Poetry Post-A-Thon: Chaos and Conformity

This one was published in Alaska Women Speak

Chaos and Conformity
The shoes sat orderly on three wood shelves
outside the Korean school
in shades of brown,
with no princesses,
no action figures on them—
nothing to outwardly distinguish one
set from another.
As you enter,
the foreign English language teacher,
you expect the shoes belong to bodies
that are
full of chaos,
full of yells,
full of squeals.
You imagine arms and legs smeared
with paint and paste.
Instead,
the sea of gray and blue shirts,
pants and jumpers,
is a sea of conformity and calm,
shattered by the appearance of
the dissimilar,
the foreign,
of language
and of appearance—
you.

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Poetry Post-A-Thon: Bibimbap

Bibimbap

She sees your pale blue eyes
and knows it is your first time.
She seizes your dolsot bibimbap,
out of your reach,
and starts whipping the stone pot
with the metal spoon.
Ne!
Ne!
Ne!
She chants over your stone pot
of cracking rice, vegetables and
hot chili pepper paste.
Trapped, she commandeered your plate,
and you and your fellow patrons
nod and cheer her frenzy on.
As the silver spoon scrapes the pot,
her tongue talks to the concoction
like one of Macbeth’s witches
until the stone pot and the chili
pepper paste mixture are one;
the batter, just the right consistency.
Finally, she ceases to a smile,
surrenders the spoon to the novice
with a bow, and retreats to the kitchen.
Kamsahamnida.
Thank you, you nod and smile,
knowing nothing you do or say
could ever top that act.

Poetry Post-A-Thon: A Greeting at Imjingak

This poem originally appeared in Alaska Women Speak.

A Greeting at Imjingak

She ambled off the tour bus,
like she was crossing over rocks
in a rough river,
one half step at a time.
Glancing outside at the concrete building
like a child greets an amusement park,
she wore at least seventy years
in the lines of her smile,
a face that remembered a time
before the Forgotten War,
when the Koreas were one.

She bows her head,
Annyong hashimnikka,
she says to the young American couple,
the visiting airman and his wife,
stationed at Osan Air Force Base,
who were there because the war
never really ended in peace,
but in an armistice,
a pause in play,
a forgotten war,
between two Cold War superpowers:
one of which no longer exists;
the other whose boots still remain,
generations after they declared victory.

You both stumble and trip in your speech,
over the barbed wire that ties your tongue
and stings your stomach as you attempt
to return the formal, honorific
form of the greeting she used.

Inside you wish you were not there
so maybe she would not be there either.

The South Korean tourists come to Imjingak
to see what they cannot touch,
what they cannot feel,
who they cannot see in the flesh,
of a land that was once theirs,
the men and women who they once knew,
and decades later,
cannot forget.
The Americans come to see the plaques
from each state that gave men in combat,
that mark their success that divided
the Korean brothers and sisters
and repelled Communism to the 38th parallel.
They want to see the Bridge of Freedom
over the Imjin river
that returned their POWs
and ended their battle in the Korean War.

They want to glance at the forbidden land of North Korea,
beyond the fields of tank traps and mines
bearing three languages of warning:
Korean, Chinese and English,
to the concrete no-man’s land created
to keep the fragile peace and division.

Nothing could prepare your gut for that smile,
that glow that greets you at the bus,
the one which seems grateful,
rather than spiteful,
for your continual military presence,
the generation who still wants
your boots on their ground.

You stumble over the wires
that tangle your tongue:
you cannot say it well in Korean;.
you cannot even say it aloud in English.

You are sorry she is there,
and that you are still there,
and the Bridge of Freedom
did not set her free.

Poetry Post-A-Thon: Babushka’s Samovar

This one was published in Alaska Women Speak

 

Babushka’s Samovar

 

The samovar placed on the kitchen table

is a poor replica of babushka’s samovar,

the silver one with the tiny teapot at the top

that held the strongest tea,

the tea she cautioned your tiny hand

not to touch,

not to hold.

Just watch, my devochka,

she would say,

as she poured the concentrated tea

into tiny china cups:

for you a little; for her a lot.

 

She would exhale the steam off her cup

like she was blowing off a potion,

like a spell casting you both back

to the old country,

the Good Russia of the tsars,

not the bad Russia where Lenin lived,

in the stories she would tell.

 

She takes you to the Samara of her youth,

when the tsar still lived

and the grand duchesses were the most

beautiful girls in the world,

as her tea cakes disappear

and your tea runs cold.

 

Today, your middle-aged hands fill

the teapot of your own samovar, far

less beautiful than babushka’s and made

of brass from new Russia.

You hope she doesn’t mind the cheap

imposter as you set two ceramic cups out,

and babushka’s spirit takes you to the

banks of the Volga just one more time.

Poetry Post-A-Thon: Joanna’s Child

This poem was published in Cirque‘s Winter 2015 issue.  It was written around 2001.  It remained dormant until 2015, when I decided to revise it and submit it for publication.  Despite some revision, little changed from old version to the final published version.

A side note: if you have never read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, do yourself a favor and check out this coming-of-age classic!

Enjoy!

Joanna’s Child

 

But what makes you get a baby often

                        starts with a kiss…Remember Joanna.

                                                –Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

 

At 14, I learned that I was Joanna’s baby.

The realization was somewhere

between sixth grade,

maxi pads

and sex education.

 

I was different—

not in the typical angst way,

for I stayed out of trouble,

in a small town

where no one divorced,

where everyone went to your church,

or some church,

where everyone wanted to know you,

or at least, your business—

I was an unwedded birth when good

girls did not keep their babies.

 

I’m your mother and father,

my mother would say,

and I believed her.

I told everyone I had no father,

 

until I became older and realized

the “oh” would be followed

by the awkward nod,

a shuffle of feet,

or rattle of ice in a drinking cup,

when I told them

my parents had not married,

nor had I had any contact

with him.

 

Eventually I caught on;

it was a signal—

we could no longer be friends.

 

Later, in my college years

the questions would be more demanding:

Do you know who he is?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

Aren’t you curious?

I would lie and say no.

 

Like all of the stones that were hurled at Joanna,

I knew my mother had her scars.

 

She would remind me often that

she was a good mother

(and to the best of her ability she was),

It was her attempt to negate those who thought otherwise

because she chose to break the rules.

 

So, what “lessons” did Joanna share

with her child?

I don’t fully know her pain

(or his name),

aside from the assurances of her mothering,

the glares and the asides.

She never shared her wounds,

and the wounds from the rocks that hit me

never healed either.

 

Poetry Post-A-Thon: High Tea and Fancy Things

This poem was published in Alaska Women Speak’s 2015 Winter Issue.  Written especially for their “talking over coffee or tea” issue, this one is “High Tea and Fancy Things.”

 

High Tea and Fancy Things

You choose Assam for your mother,

because you think it best resembles her tastes:

simple but brisk, a taste familiar

but bolder than her usual Lipton.

For yourself, you choose the Chinese Green Flowering Jasmine

because its fancy green leaves and rosy petals,

hand-sewn to resemble a closed flower that

open when steeped in hot water,

makes you feel sophisticated,

well-traveled and grown up in her presence.

 

She looks around in the unfamiliar Alaskan tea shop,

many miles from her small, Midwestern hometown,

its fine china teapots with matching blue and white willow

pattern tea cups and silver demitasse spoons.

You both act normal despite the delicate

three-tiered glass tower of French treats and food:

the tomato bisque, petit fours, and purple macaroons.

 

When her hand reaches for the scone.

she contemplates the small, silver knife,

the one with the curved handle

for spreading the clotted cream,

when the knife drops to the table,

a soft landing on the cloth napkin.

She looks to you and shrugs her shoulders,

grabbing the scone, dipping it into the clotted cream bowl.

 

Some things are just too fancy, she says.

And, some things need not be, you reply.

You both laugh as you shared in a moment

much prepared for, but made simple as can be.

Poetry Post-A-Thon: If I May Speak

This poem was also published in Alaska Women Speak’s winter issue 2015.  Enjoy!

If I May Speak

over my mother’s teaspoon as
it scrapes the teacup like a child
who discovers an annoying sound
it finds joyful only to do it again and again.
The words that spill over her tea,
the steam that comes off the cup,
have little meaning.
They are the same things we have talked about
each time we have tea:
the weather,
the people who have died
and the people who have not.
Each time we speak
we pretend that there is nothing
else to discuss or confess.

If I may speak,
if I could say what I wanted to say,
ask for the secrets she hides,
tell her the feelings I have inside,
would she hear me?
Would she listen?
Or would it all drown
in the liquid in her cup,
in a whirlpool of sugar
that distorts all voices,
including mine?