids
to use chopsticks—stabbing his Mongolian Beef
and prying it apart, picking up a single
grain of rice and holding it to the light.
My father would tell us how he and his brothers
had three words for everything: Chinese,
Portuguese, and English, choosing what
best captured the thing they meant to say,
the resulting pidgin a dialect all their own.
But talking that way produced a subtle yet
permanent crisscrossing of his language wires,
causing him endless embarrassment as an adult
in America: saying dis and dat to customers
at his store, asking us to sweep the ground
or weed the floor, telling Mother to close,
not turn off, the kitchen lights.
Perhaps that’s why he always loved
the dumbest puns: tricking us into saying
MacHine instead of machine; demonstrating
how assume made an ass of u and me;
boasting of an insurance policy so good
it covered one not merely from birth to death,
but from the erection to the resurrection.
Perhaps that’s why he never wanted to teach us
any Chinese or Portuguese—he was an American
now, and we were his American children. Faraway
Hong Kong just a dot on the globe
spinning on my older brother’s desk.
Gift of a friend, the stone Buddha sits zazen,
prayer beads clutched in his chubby fingers.
Through snow, icy rain, the riot of spring flowers,
he gazes forward to the city in the distance—always
the same bountiful smile upon his portly face.
Why don’t I share his one-minded happiness?
The pear blossom, the crimson-petaled magnolia,
filling me instead with a mixture of nostalgia
and yearning. He’s laughing at me, isn’t he?
The seasons wheeling despite my photographs
and notes, my desire to make them pause.
Is that the lesson? That stasis, this holding on,
is not life? Now I’m smiling, too—the late cherry,
its soft pink blossoms already beginning to scatter;
the trillium, its three-petaled white flowers
exquisitely tinged with purple as they fall.
“F. . . the oven is an F”
Samantha Foggle, age 3
Oh, to hear the world with such clarity.
Such surety. To know the note
of your breakfast chat is B-flat minor.
That the ’57 Chevy stalled outside the
garage is a D. To recognize the Apricot
kitchen paint for what it is: F-sharp.
To understand the way you feel for him is G,
definitely a G. And as you watch him
descend the scale of the front steps to his car
for work, the house quiets to an A.
The arpeggio of last night’s Every
Good Boy Deserves Favor
still ringing in your ears.
It used to be more private—just the
immediate family gathered after mass,
the baptismal font at the rear
of the church tiny as a bird bath.
The priest would ladle a few teaspoons’
tepid holy water on the bundled baby’s
forehead, make a crack about the halo
being too tight as the new soul wailed.
We’d go home to pancakes and eggs.
These days it’s a big Holy-wood production—
midmass, the giant altar rolls back to reveal
a Jacuzzi tub surrounded by potted palms.
The priest hikes up his chasuble, steps
barefoot out of his black leather loafers
and wades in like a newfangled John as
organ music swells and the baby-bearing families
line up like jumbo jets ready for takeoff.
But when the godparents handed my niece’s newborn
naked to their parish priest, and he dunked her
into the Jacuzzi’s bath-warm holy water,
her little one grew so calm and blissful she
pooped—not a smelly three-days’ worth, explosive
diaper load, but enough to notice. As the godparents
scooped the turds with a handkerchief,
the savvy priest pretended he hadn’t seen,
swept through the fouled water with his palm
before the next baby in line was submerged.
After mass, my niece sat speechless,
red-faced, not knowing what to say—
or whether—as church ladies, friends, and
family members presented one by one to
the tub where the babies had been
baptized. As they knelt and bowed
and dipped their fingers in,
and blessed themselves.
Hear the reading at Poetry Foundation
simmers on the kitchen stove.
All afternoon dense kernels
surrender to the fertile
juices, their tender bellies
swelling with delight.
In the yard we plant
rhubarb, cauliflower, and artichokes,
cupping wet earth over tubers,
our labor the germ
of later sustenance and renewal.
Across the field the sound of a baby crying
as we carry in the last carrots,
whorls of butter lettuce,
a basket of red potatoes.
I want to remember us this way—
late September sun streaming through
the window, bread loaves and golden
bunches of grapes on the table,
spoonfuls of hot soup rising
to our lips, filling us
with what endures.