- The Pequod in Moonlight
- Three Kingdoms
- Young Death
- Mt. Pinatubo
- Scene in a Drought
- Two Seasons
- Disembodied Poetics
- A Cool Interior
- 2 Political Songs
- The Convalescent
- The Old Scholar
- Recovered Sonnet
- A Talisman
- Song for the Curfew
In that nest the ocean’s movement’s
Your own, and waking or dreaming expands
The curtain of stars, mingled in the water’s stars.
You gaze out so far, the mind recoils—
Or so inward, sky’s mind’s radiant lining.
You see your body out of huge dreaming
Falling, but nothing comes back to be horrified.
Senseless brackish wind possessed
By one brute omen: swaying, the ship angles
Exactly forward; the future arriving explains
Itself endlessly. And fate, is no mere excuse.
In another universe the sailors
Of the nations wake in raucous song
And dance. The ocean this moment wholly stilled,
Look for the sky above, no bird but feather-
Soaked, for months precarious and high.
Late season, slow-falling leaves dispel
Paranoia of The Three Kingdoms.
We waited together for evening’s end.
To me, old lessons came, as more than
Memories: Bach Dang water, stained forever with blood;
Trung Trac, Trung Nhi, in another river.
(What names! tink-tunk, sorrowful music!)
Joyous songs we sang in chill morning
Schoolyards made large and shrill by high speakers.
Older songs charmed wild island camps
With revised, similar lyrics. In the colony,
A hundred accents ruled narrow alleys.
Cold October we traveled far. Our voices
Still wander in hollow dark: sleepless patrols,
Whose blind steps are nations’ boundaries.
Outside, a circle of men
In loose white shirts stood talking,
Smoking under blooming dogwoods—
So casual, their gestures and looks,
The house could be empty,
Or the family, inside, sleeping.
Talk radio whiled away Saturday afternoon.
When Mom came out, I drove up
To meet her; the men looked at me
Without question or reproach.
Father Nam’s here, she said
Inside the car—Mrs. B.
Was Catholic before she married, you know.
Guanyin who blessed the still
Algaed surface of a pond
In back of their house
Was also the Virgin Mary;
And the girl was Catholic
He was engaged to be married to
Back in the old country.
Through open, green fields, gusting wind blew;
Paper flowers said
Nothing dies here.
At market the produce were fresh,
When sprinklers misted our hands
Keenly we shivered.
Then home, where Mom, in old
Economy, packaged what we’d bought
In small bundles, like votives,
All afternoon our neighbors’ house
Was dark, empty.
At night, a half-moon climbed
To a bright window.
Houses down, a dog started barking—
Shrill and urgent, it wouldn’t stop—
Till another, another,
And an entire, loose pack joined in,
Barrage chased down the wind,
Blocking the night.
Panicky, a car zoomed past—
Their cries flailed after the car.
Within the yellowed leaves, among faces
Long ago taken, uncle stands by himself,
Leaning on a tamarind of the courtyard.
Behind him, brothers are walking fast,
People are passing on the busy street:
Through scant, iron fencing, bright conical
Hats like lanterns, crowding a river.
Above black cassock, the youthful face
Has begun to fade—the sun really shines,
Sunlight broken through dense foliage
To skin and gloss, erasing what’s left behind.
Slow conversation, Aunt, who hides the album
In the kitchen loft, sits with my mother—
Sit talking in the night kitchen, sisters-
In-law across one yellow kerosene lamp.
Cousin and I over the roof’s low parapet
Strain our eyes into darkness, where—soon now—
A festival wounds the corner; carried
On swells of drums and voices, carrying blazing
Torches, moons, stars—cages—creatures of light
Surge forward, in breathless procession.
Seeing her at the kitchen door paring green squash
For dinner, the boy comes in, begs for a story.
He wouldn’t relent; she tells him she was ten
When the French came to her village.
Their old neighbor, Old Nu, too weak
To run, hid inside the house, but they set fire
To the house. Flames poured down, the man crawled out
To the field, where one saw him
And fired, bullet pierced the hand
On his face, breaking his teeth.
That night the children found him, still alive.
The boy winces; she drops the knife
Onto soft parings, and stands and takes the basket in.
No choice now but to return
To his cruel and insipid friends.
He remembers how, weeks after
His dad died, they were eating in
The breezy, empty front room still smelling
Of flowers and incense, when termites swarmed
Through the house, filled the house with frantic flying.
Running, the boy caught
And squeezed a termite in his hand, and was sickened
By the stink. Outside he heard his brothers shout—
She was still standing on the straw mat, rice bowl
At her chest, the termites a white cloud about her.
The days before rain, June sweltered;
There came news of Pinatubo
Waking again from long slumber.
I watched at a window the weave
Of hills in the east. My mother,
Hanging clothes on the line, on her toes,
Had paused for thought—sun painted
Gold her flared hat and sweat-beaded arms.
Tilting back her hat she came in
Under the altar, joss sticks burned
In dear remembrance; the smoke ribbons
Uncoiled, dispersing fragrance.
That night I dreamt Cao Hill
Where the town farmed was a volcano—
Woke then to graying darkness,
Starless sky in the open window.
Stumbling to the water vat
I found her watching the built fire,
Uncombed hair spread on her shoulders.
We sat lulled by the sound of fire,
In the water pot’s mild gurgling.
Light rising slowly dimmed again.
Faraway church bells pealed for Mass.
We didn’t move, but looked out
Where rain and ash had begun,
Like manna, brightening, softening
The ground for all to return to sleep.
9pm: phyllocactus blooms
Unrolled long, white sleeves of mercy.
My neighbor sat out
On the verdant balcony
In his mother’s old, white dress.
Last month in an alley
He’d goaded some thugs
(In the evening I noticed
The noise) into commotion.
He could’ve died, someone said.
A girl and a boy passing
On the street, unknowing,
Were mystified; they together
Looked up. Mild fragrance
Drifted where we sat.
Was it fragrance, shaggy flower
Heads, powdered face floating there,
Held us? The bracketing now
Of a twice-gibbous, full moon.
This afternoon the bucket's murky.
He stares down the well, then sits
Out of sunlight, to let the water settle.
She wipes her damp face on her shirt,
The embers grown white with ash,
And gets up to sweep the floor.
Dust gathers fast in that little space,
Blown in, or fallen from the walls,
The blackened roof and beams.
Surprised by the quickness of dust
Hiding her feet, she recalls her youth and
Restive childhood, in a town constantly out waiting.
One lengthened sweep of the broom,
A cloud of dust whisks into the light
In which her younger husband—
She can’t see his face, his body turned
In a coruscation of dust motes
Wheeled by local, dry wind.
July baked earth spewed red
Flood of ants: ants swarmed the kitchen
Climbing on counter, cabinets and walls.
My brother went with a flyswatter,
Ant carcasses littered the floor,
Dimmed bright window-screens.
A swipe across their path killed dozens,
But their lines pulled taut again
Not stopping to wonder or assess.
Through every gap they poured in
While we hurried to hide our food,
Sweep the floor around the bare table.
What sleep, what sleep kept us
From hearing? The streets shone green
With leaves, our neighbor’s oak stood
Broken where we looked.
In wind slanting rain returned,
Cool morning darkened to sadden us.
The ants were again on the move,
Their mound a spreading puddle of mud.
My brother resolved to go out.
Sweeping house dust out, in the light rain,
Our neighbor paused with her broom
Watching their still-slow progress.
Weeks now it’s been raining
As though the tropics, as in dreams,
Finds me in temperate country.
I haven’t seen the TV in days and don’t know
Where the storm fronts are. The sunflowers
In the yard all bow down to rain and wind.
Earlier I went outside
To the deck, swimming dark
Branches and leaves and, stepping,
Saw the house, my neighbor’s house,
Lights on, the neighborhood in a lake
Midair: I said to myself that things finally show
For what they are.
But midnight it’s still raining,
The heavy drops whirling, crashing,
Haul from above a faintest light,
Street- or moon- or star-light.
Sunflowers facedown begin to rise.
Between cloud and rain an island
Of trees opaquely looms. Past this,
Sound and shape enjoin darkness
Half-blind stumble into kitchen submit
Wet gleaming hands to the moons
Their voices cross the table
And become prayers
Eons ago, on an island,
A disciplined, young, and
Successful artist set out to build
Orderly paradise. And still, today,
In that famed resort town, you’ll find
An orderliness informs the least things—
Street/shop signs of the same design,
Plain, blue lettering on white background;
Well-swept streets that are seldom wider
Than one lane; the houses and low buildings
(Gates, doors, fences)—all, crisply uniform,
Understated, undersize and plain:
In lush tropical vegetation,
A sprawling fugue, or theme and varia
In dark brown, white, blue and green.
The painter in pink and white and blue and green
Hawaii shirt relates all, while his long brush
Covers the paint tray, joining washes of color
For the blooming landscape: a hotel with flowers,
Bent palms, bright green, open shutters—gradually
Coating once-bright squares of pigment
The same greenish, muddy color.
Painting the island vista's easy:
One broken slender, vertical stroke—
Figure walking in bright distance,
In distance-obliterating mist and sun; a splash
Of clear water, without too much, undue,
Consideration—clouds, whose chancy abundance
Pleases the hungering eye. Oh shoots!
He cries and immediately mops up the drip, the joy
Of simply painting is pardon, second chance;
Is never having to try too hard.
The a/c hums, a throng of water beads
Shiver underside the moist windowsill.
In the window heatwaves sink the near world,
A yellow butterfly heroically swims up.
You rise wonder-refreshed, determined
To be free of all illusions, false discipline,
Saying, “What illusions? that happiness is difficult?
That youth ever stands corrected?”
The door opens to bearable extreme heat
Moments later, holding to the frame you spy on
The quiescent, quietly running neighborhood.
On that revealed island visitors brave,
Sheer off the sun.
1. Three kingdoms
The color scheme is blue: blue sky, tree line,
Blue mountain lake, where blue- and white-
Clad warriors converge, to debate love and the one kingdom.
Calmly, one takes off, and soon all three are dancing
Across the lake; their swords, their hands carve
On the water surface bright, vanishing words.
A ruffle in the back, then bursts out,
Someone’s single, glad, clear-ringing peal.
The action’s moved on, to pale palace corridors,
Panoramic curtains, another duo-
Chromatic, impossibly beautiful set-piece.
Cold fall, outside our breaths blot out a few, brightest stars.
Cigarettes, I said. Years later we’re talking reunification.
2. Prokofiev’s concerto
Again, the candidate in white suit’s down,
Crumpled like a paper-ball, mid-stage,
Dusk-stained in silent after-explosion.
Wild-eyed henchmen, at the bottom of
The frame, leaping away—let the ebbing crowd,
Let too-soon night and history receive them.
At a window I watch, under the shine of rain,
A city gather itself, cold to the bone;
Await the descent of your hero-violin
Over music like new water, peaceably saying
There is, in movements imagined, more,
Ever more cause for delicate scrolling.
O forgive me, Sergei... We’re not naïve...
4am was when it began,
In the flower-stripped azalea bush
Right outside, below his window.
Timorously, a question raised,
Soon distanced answers came,
Beyond the hospital yard, in valley
And hills: signal trail raising
Closing his eyes, he’s back
In his mother’s kitchen at home,
Summer afternoon, the hammock
Swings up, as though compelled,
And for an instant each time
A leaf in air, weightless
Before pulled down and again
Begins to fall,
The hammock like an ocean of waves.
His mother is old, her hair
White and thin; and was there
Ever an afternoon he lay in the hammock
In the kitchen wanting to dream
For summer’s large quietude?
He totters to the window
To lift pale, translucent blinds.
A planet or star is the only light above,
But the city’s so bright.
In the gully of the early boulevard
Invisible traffic dimly roars.
It hits him, the clear drop down
Azalea heads, chirrups and coos
Floating up, faintly he can’t be sure
They’re from below, outside: he’d heard
Their cries so clearly. Light whitens
The mirror of a building’s side,
Flushes vision in burning eyes.
He falls onto the cold window-glass,
Cloud, face fevering.
Teacher, the thought of you set me going
This morning; I left the fire, and myself
An old man stood in the fog watching
The dim outline of a nearby, neighbor’s, hut,
The inky bough like a submerged, blurred word.
When I went in, sat down again, your brush
Leapt from the edge of the flames, and still
My body became a word.
We boys were worked hard; bent praying
Before each careful stroke we listened
While your slow steps measured the span of the house.
The mountains were like something
Out of an old painting, the mountain tribes
Loved their gentle (disciplined) scholar—
But that summer Mom said you had
Returned for good.
You cried when the alphabet came
And, not yet experts, gladly we put aside
The inkwell and the brush.
But in time even you came to relent
And learned to read the same, new words,
Defeated/undefeated in the last.
When I look back to our far village,
Grid of dikes and canals, and the cursive
Out-going road, this morning I see only
The progression of a fluid and foreign script.
(A phenomenological evening)
“Screw you, Anne, and your email full of insinuations,”
She begins to write, when outside rain begins to fall.
But how commit to such a tone? she knew, dangit,
And stands to watch the sunset, orange, muted
Through that much rain—awesome Klangfarbenmelodie.
To be that bird as day grows dark, was it like death?
That her hatred would cease. And to die a bird...
What’s this thing wafts up among the fireflies
There in shiny grass, beats broadly, sinks yellowly
Out, Jonesboro, Georgia crumbles.
I held my look near the water
For a long, long time, my mind a shorehouse.
A kettle being
Emptied, hiss of steam and
My father’s feet knocking the basin water.
The district unknown babbled and ran
All around the yard, I threw stones
Or humped sand on the beach.
Rain, the river falling must’ve been
Appalling, but I went every morning
To see the crashing water.
The official vacation month was ending
On the ocean without report. Over, over,
Sun drew its frayed copper brush,
Darkness caught in the water.
TocXanh83, who knows
When I might be coming back
I’ve never met so many people
In my life, or am I different?
Fling out the shutters to let Spring in
And air, and night,
Some drops to bejewel the couch
We talked to keep rain from our mouths!
HCMCity, when you see
More surface, cast around for me.
Megan, what was it you said
About the futility of music?
Season after season
Our musicians, instrumentalists, play
The same heroic programs, the
Masterworks produced to ever
Better engineering—no less than
Perfect playing. Did you mean that
Performance or recording, none rivals
Music heard for the first time,
Emotions discovered for the first time,
In childhood? since it was pain I heard
in your voice, and that I saw in your eyes.
Did you mean that music returns you
To the same place, full of novel cares
And no clue what to do
About it? I stepped in steeped in anger desperate
Love and confusion, and over the keys you,
Megan declines to answer the accusation.
Vaunted intervals, a melody, from our neighbor’s
Sprang in, held that moment apart,
Where we braced for the silence, the hour that closed
Saigon curfew hour, quiet Saigon,
Somewhere, a stranded clerk watches
Night from her windy, high balcony.
Khanh Ly takes a deep breath
And now begins, cold-coffee voiced
Khanh Ly of the smoky cafes, all glitter
On this Feast of the Virgin Mary.
Submerged in the old music,
The converted gym takes
To subtle, slow animation:
A father leans forward, his little girl
Slumps forward high on his shoulders,
An ex-soldier feels for something,
Pauses with a hand on his shirt pocket,
While teenagers in bunches turning betray
Their isolated, ambivalent dismay.
And all around me slowly I hear,
Like pages being turned, the whispers of women:
She used to sing on the radio—
It’s that make-up—How old
Is she? Do you hear, Khanh Ly?
Who told me that, at fourteen and,
Beguiled, from Dalat and to sing
In the capital, you were a runaway?
Where earlier candle flames trembled your
Lavender lips glimmer, lush, wobbling O.
The band, too loud, keeps getting louder—
Then with others I sneak out
To watch the late October sky, composed,
Over the dark rectory, a few stars.
Strange, the song, your voice, is clearer outside,
The metal double door. I remember
An early night, the lesson undone,
My younger brother and I
Chased our older brother through all the house
In protest of the awful music,
Unbearable lyrics—mania that seized us—
Till the house screamed hate
And behind a closed door quaking
Under our fists deliriously H. bellowed:
If I came back tomorrow with one leg,
One arm, one eye, my love,
Would you in that tomorrow
Still love me, a soldier maimed by war?...
Tonight heavy fog descends
On the forest, misty rain strikes my face
On the march as I'm dreaming of you...
The highlander's high forehead, bright eyes...
—Till, exhausted, casualties of Love, we sank down—
October breeze sudden in the still, silenced house,
Somewhere, your voice coming clear.
It's curfew hour again, forever, in old, vanished
Saigon, the bleary streets dangerously dreaming,
While I watch Georgia pines resolve in the clear night
And hear Khanh Ly and fall for heady historical songs.