I haven’t read poetry in public over the past decade, so in March when I had the opportunity to do this with The Literary Cypher run by LP Kersey and Obsidian Pen Publishing, it was really fun! Poetry is community and the expectations around reading and writing poetry, at least for me, are much different than writing prose. I read some poetry from my manuscript Passing in the Middle Kingdom, which is, if you have been tuning in, what I am also blogging about–specifically ideas of creative process.
The point here is to show you or anyone who may benefit from writing poetry how a poem unfolds, and how and why writing poetry can help us answer and ask questions.
This poem An Ocean Ago was written and submitted to Great Ocean Quarterly in Australia. They ended up taking another one (I’ll blog about that later), but it gave me some confidence that they had liked it, although admittedly, this poem was dramatically rewritten over the course of a decade. I was living as a Korean American expatriate in Hong Kong who was four generations in on the Hawai’i side. Most Asian Americans pivot between two countries: the US and the country of their ethnic origin. When you throw that third country in, stuff gets a little different, also when you throw in another country due to a partner. So you start dealing with 3-4 countries and you start to see how reductive life can be if you insist only upon a dichotomy and polarization of two sides. We can’t and don’t live that way anymore. We all inhabit a global economy. All I can say is there is a nuclear accident in Japan and the stuff washes up off the Oregon coast, what does that mean? One planet everyone…yep…
When I first wrote it, I was really trying to understand what I was feeling about marriage, motherhood, and place. I had gotten it in my brain, as writers do, that if I write something a certain way, then I would will my life a certain way. This is both true and not. You cannot write you love someone if you do not love someone, and suddenly start to love someone. You can write to convince yourself you love someone, but this only goes so far. I was trying to write into this question. So the first draft was me desperately trying to write and through writing, rationalize my situation, no matter what. Later, I became more comfortable saying there was confusion and finally, no. Love gone. The poem turned. It worked out. Writing confirms what we know and allows us to search inside of ourselves.
This poem was also about memory, about a road trip to Arizona when we first met, about aging and what this means, about pregnancy and the movement between Hong Kong and the US, back and forth, on and off for years. There was always a rather frantic dynamic, this is a polite or euphemistic way of describing what can only be said to be harrowing. I know now such feelings are linked to living with and under trauma. I live very differently now. My body is recalibrating. For anyone who has lived in this way–I will tell you this: Just. Step. Away.
Also the thing about aging is that it is linked to death, of course. What it means to die. How we die. Why we die. Fear of dying. We all die. You will not be saved from the truth that we will all perish. Every person you see, every tree or sign of life that you witness or experience will perish too, just as you do. You can do whatever you want to try to stop this: pray, exercise fanatically, get plastic surgery, have a child, find a new partner, move to a new home or city, get a new job, but guess what. The Big D is coming for you. And the flag the Big D is waving says this: Take No Prisoners.
That’s right. The END is real. SO…what does Dr. Stephanie Han say about this?
Be real. Be kind. Be fair. Here’s the poem below–
An Ocean Ago
A shower runs down my husband’s back.
Torks, twists, a broken spine.
He hoists our child on to his shoulders.
A shift in his gait. Silver hair thinning.
An ocean ago.
We floated in a blue pool
he held me up to a red rock sun.
Will you love me
when I can no longer lift you to the sky?
So late, so fast,
an ocean ago,
a splash, a belly, a pink bikini.
Liquid pooled between my legs,
the current pulled.
Our baby fought the crossing.
His arrival, our return.
An ocean ago,
money crushed the fetal grip,
trash floated, we swam the harbor
of age and loss, panicked
through tubes and wires.
Tread water, refuse to drown.
We searched for an elixir,
discovered gray vapor death.
Will you love me?
Let me lie, I said,