Singing Poetry

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Dear All,

Do you like poetry? Do you like the music in it? The aftertaste on the tip of your tongue?

Among countless talented poets, I especially love Nayyirah Waheed. Her words are captivating and powerful. I wish I’d written them.

Here’s a poem, my absolutely favorite, from her collection Salt. Savor each word, because it carries light and truth.

Heart,

Allison

Half Life

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1.
She looked into her red pocket mirror, lipstick in trembling hand. Brows furrowed. Lips parted. Rose pink slipped out of the line. She finger-wiped it then reapplied. I watched from five feet away––watched and traced her facial lines in my mind. Creases on her forehead. Almost invisible flat nose. Curves that framed her round eyes. I inhaled and filled my lungs with her scent. Essential oils. Cough drop. Vanilla lotion. I wanted to, wanted to, wanted to remember this woman who birthed me.

2.
My heart isn’t big enough for the love I have for my husband, for his dimpled smile I see first thing in the morning, for his straight nose so graceful and fine, for his wavy black hair I run my fingers through, for his sapphire eyes and loving gaze at night. Even eternity isn’t enough time to study, adore, and admire his chiseled face. My heart needs to be held outside of my body, for my husband, my Batman, my only delight.

3.
Mama had just been discharged from the hospital the day before, July 3rd 1995. Weak and weary. Insisted on coming. Four-hour car ride from home to the Taipei airport. Vomited the entire way. Gagged and splashed. Moaned and groaned. Sour air. Silent tears. Bag in hand. Knees in chest. Head against window. Mother of sorrow. “I’m okay. I’m fine. Oh, why must we say good-bye?”

4.
My Batman, a mere mortal without superpowers. Afflicted. Defeated. “Ulcerative colitis––new words for you to learn,” the doctor says, dropping his pen in his pocket. My love, a hump of six-foot-one outline on the bed. A pile of misery and pain. “Get the kids outta here!” he yells, “Can’t stand all the noises!” Hats, coats, gloves. Socks, boots, scarves. Three-year-old at my knee. Two-year-old on my hip. One-year-old on my back. Elongated shadows on the sidewalk. Noses running. Tummies growling. Eyelids drooping. I look back and see Batman’s pale face in the window. The babies are whining, all of them. “Mommy, cold.” “Mommy, hungwy.” “Mommy, nap.” But all I hear is the snowflakes falling and my beloved Batman sobbing.

5.
The flight from Taipei to Texas is about 17 hours long. July 4th, 1995. I was a twenty-two-year-old college student on a plane, crossing longitudes and passing latitudes and arriving in Houston on the same day––even earlier than the departure time on my itinerary––as if time stood still, or went backyards, while I moved. What do they call this, time and travel? Time travel?

6.
Mama dug in her red purse. Fished among pens, receipts, camera, insulin kit, business cards, dollar bills, makeup case, essential oils. “Go get a bottled water.” She handed me a ten-yuan bill. “Take water with you to a foreign country. Water from home meets new soil. That combination creates a harmonious click in your new life. You’ll adapt well.” I arrived in the new world. The promised land. Wide-eyed. Sweaty palms. Bursting chest. Forgot about the bottled water in L.A. airport. Stood before a vending machine. Cookies. Pretzels. Potato chips. No, no, no. It’s six o’clock dinner time. Time for wanton, chow mien, egg drop soup. Sprinkle salt, herbs, spices, too. Set the table. Bring water cups . . . I remembered. I, soil without water.

7.
Batman plays volleyball. Surfs. Runs. Wakeboards. Climbs rocks. Lifts weights. Does yoga and all. He walked down the stairs to the basement one day. Sudden sharp pain jabbed him in the back, right side. He screamed, fell off the stairs, flat on the hallway floor. Emergency room monitor showed his heart rate at 55/minute. Fifty-five? Slower than tick-tock-tick? Will the monitor line go flat? In his sleep rose a deep, guttural voice. “Allison––Allison––Allison––” The nurse winked at me. “Noticed the rhythm? He calls your name with the beat of his heart.” In distress, am I his heart’s desire? Am I the heart he holds outside of his body?

8.
A sea of people at the L.A. airport immigration and customs. Men. Women. Young. Old. A world of foreign languages. A world of chaotic noises. Excited gasps. Chatty laughter. Impatient whines. Exhausted complaints. Body odor. Stale perfume. Foul breath. Signs separated and directed the crowd. No mistake. Everyone had a line to stand in. U.S. citizens, permanent residents to the right. Visitors to the left. A uniformed officer looked over the top of his glasses at me. Looked down at my green cover passport with an embossed gold star. “Welcome to the U.S.A., Miss Hong.” He smiled and stamped on page two. Americans smile so much. I like. I like. I like. Passed the vertically-hung giant star- spangled banner. Out to the street. Cool breeze. Fireworks. Happy Fourth. “Welcome to the U.S.A., Miss Hong!” Americans, they sang and danced for me.

9.
Mama was in hospice care. Diabetes. Alzheimer. Kidney failure. Her fiftieth birthday. No one visited. No one celebrated. No one remembered. She got out of the nightly bath. Red robe on. A nurse helped her take small steps to her bed. Mama must’ve smelled of lavender. Or Honeysuckle. Maybe citrus. Velvety serenity. Violent sweet. Vigorous sour. She shooed away “the men” in front of her only she could see, the nurse later reported. “Go away! I’m not coming with you––not ready to go home yet!” Mama beg-cried. Mighty invisible men. Come to take. No one escapes. Her knees buckled. Her body limp. She fell unconscious. Ambulance stuck in stand-still traffic. Heart rate line on the monitor slowed. Were the invisible men sitting on her heart? Hovering over her, yanking her spirit? What was the last image Mama saw in her mortal life? Loneliness? Betrayal? Sufferings? Mighty invisible men. Took Mama home. But, home, where?

10.
I got lost in the fishing village. Biked up and down the street. Passed my childhood home. Once. Twice. Thrice. Didn’t recognize it. Stopped to ask for direction. Recited my home address. The almond-eyed woman stared. “What’s that accent you have?” I said I was from here. Said I was searching for my past. She pointed. I followed her finger. Found the house. Down the narrow lane. Run-down wooden shack I used to be embarrassed to let anyone know was my home. That centennial beach property. Built in late Qing Dynasty. Now museum-worthy relic. Chipped red paint on rickety cracked wood door. Lion knocker missing. Ankle-high wood threshold all worn out. Nearly a low stumbling block now. Boarded windows dusty and locked. And how was it possible the concrete patio I had to sweep every morning before school shrunk? Unfair! The flat rooftop where I watched sunrise and sunset every day. Blackened by rains, typhoon, and spray paint. The maggot-infested outhouse, stench erupted to high heavens. The green bunk bed I used to sleep with my sister, urine-stained mattress still there. The moldy kitchen where Baba and Mama fought. The cold corner I stood, wailing, howling, and watching my family fall apart. Twenty-two years later, today, I still don’t remember where Mama’s ashes are.

11.
Half my life in Taiwan. Half my life in America. Dichotomy. I stand tall. I stand proud. A uniformed officer at L.A. immigration and customs looks down at my navy blue cover passport, then studies my face. “Welcome home, Mrs. Merrill.” He smiles. And stamps on page two.

How do You Read?

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(Photo Credit: Gabriella Photography)

Dear All,

When I was in first grade, my room teacher made our class of 65 students read out loud together stories from our Chinese textbooks. It was then I discovered I had a reading disorder.

I couldn’t follow my classmates’ unified chanting voices to finish reading a story. My eyes couldn’t follow the words, sentences, and paragraphs in the order that made up a story. Specifically, I’d read the first couple words in the opening paragraph and then jump to the end of the page to read a sentence, then wander back to the middle of the page to read a few words, and then back to re-read the opening paragraph.

Now, I didn’t just do it with the first page of a book. I did it with every single page.

I still do it. I can’t help it. It’s how my brain works.

This makes me a very slow reader, especially when I read English and German. It makes me a very slow writer, too, as you might imagine why. But that’s not the worst problem.

The strange way my brain works causes me to read the last page of a book first. Always.

During my first MFA residency (my graduate school program) I had a meeting with my advisor to get to know each other. I told him about my reading disorder. He snorted and said, “So?”

“So?” he said. “Why should I care if you have a reading disorder that doesn’t even have a scientific name? Did you find it out today? No? Okay, then you came into this program fully aware that you’re expected to work around your so-called disability and produce quality work just like everybody else, right? Then suck it up and go to work.”

I never told anyone about my struggle again.

I never told anyone why I dread and fear reading out loud excerpt from my own book in front of others.

But I’m telling you this now because I know the majority of the people see “reading the ending of a book first” as an unpardonable sin. I’m a sinful reader in that regard. You can curse me for it. But I just want to let you know that sometimes people judge too quickly and forgive too slowly. And when they do, they leave no room in their hearts for understanding and acceptance.

No room in their hearts for understanding and acceptance. We don’t really want that, do we?

Heart,
Allison

Thesis Accomplished

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Dear All,

Academic writing is not my strength. Writing the critical thesis as part of the MFA graduation requirements is like cooking dinner every night––I don’t love it, but it has to be done.

And so, after two months of tortuous researching and writing, I’ve finally finished the thesis. It feels great to get it out of the way so I can now focus on creative writing.

My current project is the revision of my memoir Grafted Mandarin. It’s been fun working on it so far. I plan to polish it and pitch it to a literary agent in May. Hopefully I get a great news to share with you soon.

Heart,

Allison

Life. Brutally Beautiful

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My family (L to R: Mama, Yao, Dee, me, and Baba). Hualien, Taiwan. circa 1977.

I know my birth date, so I know when I saw my mother for the first time. But I don’t remember the exact date when I saw her the last time in this mortal life. She passed away 20 years ago today, February 22, 1997. On an ambulance. No one was with her. I swore I’d never live her life. But in a way I did, and still do. I’m a mom. I’m a mom who writes, so when pictures fade, our stories continue. And that’s what makes life brutally beautiful.

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My family. Salt Lake City, Utah. September, 2015.