September 26, 2017KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsEthicsRemembrancesWriting

Returning to New Houses We Rebuild Together

Yesterday, you began this essay with: She bears the wood and the forgotten knowledge of the wood, carries its many names, a weight that brings the poet no unity.

And then you thought about how often, with back bent and face two inches buried from the earth, she unplants the wood and burns it for others, and what’s so wonderful about unity anyway?

And then you tried to begin again: Tonight, she is heavy with the wood she carries, and the wood she has lost as she prays on Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance.

Or rather: The Ten Days of Return.

Every year, returning means coming a step closer to a language no longer spoken but carried.

For her, the wood is always opening as it is closing.

She knows any step inside underscores the exits she is making.

The house is a prayer that will ask for the wood she bears.

The house is a prayer that is not yet built, and it will never be finished.

Perhaps you have missed her inscriptions, her woodwork, the wooden lattice screen that once hid her upstairs as she prayed in the woman’s gallery in her synagogue, far from Torah, far from her share of joy and burden.

Today you think of your father who dismantled the screen, and passed his lectern over to you, clearing the space so that you might build your own prayers, offer up your own light.

Tonight you are looking back into the eyes of the wood you’ve burned bright.

Tonight she is looking back into the eyes of the rooms she’s built and left behind.

One step already inside.

One step almost always missed.


You’ve received much advice about poetry over the years, and this year in particular. Quite a few concern things a poet should not do.

One especially surprising: to not hold poetry in too high of a regard.

A seasoned poet who’s been around the block a few times, as he referred to himself, told you not to hold poetry in too high of a regard.

That one should be able to separate it from real life.

It’s consuming you, the poet explained, ready to improve your condition. You were friendly to each other at a distance, but you do not know him. You’ve never shared a meal, never spent meaningful time together in real life. Yet he was concerned about you, from afar, in reading your work. He even thanks you, for your words which he finds beautiful but will only lead to disappointment.

You won’t find what you are looking for, he said. You won’t get beyond the page. Don’t ever forget there’s life beyond poetry.

His delivery came off as a sentencing.

His delivery, an old language she’s been trying to escape for centuries.


Last night, when you were in the thick of it all, you received a phone call from your father-in-law who lives in Hong Kong, but was born in rural China. He tells you that he is going to attempt to get the deed to his family’s farmhouse back from the government, and if he can’t, he will sign the 99-year-lease permitted.

I’m over 60 years old, he says. This won’t be for me.

You say nothing, thinking of the wood that this man has carried. The stories he’s told you of the real wood he’d carried in his arms when he lived in the village.

There’s no electricity, he tells you, or running water. The roof is falling apart, and the beams are rotten. It’s uninhabitable, and it’s not much, but I thought, when you and my son are here in December, we can go look at it together. I thought in a few years, we can get it into decent shape. No Holiday Inn. But in a few years, a place where you can go and write. A home for your writing.

You are touched by such generosity, but remain silent, knowing that thanking him would upset him. Thanking someone is for strangers, your father-in-law has said. Father-in-law itself is a word that upsets him.

Call him Papa Issac, your husband’s mother has said in the past, and me, Mama Christina. She doesn’t want to offend your parents, worried that they might think her language is trying to replace them. But that she hopes one day it will just come naturally, Father and Mother.

I’m working on my Cantonese, you suddenly tell him, in English.

Really, he says. Talk to me.

You slowly count to 10, hoping you won’t forget the words you’ve memorized. Yāt, yih, sāam, sei, nǵh, lukh, chāt, baat, gāu, sahp. You recite the name of sānnggwó— fruits— you often buy with your husband’s mother, Mama Christina, in Shek Tong Tsui market. Mōnggwó. Mango. Cháang. Orange. Boulām. Plum. Laihjī. Lychee. You ask him what time it is. You ask him what’s the matter. You ask him where he is going, and where he is coming from.

He repeats the words you stumble over, and then answers you.

You repeat his answers, and the questions you originally asked, which he repeats once more back to you.

You hear the tones, he says. It’s easy for you; you speak more than one language.

And you want to tell him how it is not easy. That your Spanish is rooted in the Rio Grande Valley, at a particular point on the border where land meet the Gulf of Mexico. That you never learned it. That you don’t remember when you began to speak it, nor your first words in Modern Hebrew, or how you learned your first prayer— The Sh’ma— no, you can’t remember a time when you did not carry The Book, when you were not in the thick of it, in the unplanting of language you do not wish to transcend, but rather transcend with.

For you cannot remember a time when you and language were not always in it together.

That the fire burning the wood is poetry, and poetry brings you no unity, and perhaps returning is not merely a time of reflection, but looking toward what you will do with the fire you carry, the fire you’ve always carried.

You want to tell your husband’s father, in this moment of mourning, in this moment that another poet would tell her and her and she and she that there’s life beyond poetry, that this offer in sharing his childhood home with you, a gesture he finds so small and not much, means the world to you.

And how you want to thank him, openly, with these words.

But in his language, thank you is for strangers.

Get your visas for China in New York, he reminds you. So you guys can relax in Hong Kong when you get here. Before we go to the Mainland.

You tell him you will.

And just before you hang up, you go over the words of your Cantonese lessons once more with this man you struggle to call simply father, without hyphened explanation, without a secondary name.

You again ask him what time it is. You ask what’s the matter, and where he is going, and where is he coming from.

And once again, he repeats the tones you stumble over, and answers you, and then waits for you to say those words, the words of your father, back to him.