I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, / and I am not who I was, / though some principle of being / abides, from which I struggle / not to stray.
-Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers”
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?
Poem for My Mother Who Dared Beyond Tai Shan
You dared to elope after your mother shook
her fist at your husband who would journey
his way out of poverty, out of Tai Shan.
When you received his letter of how he swam
in shark-filled Tai Pang Bay for three hours,
you lit incense in gratitude for his safe arrival
in Hong Kong, not daring to imagine
the what-ifs. Remember the morning when
you found his side of the bed empty, a snake
of fear slithering in your heart. You exhaled
as your babies slept a few feet away. You lit
incense then as prayers for him, yourself,
your two-year-old son, your two-month baby girl,
not knowing when you would see him again.
You hold on to hope as your babies grow strong
with the love of Great-Grandma, grandparents,
aunts, uncles, and neighbors. They babysit
while you raise chickens and hogs to sell.
When you bike on countryside paths
to city markets, your son and daughter ride along,
boisterous about what is beyond your village.
Before putting the envelopes in the mail,
you read your son’s letters, carefully penned
characters on thin red and blue-lined paper.
We are well. I am good and taking care
of Mama and Little Sister. We miss you.
Every day your daughter asks, Where’s Daddy?
And you tell her first Hong Kong, then America.
You watch her captivate neighbors and classmates
with her sticky-toothed talk, hear how she shielded
her big brother from bullies when they mocked
his bulbous head, a fearlessness she inherited
from her father. A child born to parents so poor
no villager wanted to hold him as a baby,
your son soon earns respect when others see
how he zooms through advanced math
on the blackboard, chalk dust flying everywhere.
You are so proud and hope your son succeeds
in life, despite you and your husband having
only six years of schooling. As oldest siblings,
you both had to help support your large families.
One day it is time to leave Tai Shan, your parents,
younger brothers and sisters, friends. You don’t know
when you will return; this might be the last time
you see your family. Everyone speaks only beautiful
travel wishes and presses red envelopes into your hands.
Even if you want to cry, don’t. You are going to America,
the place they call Gold Mountain, where your husband is.
You must survive the plane ride first. Now nine years old,
your son bounces in his seat, while you and your daughter,
vomit into little white paper bags, flight turbulence too much
to stomach as you grieve a little for the home you’ve left.
But you forget the discomfort when you see your husband
for the first time in seven years. Your daughter,
only two months when he left, loosens
from your hand, runs, and shouts, Daddy,
you never carried me on your back!
He laughs, hugging your daughter and son close,
will recall later how he worried before leaving Tai Shan,
This might be the last time I see you.
You and your husband vow to never be apart again
for so long, even though your love has endured
across countries and continents. You both vow
to give your children everything, a world
they won’t have to escape, a home
where there will always be enough to eat.
You've been listening to the poetry of Lisa Kwong on the Poets Weave. I'm Romayne Rubinas Dorsey.