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Chen Chen
Chen Chen

First Light

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, March 22, 2017.
About this Poem 

“I’m tired of the dominant immigration narrative, the one that romanticizes the United States as a land of opportunity and fails to recognize the deep sorrow many immigrants confront, leaving a home country—even when it’s a real choice to do so. I’m also tired of what has more recently become the dominant coming out narrative, the happy tale of full acceptance that marginalizes the experiences of those who aren’t so fortunate to have supportive family. This poem is an attempt to hold heartbreak close.”
—Chen Chen

First Light

I like to say we left at first light
        with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
        even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
        during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
        around Piano Island, a place I never read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
        says they took me to, & that I loved.
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
        To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?
They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,
        & I say Yes it’s coming back, I say Of course,
when it’s No not at all, because when I last saw them
        I was three, & the China of my first three years
is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,
        my dream before I knew the word “dream,”
my father’s martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste 
        of history. I like to say we left at first light,
we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous
        kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,
& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say
        we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,
who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.
        I don’t like to say, I don’t remember crying.
No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don’t remember
        feeling bad, leaving China.
I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off
        on some secret adventure, while the others were
still sleeping, still blanketed, warm
        in their memories of us.
What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me
        for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
        too male for crying. When my father said Get out,
never come back,
I cried & ran, threw myself into night.
        Then returned, at first light, I don’t remember exactly
why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims
        my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright
to see what had happened, reaching toward me with her hands,
        & I wanted to say No. Don’t touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left
        unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,
my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,
        before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.
I’m not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me
        is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.
It’s been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,
        her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has                          trouble
recalling who, why. I feel awful, my mother says,
        not going back at once to see her. But too much is                              happening here.
Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
        least forgivable English word. 
What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?
        How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is
my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,
        English-to-English) mother’s voice? She might say:
We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,
        in early spring. Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.
        It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass
& metal of the airport—scent of my mother’s just-washed hair,
        of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride                over,
how I did not know those flowers were already
        memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the                  plane,
the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names
        I once knew, & my mother’s long black hair—so impossible              now.
Why did I never consider how different spring could smell,              feel,
        elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost
country. First & deepest severance that should have
        prepared me for all others. 

From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Chen Chen. Used with permission of BOA Editions.

 

From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Chen Chen. Used with permission of BOA Editions.

 
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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.

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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.  

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Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Maya Angelou
1978
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Robert Lowell's "Epilogue" Manuscript
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Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Anne Sexton
1981
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Robert Lowell: A Centennial Celebration

This year marks the centennial of Robert Lowell, who was born on March 1, 1917, in Boston. Known for his somber, deeply personal poetry that grew out of the tradition of form poems, Lowell helped shape the story of modern American poetry with works such as Lord Weary’s Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and his watershed collection Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959). In celebration of Lowell, his life, and his legacy, we’ve compiled this collection of poems, essays, and ephemera featuring the poet.