The Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize

2005


Two poems from Ken Chen's Love Songs Not About Lee and Other Poems

followed by a note on the author

 

My Father and My Mother Decide My Future
and How Could We Forget Wang Wei


            The suitcase
            open on the bed. My grandfather is packing up
            his organs. This completed, he takes a taxi to my grandmother’s
            house for supper. Exits
            the empty car to Taipei alley.

            Dissolve. Now the Los Altos lot.


So did you listen to him, MY FATHER says taking his keys out of the ignition. You should
become a lawyer but your grandfather says anything is fine. As long as
you’re the best.

            MY FATHER stays, MY MOTHER stays silent. I sit and suck my thumb.
I saw your painting. It was beautiful, my mother says to WANG WEI, restrained
behind us by backseat-belt and streetlight world – WANG WEI who says:

                  In the silent bamboo woods, sitting along
                  Playing strings and bellowing long.

But America is allergic to bamboo, MY FATHER to WANG WEI. They love skill sets, cash and
the first person singular, the language of C++ not our English. Steps out, shuts the
door, puts gas pump by Acura trunk. My father’s son does not understand, forgets the
Chinese he never remembered. But my mother holds words in her mouth:

The Peking opera soundtrack of my childhood. You sound like it. I’d listen to it on the
radio. You know, when I had to sweep the floor. And then WANG WEI:

                  Nobody knows but the deep grove
                  and the luminous moon that glows in response.

California moon not glow – or as the translation might say, irradiates instead like
beige screen before MY MOTHER, now at HP, after Taipei and degree in Home Ec.
and divorce. MY MOTHER like the moon which rents light from its past, MY MOTHER
who says, looking at the dashboard, You should listen to your father. I don’t know. Here
he comes.

            MY FATHER unlocks the door and says, Dropped the keys in the toilet. But that’s what life is
like. You’re young, MY FATHER says, I’m not sure to me or WANG WEI, You don’t understand the
world, the world which loves those who enter it and then WANG WEI:

                  Red hearts in the southern country
                  Spring comes with stems enlarging.
                  I didn’t know you two were still together.

We’re not, MY FATHER says. You’re eavesdropping on my son’s unwaking life.
            Your son? WANG WEI of monochromatic line turns behind
holds seat-strap with left hand and asks talk-show serenely: Who are you?

He has seen me. Like the scene
in the movie, where the actors find the camera and say Stop
looking at me, they stand and quit the car the way a breeze would. And I say:

                  Wish you’d gather some, caught me
                  More of this thing that is longing.

And Wang Wei asks: Who are you?
And my Father says: Decide.

 

Echo

“Such omissions of the subject allows the poet not to intrude his own personality upon the scene…”
James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry

            I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves trembling on the tree,
            trembling on the tree.

My father’s father holding still, holding still a traffic jam of coughs.
My father’s mother steaming chicken, boiling soy and air.
My mother’s father dangling years – a broken pocket watch.
My mother’s mother bearing a wedding dress.
My mother with such passion, sad beneath her silent face – frozen, a fashion ad.
My father pressed in black and white – a single paper lantern pasted in the air beside him.

            I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
            Blues fallin’ down like hail…

I close the album and my family members fold
against each other. Faces that would not kiss in life
press together as the pages close.

            Yeah standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
            Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride
            Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by

When pages have deserted books and hair from heads.
When pictures yet to be taken seem old and worn.
When my family now long gone resurrects itself, the ghosts
roaming through our dinner table –
The steam from the vermicelli broth rises up like an apparition.
My grandmother’s cooking. Our knives and forks
tick against our plates while we eat, unaware that we are achieving
ourselves.

We conjure our ghosts with these photographs in words.
I will cough my grandfather’s cough and my wife smiles her mother’s smiles.

 


©




Ken Chen was born in San Diego, California in 1979, and was educated at the University California at Berkeley and Yale University, where he obtained a BA in English Literature (with a minor in Creative Writing) and a JD. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he works as an Associate Attorney, pending admission to the New York Bar. His poems have appeared in the Boston Review of Books, Pleiades, Bridge, Radical Society, 5 Fingers Review, Art Asia Pacific and Palimpsest. He won the MeThree Literary Criticism contest and was a finalist in the Barrow Street Book Prize and the Diner poetry contest.

"My Mother and Father Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei" first appeared in Palimpsest: Yale Literary & Arts Magazine, and "Echo" first appeared in the Berkeley Poetry Review.

 


 
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