I come from gravel falling from the mouth, a bent spine
from which my mother rose, from the sickness that poured
over my father in water buckets. That was the well he fell into
and the well where I waited, a body cutting into water on impact.
My face is the only heirloom, fixed in gold. The features
which swirled down a drain. I come from that too, not sewage
nor explosion but a phantom lock, a combination set
to be opened. A slap in the dark. A gun goes off.
Then I’m pink all over, a glow at night. Culprit or criminal
but truly neither. I handed myself to you, a tray with honey bees.
There were no traps, no nets. Only humming. I come from the story
of chicken breeders, of nurses, of railroad, bone soup, chopping block,
the work of chopping, then finally food. I come from handmade shirts
hanging in my stepfather’s closet. I come from the spit and curses
that careened from his mouth like anvils and vespers.
He is gone now. When I thought I knew better,
I faced downward where I came from, a room held me
like a rotting ship, mold staining the corner. Lamps unlit,
medicine, tubes, wash clothes, worn flags, failing lungs
making up an American song in each room of the house.
I come from stickball bat and missing bases, empty trailer
in the lot across the street, light that flickered on and off
signaling one lone presence. I come from the broad birds
and the day demons, the ash from a childhood burn,
tin cans of dried pens, newspaper, seashells, a phoenix
fixed in a souvenir bottle. Every bit saved as if discard
were memory itself. As if I lived on paper, trash. I come from
wayward bicycle, departure through a heavy door, a forklift,
a lion’s claw, a den of starving wolves. I am frantic running
through the house, closing shutters, hiding the silverware.
I am found in my bed, breathing. I come from the dead end
that opened toward the brick face of a horizon which glowed
like God’s goat face, a wild compassion, a guttural sound
from the throat. I come from the last funeral, my stepfather
in a casket with all the living flowers, his hands sewn
together in death though I remember in life they waved
with rage punctuating each dirty vowel. How the orchids
overwhelmed his body, face so sunken it deflated
into the silk cushion behind his head. And was that legacy?
He screamed his lessons often into wind, belly
jiggling as he laughed, his full face was a red truck
swerving off center. A poisonous face. Face
of my past. I come from that too, from the indifference
of doors and keys, from the sonnet of the sewing machine
which wrestled my neck at the collar and all my words
caught at the throat, struggled to make one stitch, a straight line.
I come from those birds: heron, robin, grackle.
The ones you cannot catch. The ones that sound
like owls or witches. I dream of the phoenix and swan
fighting. Color and frenzy swirling in waves of feather
theater in air. I come from the rough seas of this sort
of battle, of consequences all too familiar and fantastic.
It is a place I cannot swim, where I gulp the world’s water,
salt with rage, froth with effort. I come from that, the flailing
struggle, my afterlife waiting for me, and a future summoning
at my ankles. The future is an animal waiting to pounce.
It is that bestial. That patient. I come from that too.
Tina Chang is the Brooklyn Poet Laureate. Author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Of Gods & Strangers (2011), she is also co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008). She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and she is also a member of the international writing faculty at the City University of Hong Kong, the first low-residency MFA program to be established in Asia.