Voices in Poetry
A Collection of Poetry by Asian American Writers Illustrated by Madison Yang
Artistâ€™s Note Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri as a second-generation Chinese American, I was exposed to a mix of cultures early onâ€”different beliefs, languages, food, and people, to name a few. Language in particular was a significant but stressful factor in my life. Ever since I was young, it frustrated me that I could not speak Mandarin as well as I would have liked, and it troubled me even more that I could not communicate with loved ones the way I wished. Living in two worlds, it has been difficult to find a place where I feel comfortable in my own skin. The poems in the following pages are written by Asian American poets from different backgrounds, many of whom also struggle with their own identity in some shape or form. Whether they were born in the United States or immigrated here, they all share experiences, memories, and thoughts about themselves and others that give the reader a glance into their cultural background. In illustrating these poems, I wanted to create and share my own interpretations with the reader. Visual accompaniment has the potential to invoke a spectrum of emotions including nostalgia, surprise, understanding, and even dissent. I encourage the reader to consider their own view of the poems, and think about how their different interpretations may have been affected by factors in their own lives.
Obedience, or the Lying Tale By Jennifer Chang I will do everything you tell me, Mother. I will charm three gold hairs from the demon’s head. I will choke the mouse that gnaws an apple tree’s roots and keep its skin for a glove. To the wolf, I will be pretty and kind and curtsy his crossing of my path. The forest, vocal even in its somber tread, rages. A slope ends in a pit of foxes drunk on rotten brambles of berries and the raccoons ransack a rabbit’s unmasked hole. What do they find but a winter’s heap of droppings? A stolen nest, the cracked shell of another creature’s child. I imagine this is the rabbit way and I will not stray, Mother, into the forest’s thick, where the trees meet the dark, though I have known misgivings of light as a hot hand that flickers against my neck. The path ends
Ikebana By Cathy Song To prepare the body, aim for the translucent perfection you find in the sliced shavings of a pickled turnip. In order for this to happen, you must avoid the sun, protect the face under a paper parasol until it is bruised white like the skin of lilies. Use white soap from a blue porcelain dish for this. Restrict yourself. Eat the whites of things: tender bamboo shoots, the veins of the young iris, the clouded eye of a fish. Then wrap the body, as if it were a perfumed gift, in pieces of silk held together with invisible threads like a kite, weighing no more than a handful of crushed chrysanthemums. Light enough to float in the wind. You want the effect of koi moving through water.
When the light leaves the room, twist lilacs into the lacquered hair piled high like a complicated shrine. There should be tiny bells inserted somewhere in the web of hair to imitate crickets singing in a hidden grove. Reveal the nape of the neck, your beauty spot. Hold the arrangement. If your spine slacks and you feel faint, remember the hand-picked flower set in the front alcove, which, just this morning, you so skillfully wired into place. How poised it is! Petal and leaf curving like a fan, the stem snipped and wedged into the metal baseâ€” to appear like a spontaneous accident.
the great american yellow poem By Frances Chung she heard tales about saving grapefruit skins for cooking she grew bright under the neon dragon of Chinatown she made saffron curry rice for friends she attended a barbecue in Amarillo, Texas she stepped around yellow piss in snow she cut herself on a Hawaiian pineapple she learned to name forsythia where it grew visions of ochre and citronella eluded her
Midnight Loon By Arthur Sze Burglars enter an apartment and ransack drawers; finding neither gold nor cash, they flee, leaving the laundry and bathroom lights on— they have fled themselves. I catch the dipping pitch of a motorcycle, iceberg hues in clouds; the gravel courtyard’s a midnight garden, as in Japan, raked to resemble ocean waves in moonshine, whirlpool eddies, circular ripples— and nothing is quite what it appears to be. When I unlatch the screen door, a snake slides under the weathered decking; I spot the jagged hole edged with glass where a burglar reached through the window, but no one marks the poplars darker with thunder and rain. In moonlight I watch the whirlpool hues of clouds drift over our courtyard, adobe walls, and gate, and, though there is no loon, a loon calls out over the yard, over the water.
Choi Jeong Min By Franny Choi in the first grade i asked my mother permission to go by frances at school. at seven years old, i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew to let my salty gook name drag behind me in the sand, safely out of sight. in fourth grade i wanted to be a writer & worried about how to escape my surname — choi is nothing if not korean, if not garlic breath, if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps during the lean years — could i go by f.j.c.? could i be paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain, boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain & speaking through an ink-stained puppet? my father ran through all his possible rechristenings — ian, isaac, ivan — and we laughed at each one, knowing his accent would always give him away. you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice when she answers the phone this is grace, & it is some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself, some lightning made of chain mail. grace is not her pseudonym, though everyone in my family is a poet.
these are the shields for the names we speak in the dark to remember our darkness. savage death rites
i’ve cooked them each a meal with a star singing at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient
we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper to each other to keep warm. my korean name
to follow home when we are lost: sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name
is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae to follow home when i am lost, which is always
given by your dead grandfather who eventually forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:
in this gray country, this violent foster home whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard
i’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine. i promise: i won’t forget again.
riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin & sell it back to your mother for profit, land where they stuff our throats with soil & accuse us of gluttony when we learn to swallow it. i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen for what i am: a boundless, burning wick. a minor chord. i confess: if someone has looked at my crooked spine and called it elmwood, i’ve accepted. if someone has loved me more for my gook name, for my saint name, for my good vocabulary & bad joints, i’ve welcomed them into this house.
For a Daughter Who Leaves Janice Mirikitani “More than gems in my comb box shaped by the God of the Sea, I prize you, my daughter. . .” Lady Otomo, 8th century, Japan A woman weaves her daughter’s wedding slippers that will carry her steps into a new life. The mother weeps alone into her jeweled sewing box slips red thread around its spool, the same she used to stitch her daughter’s first silk jacket embroidered with turtles that would bring luck, long life. She remembers all the steps taken by her daughter’s unbound quick feet: dancing on the stones of the yard among yellow butterflies and white breasted sparrows. And she grew, legs strong body long, mind independent. Now she captures all eyes with her hair combed smooth and her hips gently swaying like bamboo.
Page 65 / Riding the subway is an adventure By Frances Chung Riding the subway is an adventure especially if you cannot read the signs. One gets lost. One becomes anxious and does not know whether to get off when the other Chinese person in your car does. (Your crazy logic tells you that the both of you must be headed for the same stop.) One woman has discovered the secret of one-to-one correspondence. She keeps the right amount of pennies in one pocket and upon arriving in each new station along the way she shifts one penny to her other pocket. When all the pennies in the first pocket have disappeared, she knows that she is home.
A Bowl of Spaghetti By Kimiko Hahn “To find a connectome, or the mental makeup of a person,” researchers experimented with the neurons of a worm then upgraded to mouse hoping “to unravel the millions of miles of wire in the [human] brain” that they liken to “untangling a bowl of spaghetti” of which I have an old photo: Rei in her high chair delicately picking out each strand to mash in her mouth. Was she two? Was that sailor dress from Mother? Did I cook from scratch? If so, there was a carrot in the sauce as Mother instructed and I’ll never forget since some strand determines infatuation as a daughter’s fate.
Music From My Childhood By John Yau You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.” You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths A row of yellow windows and a painting of them Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.” You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows A row of yellow windows and a painting of them Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows Is it because you saw a black asteroid fly past your window Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water Is it because I saw a black asteroid fly past my window The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water The town has started sinking back into its commercial The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits The town has started sinking back into its commercial You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths
Eating Together By Li-Young Lee In the steamer is the trout seasoned with slivers of ginger, two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil. We shall eat it with rice for lunch, brothers, sister, my mother who will taste the sweetest meat of the head, holding it between her fingers deftly, the way my father did weeks ago. Then he lay down to sleep like a snow-covered road winding through pines older than him, without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
The Dream of a Lacquer Box By Kimiko Hahn I wish I knew the contents and I wish the contents Japanese — like hairpins made of tortoiseshell or bone though my braid was lopped off long ago, like an overpowering pine incense or a talisman from a Kyoto shrine, like a Hello Kitty diary-lock-and-key, Hello Kitty stickers or candies, a netsuke in the shape of an octopus, ticket stubs from the Bunraku — or am I wishing for Mother? searching for Sister? just hoping to give something Japanese to my daughters? then again, people can read anything into dreams and I do as well. I wish I possessed my mother’s black lacquer box though in my dream it was red, though I wish my heart were content.
Search & Recovery By Shin Yu Pai it could have happened to any of us
layers of a life, stripped down to a family’s fate —
a wrong turn down a logging road tires tunneled into snow
the weight of being unseen — to travel a path back to
a man’s undying love for his children moves satellites maps aerial images eighteen care packages dropped over 16 miles of the Siskiyou, bearing handwritten notes from a father to his son the signs you left for those who came after you a red t-shirt a wool sock, a child’s blue skirt
what you knew at birth, the warmth of being held close brought home
Six Persimmons By Shin Yu Pai after ruining another season’s harvest— over-baked in the kitchen oven then rehydrated in her home sauna Aunt Yuki calls upon her sister, paper sacks stuffed full of orange fruit, twig and stalk still intact knows that my mother sprouts seedlings from cast off avocado stones, revives dead succulents, coaxes blooms out of orchids a woman who has never spent a second of her being on the world wide web, passes her days painting the diversity of marshland, woodland, & shoreline; building her own dehydrator fashioned from my father’s work ladders, joined together by discarded swimming pool pole perched high to discourage the neighbor’s cats that invade the yard scavenging for koi “Vitamin D” she says, as she harnesses the sun, in the backyard the drying device mutates into painting, slow dripped sugar spilling out of one kaki fruit empty space where my father untethers another persimmon, he swallows whole
How to Cook Rice By Koon Woon Measure two handfuls for a prosperous man. Place in pot and wash by rubbing palms together as if you can’t quite get yourself to pray, or by squeezing it in one fist. Wash several times to get rid of the cloudy water; when you are too high in Heaven, looking down at the clouds, you can’t see what’s precious below. Rinse with cold water and keep enough so that it will barely cover your hand placed on the rice. Don’t use hot water, there are metallic diseases colliding in it. This method of measuring water will work regardless of the size of the pot; if the pot is large, use both hands palms down as if to pat your own belly. Now place on high heat without cover and cook until the water has been boiled away except in craters resembling those of the moon, important in ancient times for growing rice. Now place lid on top and reduce heat to medium, go read your newspaper until you get to the comics, then come back and turn it down to low. The heat has been gradually traveling from the outside to the inside of the rice, giving it texture; a similar thing happens with people, I suppose. Go back to your newspaper, finish the comics, and read the financial page. Now the rice is done, but before you eat, consider the peasant who arcs in leech-infested paddies and who carefully plants the rice seedlings one by one; on this night, you are eating better than he. If you still don’t know how to cook rice, buy a Japanese automatic rice cooker; it makes perfect rice every time!
Learning to Love America By Shirley Geok-Lin Lim because it has no pure products because the Pacific Ocean sweeps along the coastline because the water of the ocean is cold and because land is better than ocean because I say we rather than they because I live in California I have eaten fresh artichokes and jacaranda bloom in April and May because my senses have caught up with my body my breath with the air it swallows my hunger with my mouth because I walk barefoot in my house because because because because
I have nursed my son at my breast he is a strong American boy I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is he answers I donâ€™t know
because to have a son is to have a country because my son will bury me here because countries are in our blood and we bleed them because it is late and too late to change my mind because it is time.
Acknowledgements I would like to thank my advisor, John Hendrix, and Jaleen Grove for their guidance and patience with this project from start to finish. Special thanks to Mom, Dad, Ge Ge, Googs, Nana, Gong Gong, and Po Po for their constant love and support, which kept me upright even during the toughest times. Additional thanks to Alice Wang, Alicia Chen, Jenny Yun, Angela Pu, Andrew Kay, Edward Lim, Amanda Jung, and the rest of the Communication Design juniors and seniors for their moral support during long nights in studio.
This book was designed and illustrated by Madison Yang in the 2018 illustration seminar class at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Illustrations were created with gouache and China marker on Canson XL watercolor paper. The body text is set in Bembo. The book was printed on Canson XL mixed media paper and hand bound with coptic stitching. All of the included poems were gathered from collections of poetry by Asian American writers featured on poetryfoundation.org and poets.org.
An illustrated collection of poetry written by Asian American writers.