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Recorded for Poem-a-Day January 25, 2019.
About this Poem 

“‘Dear Nainai,’ grew out of my chapbook Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press, 2017), poems written with my late Chinese father’s English letters. The words in italics belong to him. Born in Shandong, China, in 1925, my father was both a product of his generation (he always used the word Oriental when referring to Asian people) and a man ahead of his time (he always taught me to be a feminist). He revered his mother more than anyone and yet never mentioned her in his letters. My poem is an attempt to grapple with these contradictions and to communicate with the ghost of my grandmother, her absence so striking I feel it as a presence.”
—Jennifer Tseng

Dear Nainai,

Every day you sink into her
To make room for me.
When I die, I sink into you,
When Xing dies, she sinks
Into me, her child dies &
Sinks into Xing & the Earth,
Who is always ravenous,
Swallows us.
I don’t know where you’re buried.
I don’t know your sons’ names,
Only their numbers & fates:
#2 was murdered, #3 went to jail, #4 hung himself, #5, who did the cooking & cleaning, is alive.
#1, my father, died of pancreatic cancer. Of bacon & lunch meat & Napoleons.
Your husband died young, of Double Happiness, unfiltered. 
You died of Time,
Of motherhood,
Of being the boss,
Of working in a sock factory,
Of an everyday ailment
For which there is no cure.
I am alone, like a number.
#1 writes me a letter:
My dearest Jenny,
Do you know Rigoberta Menchú, this name?
There were also silences about Chinese girls, Oriental women.
In field of literature, you must be strong enough to bear all these.
An ivory tower writer can never be successful.
You are almost living like a hermit.
Are you coming home soon?
He doesn’t mention you.
Perfect defect.
Hidden flaw in the cloth,
Yellow bead in the family regalia.
Bidden to be understory,
Silences, pored & poured over.
You are almost living.
You say hello to me quietly.
What is success? Meat? Pastries? 
Cigarettes? The cessation of
Communion with self?
I want to be eaten
By an ivory tower,
Devoured by the power
Of my own solitude.
We’re alone together.
I read the letter every day before death.
Where are you buried, Nainai?
I’m coming home soon.

Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Tseng. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Tseng. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 25, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Jennifer Tseng

Jennifer Tseng

Jennifer Tseng is the author of The Passion of Woo and Isolde (Rose Metal Press, 2017).