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Chiwan Choi
Chiwan Choi

portraitures and erasures

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, November 20, 2018.
About this Poem 

“The poem was written while I was on a flight. I was looking at the orange horizon and remembering the time we moved from Korea to Paraguay. And this made me wonder once more what my parents must think about the fact that their two sons don’t have children, that their lineage ends with us. Did they ever imagine this when they decided to leave our homeland, imagine that they would die, their legacies too, on foreign soil?”
—Chiwan Choi

portraitures and erasures

it ends my sleep to want my story about
my skin melting in the sun that day of
summer and a doctor who tells me i am dying,
that thing i hide under my nails like dirt
scratched from summer skin.
 
so i pick up a pencil and begin to erase myself.
 
erasure is sometimes editing.
immigration is always editing.
 
*
 
my father with the heart that chokes
him in his sleep, in his shorter and shorter
walks around concrete and glass sculptures,
around mother who keeps leaning one
way then the other at the precipice of fall
 
as he yells promises at her to keep her alive.
 
in this journey that began with his misstep
across waters and languages and his
hands on my face teaching me to long
 
how did he mean to rewrite me—
 
*
 
what will i say to the sky and the soil
neither foreign or home when they are
all gone leaving me to hold our name up
alone when i am neither tree nor
 
fire.
 
*
 
in the mirror i look for my head that
has begun to shake, the weight of how
much i am afraid, how it makes me look
like mother when i was a boy—seeing
it for the first time in her, demanding
 
she make it stop—
 
*
 
this fear of sleep has kept me up for years
did you know? because in dreams there is always
a point when your mother dies while
you are traveling through space searching
for your lost child and other such
 
possibilities.
 
*
 
i spent the day moving my body, guided
by a stranger’s voice and somewhere
on the floor my bones recognized pain
told me that in this too / (that is my body)
 
there are borders to cross
there are borders not meant to cross
 
*
 
interstitial—it’s a new word i learned
something about the space between
things, but it is obvious like my body that
wants to break, that space is the thing not
the between, the mass that cannot be occupied
 
a space between spaces that tell me
 
i am a child of none
 
*
 
i capture my hand grasping at the sky outside
the window of another plane in mid-flight.
 
it was orange. it wasn’t anything.
 
and the hand belonged to no one.
 
there was only the reaching. 

Copyright © 2018 by Chiwan Choi. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 20, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2018 by Chiwan Choi. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 20, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

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Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.

poem

Nationhood

I am a citizen of two nations: Shawnee and American. I have one son who is a citizen of three. Before he was born, I learned that, like all infants, he would need to experience a change of heart at birth in order to survive. When a baby successfully breathes in through the lungs, the heart changes from parallel flow to serial flow and the shunt between the right and left atriums closes. Our new bodies obliterate old frontiers.

North America is mistakenly called nascent. The Shawnee nation is mistakenly called moribund. America established a mathematical beginning point in 1785 in what was then called the Northwest Territory. Before that, it was known in many languages as the eastern range of the Shawnee, Miami, and Huron homelands. I do not have the Shawnee words to describe this place; the notation that is available to me is 40º38’32.61” N 80º31’9.76” W.
Laura Da’
2018
poem

Carrying Our Words

We travel carrying our words.
We arrive at the ocean.
With our words we are able to speak
of the sounds of thunderous waves.
We speak of how majestic it is,
of the ocean power that gifts us songs.
We sing of our respect
and call it our relative.

 

Translated into English from O’odham by the poet.

 

’U’a g T-ñi’okı˘


T-ñi’okı˘ ’att ’an o ’u’akc o hihi
Am ka:ck wui dada.
S-ap ‘am o ’a: mo has ma:s g kiod.
mat ’am ’ed.a betank ’i-gei.
’Am o ’a: mo he’es ’i-ge’ej,
mo hascu wud.  i:da gewkdagaj
mac ’ab amjed.  behě g ñe’i.
Hemhoa s-ap ‘am o ’a: mac si has elid, mo d.  ’i:mig.

 

 

Ofelia Zepeda
2015
Congaree National Park. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.
poem

The Thanksgivings

Translated from a traditional Iroquois prayer

 

We who are here present thank the Great Spirit that we are here to praise Him.
We thank Him that He has created men and women, and ordered that these beings shall always be living to multiply the earth.
We thank Him for making the earth and giving these beings its products to live on.
We thank Him for the water that comes out of the earth and runs for our lands.
We thank Him for all the animals on the earth.
We thank Him for certain timbers that grow and have fluids coming from them for us all.
We thank Him for the branches of the trees that grow shadows for our shelter.
We thank Him for the beings that come from the west, the thunder and lightning that water the earth.
We thank Him for the light which we call our oldest brother, the sun that works for our good.
We thank Him for all the fruits that grow on the trees and vines.
We thank Him for his goodness in making the forests, and thank all its trees.
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and for the kind Being of the darkness that gives us light, the moon.
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give us signs, the stars.
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who had charge of our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
We thank the Great Spirit that we have the privilege of this pleasant occasion.
We give thanks for the persons who can sing the Great Spirit's music, and hope they will be privileged to continue in his faith.
We thank the Great Spirit for all the persons who perform the ceremonies on this occasion.
Harriet Maxwell Converse
1908
poem

To See as Far as the Grandfather World

The photograph. On this particular March day
in 1961, Theodore Facepaint, who was nine
years old, agreed to do a parody. With hand
balanced on hip and the left leg slightly
in front of the right, my newly found friend
positioned himself on Sand Hill before turning
to face the hazy afternoon sun. This was a pose
we had become familiar with:
                                           the caricature
of a proud American Indian, looking out
toward the vast prairie expanse, with one hand
shielding the bronze eyes. When I projected
the image of the color 35 mm slide onto
the wall last week I remembered the sense
of mirth in which it was taken. Yet somewhere
slightly north of where we were clowning around,
Grandmother was uprooting medicinal roots
                              from the sandy soil
and placing them inside her flower-patterned
apron pockets to thaw out.

Twenty-nine years later, if I look long enough,
existential symbols are almost detectable.
The direction of the fiery sun in descent, for example,
is considered the Black Eagle Child Hereafter.
Could I be seeing too much? Past the west
and into the Grandfather World? Twice
                              I’ve caught myself asking:
Was Ted’s pose portentous? When I look
closely at the background of the Indian Dam
below—the horizontal line of water that runs
through the trees and behind Ted—I also know
that Liquid Lake with its boxcar-hopping
                              light is nearby.
For Ted and his Well-Off Man Church,
the comets landed on the crescent-shaped
beach and lined themselves up for a ritualistic
presentation. For Jane Ribbon, a mute healer,
a seal haunted this area. But further upriver
is where the ancient deer hunter was offered
immortality by three goddesses. While
the latter story of our geographic genesis
is fragmented, obscuring and revealing
itself as a verisimilitude, it is important.
Ted and I often debated what we would
have done had we been whisked through
a mystical doorway to a subterranean enclave.
Ted, unlike the ancient hunter who turned
down paradise, would have accepted—
and the tribe never would have flexed
its newborn spotted wings. In the hunter’s
denial we were thus assigned as Keepers
of Importance. But the question being asked
today is, Have we kept anything?

Our history, like the earth with its
abundant medicines, Grandmother used
to say, is unfused with ethereality. Yet in
the same breath she’d openly exclaim
that with modernity comes a cultural toll.

            In me, in Ted, and everyone.
Stories then, like people, are subject to change.
More so under adverse conditions. They
are also indicators of our faithfulness. Since
the goddesses’ doorway was sealed shut by
                      our own transgressions,
Grandmother espoused that unbounded
youth would render tribal language
and religion inept, that each lavish
novelty brought into our homes would
make us weaker until there was nothing.
                      No lexicon. No tenets.
Zero divine intervention. She was also
attuned to the fact that for generations
our grandparents had wept unexpectedly
for those of us caught in the blinding
stars of the future.

Mythology, in any tribal-oriented society,
is a crucial element. Without it, all else
is jeopardized with becoming untrue. While
the acreages beneath Ted’s feet and mine
offered relative comfort back then,
we are probably more accountable now
                      to ourselves—and others.
Prophecy decrees it. Most fabled among
the warnings is the one that forecasts
the advent of our land-keeping failures.
Many felt this began last summer when
a whirlwind abruptly ended a tribal
celebration. From the north in the shape
of an angry seagull it swept up dust.
corn leaves, and assorted debris,
as it headed toward the audacious
“income-generating architecture,”
the gambling hall. At the last second
the whirlwind changed direction, going
toward the tribal recreation complex.
Imperiled, the people within the circus tent-
like structure could only watch as the panels
flapped crazily. A week later, my family said
the destruction was attributable to the gambling
hall, which was the actual point of weakness
of the tribe itself.

Which is to say the hill where a bronze-eyed
Ted once stood is under threat of impermanence.
By allowing people who were not created
by the Holy Grandfather to lead us we may
cease to own what Ted saw on the long-ago day.
From Rolling Head Valley to Runner’s Bluff
                      and over the two rivers
our hold is gradually being unfastened by
false leaders. They have forgotten that their
own grandparents arrived here under a Sacred
Chieftain. This geography is theirs nonetheless.
and it shall be as long as the first gifts given
are intact. In spite of everything that we are
not, this crown of hills resembles lone islands
amid an ocean of corn, soybean fields,
and low-lying fog. Invisibly clustered on
the Black Eagle Child Settlement’s slopes
are the remaining Earthlodge clans.
                      The western edge of this
woodland terrain overlooks the southern
lowlands of the Iowa and Swanroot Rivers,
while the eastern edge splits widely into several
valleys, where the Settlement’s main road winds
through. It is on this road where Ted and I walked.
It is on this road where Ted met a pack
of predators.

Along the color slide’s paper edge the year
1961 is imprinted. Ted and I were fourth
graders at Weeping Willow Elementary.
Nine years later, in 1970, a passenger train
took us to Southern California for college.
It proved to be a lonely place where winter
                              appeared high atop
the San Gabriel Mountains on clear days.
Spanish-influenced building styles, upper-middle-
class proclivities, and the arid climate had a subtle
asphyxiating effect. Instead of chopping firewood
            for father’s nonexistent blizzard,
I began my evenings in Frary Dining Hall
where Orozco’s giant mural with erased privates
called Prometheus loomed above. My supper
would consist of tamales and cold shrimp salad
instead of boiled squirrel with flour dumplings.
Through  mountain forest fires the Santa Ana
winds showered the campus with sparks and ashes.
In a wide valley where a smoke- and smog-darkened
night came early, the family album possessed its
own shimmery light. Pages were turned. A visual
record of family and childhood friends. Time.
                            Ted and I transforming,
separating. During the first Christmas break
in which we headed back to the Black Eagle
Child Settlement, Ted froze me in celluloid:
against a backdrop of snow-laden pine trees
a former self wears a windswept topcoat,
Levi bell-bottoms, cowboy boots, and tinted
glasses. Ted and I, like statues, are held
captive in photographic moments.
                As the earth spins, however,
the concrete mold disintegrates,
exposing the vulnerable wire
foundation of who we are not.

Ray Young Bear
2018
collection

A Poet's Glossary

Read about poetic terms and forms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014), a book ten years in the making that defines the art form of poetry.  

poem

Thanks

Listen 
with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
standing by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is
W. S. Merwin
1988
Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets