Distance / June 2016 (Issue 32)

pa wears a sweatshirt, ma carries a golden purse

by Jedd Ong

this poem has a beginning as you’d expect it:
by the dinner table eating, pa wearing
his sweatshirt and ma slinging her golden purse; the funny thing’s i never
used to call them “pa,” “ma” always found them too cowboy-ish,
un-me the whole grand shebang we who sit

and listen to our chopsticks bridge now and cross
and let them ring
against our porcelain empty on both sides but for the grains of rice filling the gaps between us
and the wood, slight, frantically crossing

grandmother now who comes over from china crossing too now settling her home now
clanging pots and bowls though she for books
my grandmother a poet only their books burned
down back in ’45 when mao

stormed into fujian. but arguably even further: in ’35
at the Luding bridge two men crossed

the mountain braving mortar and smoke like
the city rubble mound where all her smoking scholarly uncles then with their lungs sang out
and leapt and ran echoing “the communists
are coming!” “the communists are

coming!” and then
instead of their poems took with them their children — instead
of the poems sold off the poems instead of the voices ringing instead silently ran

ran their shoes off, instead
the poems running all the way here instead of on their ships, panting, dragging, crossing the seas
behind their yellow gold and the japanese now,
with their dragging planes and tanks and their grass they came marching into the shop where flat
like a wooden door perched by a bridge too upon a river opens here now grandfather: to the japanese
slouched over, hunched unlike grandmother

open palming willingly the khaki green cap with a fee instead of their poems.
(un-ringing their voices, he now quietly shuts the gates behind them.)
(un-knotting their brows, she now scrubs her pans beneath handing over her wad of paper.)

behind them both two chopsticks slant within bowls like collapsing bridges.

both my grandfathers never marched, never fought, never spake never
seemed to wait nor care nor come around to. i suppose. our inherited cancer —
within our family a history of two:
pancreatic for my grandmother’s husband, he with dextrose in his stomach.

(both a distaste for the battlefield, the book)

colon for my slouched over grandfather,
he who refused to operate no more.
(instead of the poems no bayonets)

never ran never stood never fought no more but for the doors planking open
the gaps to his shop which he stood to and sat in and sold
made a living room lasted him when since
(instead of the coin the sons two measly chopsticks)

in hongkong in the late 30s, before the exchange rate, and garcia’s “filipino first policy”
marcos - though don’t we all believe it - stripping us of our sari-sari stores,
father long ago lost the stomach of “home”: found it slight that his own step-brothers began splitting
the estate in Mongkok and North Point his papa said was his — finally
with tired eyes stared back again at his rooms overlooking the great train bridge

and asked my father if we were to fight for his papa’s word — which spared
no one not even paper nor tai-ma’s favouritism towards the three brothers —

which forced the gaps between he and his brothers long-ago to glue together — again a theatre the boardroom —
the coffin home between blood whom on one side lay — on the other he —
the adopted one, towered

(like his hardied father who locked up gold like it was the very last light of day. who wore the same white sweatshirt where pa later we see who slung over his back the fabric coin purse and boarded the plane back to hong kong only to never come home with granddad and my dad)
in tow.

letting it go, in the end father said. open palmed too they, once more watching the khaki green walls
as they fell apart as we had no stomachs for bridges strung across buildings like bayonets

it is here they return home. taking two rooms — two doors left to bridge a building —

(our inheritance only ours to begin with). work he now says


he pierces the air with: grandfather and father awake every sunday morning at precisely 8:30, made to go
down to the temple in kalesas, empty temples wooden strips large with gaps at its foot bridging fake jade guard
dogs — like chopsticks thin now we sit
at the sunday table quietly eating now in

this poem is not a protest piece.
this poem has only a beginning exactly as you’d expect it.
my mom and dad profusely glistened in the evening heat.
the evening heat sweltering only we can have here in the place we seem to own.

we have come to expect it.

we are by the dinner table, quietly eating.
dad sweats in his sweatshirt — jacket draped over.
mom slings over her shoulder a purse — now golden, not silk.
between us the dinner table, again where the chopsticks fold over plates now. a spoon
where the bridge was.

(half a title deed lost, half a language hung, half a bookshelf burned half

a world away

grandmother’s hand quivers now as she holds a pen;
grandfather’s wrists bristle at the pricks of them

(there is no symbolism here.
there has been none for a while now.
our family eats and eats wordlessly.)

(四). (silently, at the dinner table)

爸爸, 妈妈, 外婆, 爷爷,

[Read Reid Mitchell's commentary on this poem.] [Return to the "Distance" section.
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
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All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.