I am making use
of the one thing I learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.
—from “This Room and Everything in It” by Li-Young Lee
Nancy Chen Long is the author of Wider than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020), which was selected for the Diode Editions Book Award, and Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. Her work has been supported by a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing fellowship and a Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award. You’ll find her recent poems in Copper Nickel, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.
Welcome to the Poets Weave. I'm Romayne Rubinas Dorsey. Nancy, what poems have you brought for us today?
At home working on a client’s website
—an archive of Yiddish memories—
I look up in time to see a yellow poplar topple.
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The hummingbirds have arrived like they do every April,
flitting toward the lower branch of a weeping willow
to the only one of five feeders that remains.
Year after year, even their offspring remember.
The tree falls across a point where a creek branches
into two streams.
With my noise-canceling headphones on, all is silent
as the eight-story poplar crashes in the morning light,
branches at first quaking, then slowing to stock-still.
My husband cuts a cross-section of the poplar’s trunk.
“Look, twenty years ago there was a fire. And that year there,
a drought.” He points to the tree’s rings,
as if memories had been written on each circle. I remember
the grade school lesson. If a tree falls, yet no one hears it,
did it make a sound? Yesterday, I heard
a lie: Less than two million Jews were lost during the Holocaust.
I also heard a truth: The first American air strike
against Americans was in 1921, a thirty-five-block area
attacked and bombed, a black neighborhood in Tulsa. It’s missing
from our history books. Fewer and fewer of us remember
fewer and fewer people that were killed.
The waves of our collective memory ripple outward,
slowly fading until we are left undisturbed,
like the moss-covered water of a fetid pond.
If six million people were killed in a genocide,
if people were bombed by citizens of their own country,
yet no one remembers, did it happen?
The teacher says, “There is no such thing
as sound. It’s only compressed air. It’s only
if the air waves encounter an ear”—
and even then, the ear doesn’t hear, the brain does.
I hear my mother singing, even though she’s not here.
She catches glimpses of you every year on this day
playing in the sugarcane fields. You are always by yourself.
She calls out your name, running in every direction, searching for
a brother who has been lost for fifty years.
Playing in the sugarcane fields, you are always by yourself,
running barefoot in the mud, carrying something in your hand.
Dear brother who has been lost for fifty years,
she’s spotted you a hundred times
wandering barefoot in the mud with a secret in your hand.
But she never finds you.
She’s spotted you a hundred times—
your small shadow in a clearing of cane or in a hint between the stalks.
But she never finds you.
Still, twins share a mind, and she is certain
of your shadow in a small clearing, an inkblot of you between the green stalks.
I would burn joss sticks at the altar for you. But she says no, you are
still here. Twins share a mind, and she is certain.
She calls out for you, searching in every direction.
I would burn joss sticks at the family altar. Sister says no. You are
in the cane fields. She catches glimpses of you every year.
You've been listening to the poetry of Nancy Chen Long on the Poets Weave. I'm Romayne Rubinas Dorsey.