ODE TO THE JOURNEY
Never the same,
you give me different beds every night,
embrace me in forms I don't have eyes for yet
Oh, journey, with your suffering rivers
and glacial lakes,
with Buddha's unswerving eyes and mother-of-pearl soles,
with your handsome, saffron-robed monks eating baguettes
In you water drips off an endlessly wet
Devotees shower hibiscus flowers and vermillion powder on lingam
pour water take fire ring
Women begin their days by the Ganges in
circles of color,
take in each other's stories as communion,
dip their bodies into polluted, sacred water that purifies
From the doors of hovels they emerge in
bright yellow saris,
the sun rises hot pink over riverbank, turns white and full
as the steaming earthen cup of chai offered into our hands
Under the power of your goddess, cooking
spoons turn to swords
Red-saried, she rides the back of a tiger, slays the demon Durga
to earn the name, Durga, her sword slicing rivers into earth
From your scriptures: the wise call that
by various names
There were times your hard rains scared
a golden light seemed to emanate from river bottom
rain so hard I thought the earth would drift out from underfoot
Oh, journey, with your dismembered pig's
moved deftly across the table at market-stall,
with your sticky rice your papayas your chilies
In one afternoon I am mother and sister
in your arms--
Namaste, Ama Namaste, Didi
I learn to move as slowly as my breath needs me to move
There's beauty in your undifferentiated
clouds over Cho Oyo,
beauty in your tattered prayer flags and worn stones,
in the paddies made of yak dung drying on crumbling walls
On the way back from the temple a half-torn
stay connected wherever you
as a mangy dog with gouged-out eye wanders past
We are your anonymous and temporary companions
toward a ceremony we can finally call home.
THE OLD QUARTER
This is the quarter of the merchants,
every street named for what's sold there--
silk to religious articles, drums to nails and latches,
Chinese herbs to gravestones, bright gold chains
to plastic toys. Flowers to pigs to dogs to fish.
I don't know how to return to where I began.
Looking at a map doesn't help--Hang Quat to
Luong Van Can to Hang Bo around the corner
to Thuoc Bac to Hang Luoc to Hang Chieu--
much better to look up at faces and buildings
and the way the road curves, to enter
this named chaos with your whole body--
on the street, baskets filled with persimmons,
baguettes, gladiolas, tiny bulbs of garlic,
greens I have no name for. In a three-story building,
through an open window, I see a few paintings
on a wall, an empty easel. On the street a young woman
walks by with her shoulders bent under the weight
of her stick and cloth, an entire boutique on her back.
Here, where most of the earth's healed over, and we are welcome,
where 60 percent of the population is under age 25.
At a Buddhist temple an 8-year-old boy gives us a tour, says:
You're American? Americans killed the Vietnamese.
Where crossing the street is an act of faith--
whitewater surge of motorbikes, cyclists and cars--
I step into it calmly, place one foot in front of the other,
steadily moving toward the other side.
Chaotic and brazen, the drivers barrel forth,
making slight adjustments with vehicles
to accommodate my body's passage.
Oddly I feel protected, nearly unafraid.
I know the turbulent nature of crossings.
Yet I sense a deep order I've never known,
arrive at the other side, buoyant
as a sampan on the River Yen.
THE COLOR OF COCA COLA
At the Quan Hué Restaurant,
thin slivers of banana flower,
mung bean sprouts slightly steamed,
carrots shredded, peanuts crushed,
mint leaves, lemon, spiced with hot chili pepper,
then banh khoai, crispy yellow pancakes
of egg and rice flour, fried with pork and shrimp,
eaten with peanut-sesame sauce alongside
rice flour crepes, green banana, star fruit.
At the Moca Café on the "new
always the same four items--beginning with almond-crusted
pork loin and ending with braised prawns in coconut sauce.
Vietnamese coffee, dark as the seeds of
its thick layer of condensed milk waiting to be stirred,
to be taken in, richness and sweetness at once,
intensity nearly unbearable.
In early-morning light, near the Thu Bon
families gather at tiny tables on sidewalks
in front of their houses, eating baguettes, sipping noodle soup,
drinking the dark, rich sweetness, feeding their children.
Up north in Sapa I wake to the sound of
a pig's squealing
as he leaves this world in slaughter. The squeal seemed to go
for an eternity that included all
the pork and bacon I've consumed in this life.
At dinner, over delectable stuffed squid,
the music blares:
"I want to know what love is; I want you to show me."
Phil Collins on the central coast of Viet Nam
sounding much like he did in London pub
after a white hotel sort of afternoon in that other life
so far away from this one. Or is it?
We move from city to village, shape-shifting--
or is it merely revealing the core of ourselves to ourselves?
In Hoi An, the restaurant owner announces:
"After 1981 Viet Nam lost its traditions.
Now it's not the color of Viet Nam, but the color of Coca Cola."
--begun at an exhibit at the Army Museum, Ha Noi, Viet Nam, 1999
Not one mother is smiling.
Shot in 1969
while hanging a liberation flag,
a fragment of bullet
still caught in her neck,
mother of four children and a grandson,
all war dead.
The old woman looks skyward,
stands in the sampan's heart,
pushes the boat's oar forward. The text:
Mrs. Suot, a well-known mother
ferried troops across the river
during heavy US air raids against the north.
Other photographs read:
Mother Nguyen Thi Thus, 90 years old in Dien Ban, Quang Nam,
her nine sons and son-in-law and daughter of her daughter
all fallen combatants
Mother Nguyen Thi Khanh, 86 years old
in Han Dat, Kien Gang,
her seven sons
all fallen combatants
Mother Nguyen Thi He, 76 years old in
Nhan Hoa, My Van, Hai Hung Province,
her only son
a fallen combatant
Mother Vuong Thi Meo in Thua Thien,
her husband and only son
Mother Nguyen Thi Nhut of Dien Ban,
Quang Nam, Da Nang,
used pestle to pound rice to the service of army men during both
her four children
killed in action.
And why would they smile.
In the villages up north the women wore
so at night the men could find their way.
In these blacks and whites, women's bodies
by bombs, scarred by napalm.
In the north a Hmong woman captured a US
held him at gunpoint.
When I look into their eyes, I see the
instrument's body made from hard rind of watermelon
bamboo stem leading to soundbox,
flexible, capable of altering tension. Its sound--
eerie, high-pitched, a resonance that churns the body's center.
In their eyes, a focus reserved for the most precious lenses
in cameras I cannot afford.
This history of resistance and poetry
This history of occupation and overthrow
This history of spirited revolution
Despite all who would compromise their beliefs in themselves--
Chinese, Japanese, French, American
And wars that tore at their villages, made deep gashes
in a pristine landscape once reserved for growing
Here, we're reminded what words colluded
in such ravage:
What the high commander of French forces said:
Seize all, burn all, destroy all.
Said: Use the Vietnamese to fight the Vietnamese.
Use war to feed war.
And what is any different when the Americans
When there are so many other possible words.
When Vietnamese soldiers write poems
to assuage their days of war
writing lines such as:
The flames in the lamps,
half our life is there.
They try to take it away,
try to take our hearts away. *
Over three million Vietnamese, dead.
The shock of this makes me forget, for
all the American lives lost,
all lives being equal.
And who is not responsible--
And what words are left to make this country whole--
All these years later, and for the first
we exited the plane, stepped down to tarmac,
half-expecting to hear chopper-blades, bombs falling,
a layer of American films over our eyes.
At Hoan Kiem Lake, a young man asked me:
Is America as dangerous as it seems to be in American movies?
As we meet these people,
the old films are burned away from retina,
our vision opened, and we can see
the bullet holes on stelae at the old Cham ruins,
we can stand over the murky water of the bomb craters,
and we can cross a suspension bridge I'm finally not afraid to
the river no longer raging and milky beneath us,
but nearly calm in its clear movement from mountain to sea.
from the Vietnam Literature Review,
No. 1, 1999
* "The Fire in the Lamps", Pham Tien Duat
after the Danza de las Plumas, Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca
I look hard at the eyes that are real
behind the eye-holes of mask,
behind negrito face with its white tusks,
its thick red eyebrows, its snout-mouth.
I see the whites of his eyes and the brown iris.
I see the scant skin underneath the eye
and a tiny bit of lid--nothing more.
Through the mask there is no age.
I want to unmask him.
But there's too much to like the way he is--
the floppy hat outlined in pieces of bone
like a frilly lampshade, the ribbon shirt
in its reds and oranges and blacks,
the yellow trousers. I have never met a man
who dresses this way, so I revel in this difference
as I revel in his art of mimicry,
his actual talent at dance.
Yes, he knows all the steps.
He could be dressed in the fancy silks
and carry the fifteen-pound plume on his head
and dance with the best of them in the circle's center.
But I need him here on the periphery.
I need to think
anything can happen.
LEARNING TO SPEAK
I wanted a piece of cake,
but the time was never right,
always on my way past the pasteleria
to somewhere other: a museum, a bookstore,
a crafts shop. And anyway I didn't know
the word for cake--was is pasteleria?
But why would it be that? Why didn't I think
to break down the place for cake, into cake?
But anyway I didn't want a whole cake,
only a piece and I didn't know
the word for piece. Which reminds me
of the book review I wrote in, was it seventh grade,
when I misspelled the book's title: A Separate Piece?
That's really all I wanted--a separate piece
of cake, or was it a whole piece?
Something all to myself, something to call my own.
But if I didn't know the word for it,
I could not have it. Let's face it:
there's a lot to learn.
and one simple sentence could take months
to overcome. I walked the streets hungry
till I learned the word for corn,
and could ask for it. I never went thirsty
because I knew cerveza, I knew agua.
What stunned me was to say the words at all,
to ask a question such as Es el agua purificada?
And to have it answered, and with feeling.
I recall my surprise at being understood.
In the end the street noise began to have meaning.
I walked along mouthing elote, torta, jugo, naranja,
los cheques des viajeres, quisiera, quisiera, quisiera,
knowing in the end I could have everything
I figured out how to ask for.
STARBUCK'S, 125TH STREET
Walking lightly on hot pavement
past Studio Museum with its Yoruba bead exhibit,
past the B, C & D line subway stairwell,
past the purple and orange shoes,
all high-heeled, all styling, all not meant for walking,
past Sylvia's Soul Food joint not yet open,
past shops advertising only the braiding of hair,
past book stalls full of black history I'd never met in school,
past women's bodies tightly wrapped in reds
and men doing their long-legged saunter down sidewalks,
past housing projects, churches, buses, industrial supplies,
past fruit stands selling mangoes from more than one place,
past the newer "Old Navy" store, the newer "Body
past Krispy Kreme donuts and the guy from Senegal
selling backpacks and baggy shorts,
past the saleswoman who wouldn't look me in the eyes
at "High Energy Boutique", as I traded money
for a pair of purple thong sandals,
past other women who looked, who smiled, who spoke laughing hellos,
past men who flirted in French behind huge round dark eyes
while my husband waited for me outside,
past the Apollo Theater where Louis Armstrong played
and Billie Holiday sang, past streetlamps and billboards and
playing in shoe stores--no muzac here!--
past this merging of then and now, this difference becoming sameness,
the only white folk on the street, past all of this
into Starbuck's for a late-morning cup in the haze of the wild
up to the counter where we ordered our coffee
and all the seats were filled and everyone was talking to each
or busy over books or paper and no one was white
and no one got up to leave so we had to stand
and I didn't know what to feel but grateful
for the hot cup of black coffee in my hands
for the walk down 125th Street
for the opportunity to be in the minority
and I thought I saw Rosa Parks walk by
and I nodded to her
in the skin I was born into
without regret without shame
to her who knew when to stay seated
when to be still
and here we were in a place where all the seats were filled
and no one got up or probably even thought to
and I was glad for this simple, right act.
ALL THE WAY TO RAINBOW, CA
I drive in silence
through blue-black groves
as roads wind into Anza,
Cahuilla, Aguanga, Temecula.
All the way to Rainbow
I try for a radio station
I can't find
hug the road in rented car
pick up an old girlfriend
in a new location--
five acres of untamed oaks
manufactured home torn apart
restructured one floorboard at a time
painted in colors no manufacturer could fathom
and we drive to the Pacific
I keep saying I want the world
to come to me I want to feel it close-in
like the beat of my mother's pulse at her wrist.
When we dove into that burst of water
what I feared of undertow and lack of breath disappeared
as my body rose buoyant on boogie board and wavecrest
riding all the way into shore--
laughing, awestruck, surrendering to whatever it was
that carried us in like a sail.
WHAT'S FLUID, WHAT'S LIGHT
Every day I begin again,
not from where I think I left off,
but from what I perceive to be the beginning.
This may not get me far,
but it is the most I know of truth.
But what is most true?--what miles, what
what body of water I have given myself over to,
what neighborhood down what city street,
what market stalls, what buying of daily groceries?
I have noted how waning light gathers
on the top layer of the ditch's water,
how something fluid can contain light.
(The jellies at the Albuquerque aquarium
pulse with their entire bodies
through their sea.)
We walked to the river at sundown and watched,
from the tiny bar of dwindling sand,
the clouds fill with light,
made of moonstone, made of mother-of-pearl,
the half-moon beckoning.
(It is that island of mother and child
I want to occupy.)
When the air here fills with water, a rare
I recall mornings in London, in Boston, in Hoi An,
walking and walking unfamiliar streets
the exhilaration of breath made of not-knowing
where you will come to--the simple act of placing
one foot in front of the other.
I miss my cities like missing an old lover who knew
how to reach through me but not hold me.
(Green tea under moon-sliver slipping in
and out of cloud-cover.)
Where am I if not climbing up the side
of another mountain
looking out at a view not quite of this earth, yet deeply of
I must repeat to myself what the Sherpas said
again and again on the arduous trail: slowly.
And they said the word slowly as if
to give it more merit.
(Once I had a dream I dove into a pool
in California and came up in
My body kept going down, down.)
What I knew then: I had to work harder
to get back to the surface.
I did not know how unrecognizable the earth could be.
But I had no fear, plenty of breath.
Rubin Carter said: You must be able
to transcend what holds you.