"come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed."
-Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me”
A native of Radford, Virginia, Lisa Kwong is the author of Becoming AppalAsian. Her poems have appeared in A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, Still: The Journal, Pluck!, and other publications. She teaches Asian American Studies at Indiana University and English at Ivy Tech Community College.
Welcome to the Poets Weave. I'm Romayne Rubinas Dorsey. Lisa, what poems have you brought for us today?
On the 42nd Anniversary of My Father’s Swim from China, 10/17/2015
Suspended between shores, you watch your friends
tire, disappear beneath bluish-black waters, never
to resurface. When you agreed to swim together,
you promised to keep going, even if some could not go on.
Someone must reach the shore of freedom. This journey
must not be in vain.
You keep swimming, your family’s voices echoing
from the home you left, your son and daughter’s faces
etched on clouds. Your limbs grow heavier after the first hour.
You keep time by the shifting sky, one arm, one leg moving
after the other, strong strokes slicing cold Tai Pang Bay.
Salt slides from your eyelashes; the sun is a blinking siren.
Spotting a shark fin in the distance, you quiet your strokes,
your eyes still on Hong Kong. Even the fear of being eaten alive
cannot stop you. You want to live to see your babies grow up,
to grow old with your wife. You must succeed, as a man,
as the head of your family. You keep swimming, believe
your blood father is watching, the father you never knew.
You must keep swimming to rewrite history. His early death
will not be yours. You will live, even though your legs
feel like sacks of rice. You believe there is something
stronger than exhaustion. This is why you continue
to kick towards freedom. This is why you won’t stop
until your feet touch shallow ground again.
This is love spanning generations of blood,
red legacies that will survive shark bites, the ghosts
of family secrets. You must keep swimming
to reach the shore where you will be reborn,
a tiger emerging.
"The Baby Behind the Cash Register at Canton Restaurant."
Ring, ring of the cash register wakes you, but you don’t know names for sounds yet. All you hear is noise: strangers’ voices, doors swinging, rushing feet. Your mother speaks in a garbled language different from when she rocks you to sleep. Your tiny nose scrunches at all the colliding smells; gas wok smoke, garlic chicken, Szechuan beef, and kung po shrimp float by. Moved to a counter where powdered-face women talk to you in squeaky voices, you begin to cry.
Your whole life will be under spotlights and never meet anyone’s expectations: be cute, be quiet, never get in trouble, get straight As, know everything, never feel anything. First American-born Daughter, you carry the bridge between China and America. You are not meant to be ordinary. The way you learn to survive, then thrive: take different worlds and fuse them into a kaleidoscope universe no one has ever seen. Refuse to be written out of history. Tell the world to burn all their Chinese takeout boxes—you won’t see the inside of even one.
You've been listening to the poetry of Lisa Kwong on the Poets Weave. I'm Romayne Rubinas Dorsey.