Three Poems by Lisa Kwong
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 go
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, watch her shield
her big brother from bullies when they mock
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.
You forget the physical discomfort when you see your husband
for the first time in seven years. Your daughter,
only two months old 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 escaping:
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.
Bitten by Bitterness
Carrying an amber cup, Ngin Ngin marched towards me, and I started running. It contained ginseng soup, a flavor too advanced for my immature taste buds. My little feet pounded the living room carpet to the scratchy porch floor. There was nowhere to hide. Cornered on the row of worn surplus restaurant chairs, she forced the cup to my lips. Drink, drink! Ginseng soup is good for you!
Once, Ngin Ngin gave me a bowl of ginseng congee for an afternoon snack. At least it had rice and shredded chicken, but its half-bitter taste still frightened me as I stared at the round white bowl with a pinkish rim. I took that bowl of doom, snuck into the main bathroom, closed the door, then dumped it all in the trash, watched the evil soup descend into darkness. I snuck back out, held out the bowl. I finished it. Ngin Ngin smiled, her gold and silver teeth shining, until Sister told the truth. Ngin Ngin never gave me ginseng again.
Every time I return home, my parents prepare a gigantic bowl of bitter melon soup. The pieces float in clear broth, little green alligator backs surrounded by sliced pork. This soup doesn’t bite; it heals. I’ve read that bitter melon lowers blood sugar. In Tai Shan. my aunts, Mom’s younger sisters, served us bitter melon daily—stir fried with spare rib tips or pork belly in black bean sauce. I don’t fear bitterness anymore.
I fear the rising levels of sweetness in my body. Bitter melon isn’t ubiquitous like royally dressed desserts that crowd grocery counters and tempt from glass cases at bakeries. What is bitter stuns my mouth, chases toxins away. What is sweet may kill me. One day I could wake up a pile of sugar.
Declaration Written on a Leaf
I don’t want to wait until my skin is a wrinkled leaf
to have love housed in brick
able to withstand a thousand rains. I hollow
out all your secrets, line them inside ringing
clocks where only I can hear your rusted
shame. I know what it’s like to fall
into a poisoned pit. I won’t wait until the fall
for romance to bloom like summer leaves
green, bright, with veins rustling
to keep alive and not hit brick
walls. Yesterday, I heard you singing
the saddest love song, rain-soaked and low
like a mouth left hollow
of kisses for years. Notes fell
off your tongue, your heartbreak ringing
in my ear. You became a drifting leaf
about to meet its demise under a brick.
Darling, stop your wailing and trust
my love. I know you’ve trusted
some wicked ones who left you more hollow
than winter branches, turned your heart into brick.
With me, it’s okay if you sometimes fall;
I will kiss the stitches on your heart, never leave
you hanging off a cliff, fingers pulsing, tingling.
How can I stop telephones of the past from ringing?
For you, I’ll make sure love isn’t a busted
safe of counterfeit bills, carry you like the leaf
cradles a ladybug. Let your spirit no longer hollow
in the presence of love. Let it fall
so fully into mine, not even a thunderbolt of bricks
could shatter us. I carry your love in a brick
case; you always bring
me to higher wisdom where falling
no longer hurts. I no longer fear rusted
doorknobs to closed rooms, their threats now hollow.
Every day with you, I’m alive as a budding leaf.
I see us in a brick summer house. Nothing is rusted;
no alarms ring. My body and spirit are never hollow
with you falling into me like millions of blushing red leaves.
A native of Radford, Virginia, Lisa Kwong is author of the chapbook Becoming AppalAsian, forthcoming from Glass Lyre Press. Her poems have appeared in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, Best New Poets 2014, Pluck!, and other publications. Her poem “Searching for Wonton Soup” is the winner of Sundress Publications’ 2019 Poetry Broadside Contest. She currently teaches Asian American Studies at Indiana University and English at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana. You can follow her on Twitter @poetambassador and Instagram @lisakwongwriter.