BOAT WOMAN, TOWSON
The neighbor’s girl brings me a jar of tadpoles.
On the bottom is a layer of silt. Above the silt the tadpoles
swim, they are quicker and blacker than the silt, they are black
like ink, writing the history of Asia.
Sir, when I was very small, there was a ditch I played in,
rimmed with banyans and thorn flowers, that filled in the spring
with rain. When I dipped my hands in the mud,
singing, Come, tadpoles, tadpoles, come, the tadpoles came,
writing their names in the water… Later,
when the soldiers came, we hid there. We had
carried too much with us from Phnom Penh and we were afraid.
I squinched against the bank, hearing the jeer of orders,
earth over me scuff into dirt… Now I lift
the jar from the hands of the neighbor’s girl, and I watch
the silt kick up, the tadpoles dart this way and that, the tadpoles
dive for cover, writing tadpole, tadpole, tadpole. I watch them
dive into the kick of silt, the old mud-sack of memories.
This is how I write my name.
How I wrote it, when I was called it in its language.
Sir, before your ballpoint pen, there was my father’s quill—
so quick, like swish-things underwater!
Then slowly and more scratchily, with his hand round mine.
As he guides me across the page, he speaks:
back of each sound he makes, the old called names—
come, tadpole, come—come spilling from their sack.
My brother, as he mends his bicycle.
And back of him, the dust the cart wheels kicked up.
Of that, the trees, and roofs jostling the treetops, and streets,
and turns into a map of sidestreets,
to green hills, to a moon of rice-paper.
A bat got in my bathroom.
That day, I had received a letter. As I read,
the room my father sat in, lit by one lamp, opened
like an arm. Refolding it, I looked, I saw
this crease of blackness, panting, on a bag of donated blouses;
I took in that it moved; I screamed.
Sir, what did I think I was fighting, where did
the darkness come from, was it back, or out, or in?
When it was almost dead, I thrust it in the bowl.
It would not flush. It lay panting and I wept.
What did I think I was killing?
My neighbor saved me. When I came back to,
my wrists clasped in her hands, I could feel her feel
the fight go out of them. She let them loose.
She slipped her fingers through my fingers. So gently…
But sir, her husband. Looked at me. As if
I were a piece of blackness. He had just seen move.
Now their daughter brings me tadpoles.
All day, I am a girl again!
I watch them chart the spirals of the jar, and write
my name, and wait for them to turn to something else.
Sir, translate it for me, this figure for trapped things,
from this my alphabet, whose twists
reroute me to lost cities, from this my own sweet tongue,
whose jar of dark syllables
for me alone throws edges, shadows, light.