Selected by Peggy Shumaker
Wise and wickedly funny, Marilyn Chin is an international treasure.
Chin, born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon, is an award-winning poet and the author of Portrait of the Self as Nation (new and selected poems, due out in 2018 from Norton), Hard Love Province, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow, The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty and Dwarf Bamboo. Her writing has appeared in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Her books have become Asian American classics and are taught in classrooms internationally. Marilyn Chin has read her poetry at the Library of Congress. She was interviewed by Bill Moyers and featured in his PBS series The Language of Life and in PBS’s Poetry Everywhere.
Chin has read her poems and taught workshops all over the world. Recently, she taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was guest poet at universities in Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manchester, Sydney, and Berlin. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, she has translated poems by the modern Chinese poet Ai Qing and by the Japanese poet Gozo Yoshimasu. Recently, she was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In addition to teaching in the MFA program at San Diego State University, she also serves as mentor on the international faculty of The City University of Hong Kong’s low residency MFA program, the first of such programs in Asia. She has recently been appointed a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
For more information: marilynchin.org
HOW I GOT THAT NAME
an essay on assimilation
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin.
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blonde
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse – for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chop suey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men were measured.
Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we’ve managed to fool the experts
in education, statistics and demography—
We’re not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the “Model Minority” is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we’ll hit east;
The deeper down we dig, we’ll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!
Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One has a squarish head and a nose without a bridge.
Another’s profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one
may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite—
“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
too listless to fight for my people’s destiny.
“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”
says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.
So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G. G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everybody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed! Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!
Love, if I could give you the eternal summer sun
or China back her early ideological splendor, I would.
If I could hoist the dead horses back
and retrieve the wisdom charred by the pyres of Qin.
If I could give mother the Hong Kong of her mulberry youth
and father the answer that the ox desired,
they would still be together now and not blame
their sadness on the unyielding earth.
If I had separated goose from gander, goose from gander,
the question of breeding for life, the question
of the pure yellow seed would not enter.
This courtyard, this fortress,
this alluvium where the dead leave their faces—
each step I take erases the remnants of another,
each song I sing obfuscates the song of Changan,
ripples washing sand, ripples washing sand, ripples…
each poem I write conjures the dead washing women of Loyang.
Lover, on Tiananmen Square, near the Avenue of Eternal Peace,
I believe in the passions of youth,
I believe in eternal spring.
As the white blossoms, sweet harbingers,
pull a wreath around the city,
as heaven spreads its indifference over
the bloodied quay, I want to hold you
against the soft silhouettes of my people.
Let me place my mouth over your mouth,
let me breathe life into your life,
let me summon the paired connubial geese
from the far reaches of the galaxy
to soar over the red spokes of the sun’s slow chariot
and begin again.
THE FLORAL APRON
The woman wore a floral apron around her neck,
that woman from my mother’s village
with a sharp cleaver in her hand.
She said, “What shall we cook tonight?
Perhaps these six tiny squid
lined up so perfectly on the block?”
She wiped her hand on the apron,
pierced the blade into the first.
There was no resistance,
no blood, only cartilage
soft as a child’s nose. A last
iota of ink made us wince.
Suddenly, the aroma of ginger and scallion fogged our senses,
and we absolved her for that moment’s barbarism.
Then, she, an elder of the tribe,
without formal headdress, without elegance,
deigned to teach the younger
about the Asian plight.
And although we have traveled far
we must never forget that primal lesson
—on patience, courage, forbearance,
on how to love squid despite squid,
how to honor the village, the tribe,
that floral apron.
THAT HALF IS ALMOST GONE
That half is almost gone,
the Chinese half,
the fair side of a peach,
darkened by the knife of time,
fades like a cruel sun.
In my thirtieth year
I wrote a letter to my mother.
I had forgotten the character
for “love.” I remember vaguely
the radical “heart.”
The ancestors won’t fail to remind you
the vital and vestigial organs
where the emotions come from.
But the rest is fading.
A slash dissects in midair,
ai, ai, ai, ai,
more of a cry than a sigh
(and no help from the phoneticist).
You are a Chinese!
My mother was adamant.
You are a Chinese?
My mother less convinced.
Are you not Chinese?
My mother now accepting.
As a cataract clouds her vision,
and her third daughter marries
a Protestant West Virginian
who is “very handsome and very kind.”
The mystery is still unsolved—
the landscape looms
over man. And the gaffer-hatted fishmonger—
sings to his cormorant.
And the maiden behind the curtain
is somebody’s courtesan.
Or, merely Rose Wong’s aging daughter
Pondering the blue void.
You are a Chinese—said my mother
who once walked the fields of her dead—
Today, on the 36thanniversary of my birth,
I have problems now
even with the salutation.
IDENTITY POEM (#99)
Are you the sky—or the allegory for loneliness?
Are you the only Chinese restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon?
A half-breed war orphan—adopted by proper Christians?
A heathen poi dog, a creamy half-and-half?
Are you a dingy vinyl address book? A wrist
Without a corsage? Are you baby’s breath
Faced down on a teenage road in America?
Are you earphones—detached
Left dangling on an airplane jack to diaspora?
Are you doomed to a childhood without music?
Weary of your granny’s one-string, woe-be-gone erhu
Mewling about the past
Are you hate speech or are you a lullaby?
Anecdotes requiring footnotes
An ethnic joke rehashed
How many Chinamen does it take—to screw
How many Chinamen does it take—to screw
Are you so poor that you cannot call your mother?
You have less than two dollars on your phone-card
And it’s a long cable to Nirvana
Are you a skylight through which the busgirl sees heaven?
A chopping block stained by the blood of ten thousand innocents
Which daily, the same busgirl must wipe off
Does existence preempt essence?
I “being” what my ancestors were not
Suddenly, you’re a vegan vegetarian!
Restaurant is a facticity and
Getting the hell out—is transcendence
Was the punch line “incandescent”?
Was a nosebleed your last tender memory of her?
Did he say no dogs and Chinawomen?
Are you a rose—or a tattoo of fire?
CHAOS HAD NO EYES
Chaos said, “O, Mei Ling, give me eyes so that I can admire your beauty.” So, Mei Ling punctured two wounds into his forehead. And as he gazed longingly into her eyes, Chaos said, “O, beautiful one, I can’t smell your sweet scent.” So, Mei Ling cut two holes for his nostrils. Chaos said, “O, melodious poet, give me two ears, so that I can hear your fine poems.” Again, Mei Ling obliged. Chaos said, “At last, give me a sweet mouth, so that when we kiss my tongue could interlock with your tongue, deep into all eternity.” And so, Mei Ling cut for him a deep red mouth and kissed it. Chaos said, “I have loved you too much” and bled from his seven sockets into turbulent rivers of blood, spilling over the dark continents, flooding the deforested plains and pestilential cities, destroying the once abundant borderlands. Finally, Chaos marveled at his own gruesome handiwork and would want for nothing.
These poems are drawn from Portrait of the Self as Nation, New and Selected Poems, and used by gracious permission of W. W. Norton.