‘Ocean’ by Inez Tan

Seven times I almost turn back,
dizzy with the fear of watching myself ram
into another car, careen beneath thundering
trucks, soar clean
off the edge of a bridge,
easily. What keeps me on the road
isn’t courage. Courage couldn’t save
the mermaid who ventured out onto land
only to fail at her one task—to be loved
as one of them. Courage couldn’t explain
why she returned—too late—to the ocean,
to be cast out again, into air. To travel endlessly
must be the only way to live.
No sense in stopping, if that’s so. But killing
the engine at last, taking off
my shoes, I walk the final stretch
to the beach, the one across from the hospital,
through burning sand into water
so cold it can’t not be real. Let me
stay. Let me hear a voice say: Here
I am, to take you as you are.


‘Unspoken’ by Inez Tan

I was told not to play with fire, but not
that everything has fire inside.

I was cursed like this:
We shouldn’t have to tell you,
you should know already.

I was told not to lie, but
too late – I had already told myself many lies,

for example: because I did not always obey
wishes that were not spoken out loud, I was
deficient, unloving, shameful,

disappointing, guilty, selfish, and sick. But I was told
to come running when I was called,

so I always did.

‘Diaspora’ by Inez Tan

Our noodles that were from either northern or southern
China, where I had never been before, were
utterly strange and familiar at the same time.
I confessed: I know which ancestral village
my great-grandparents came from, but I’ve
never wanted to go there. I can’t imagine
being welcomed.
My friend answered:
I think people would be very curious.
I think they would want to know who you were
and where you’ve been. It’s the easiest thing,
to take in a stranger.
There is no one way
to be Chinese, anywhere, I
have decided, although both of us
packed our leftovers into plastic containers
that we will wash and reuse
as many times as we can.
There are many ways to be related.

‘Persimmons’ by Inez Tan

A friend of mine who was there when it happened
told me that everyone was dancing on the last night
when the Chinese poet they all admired so much
put on “Fight the Power,” then
stood there and cried while
everyone else kept dancing. Like a child
at his own bad birthday party, I thought
glibly, all through the years
I said I didn’t think his poems were that good
without really reading them, disgusted and unnerved
by their testament to the brutal hegemonies
laying claim to the heart’s holy ground of love.
The awful translations and misnamings, like
Chinese apple, that luminous, thick-skinned
fruit which grows everywhere now. The humiliations
of a transplanted child who couldn’t – then – master
the common language. And the hard hands
and stinging tongues of tall adults I had also known,
on the other side of the world, as far away as possible
and no distance at all from such tears.