Poetry / February 2011 (Issue 13)

Late Speaker

by Jeffrey Thomas Leong

Who knew my father's last converse with me
would be in a vernacular I couldn't speak:
Nam Long, ancestral language of a South China village,
Zhongshan prefecture, Guangdong province,
place name for some 1,000 - 3,000 missing souls,

and he who immigrated to San Francisco 87 years ago?
There are dead dialects some say not worth relearning,
not scholars bent on positioning
up that variable ladder towards tenure,
nor social anthropologists who examine what

natives ate daily, their burial customs,
how "Hell Money" is placed in a casket
with an extra pair of shoes for the Afterlife.
I heard not idiom, that simple know of lingo for
Who's beside you? or What do I eat tonight?

A utility sear to which I had no answer
that Sunday afternoon late September,
his fast food French fries hardly drawing a tear,
and the plastic straw, the one which possibly broke
the spit which choked his trachea,

esophagus, windpipe, nothing should
but a hose of air, then more terms that weren't there.
When he stared back in return, 6:32 p.m.,
as if I withheld a speech umbilical,
critical shrill with which to voice an old world,

I felt accused, his betrayer,
me who's lost more tongues I never knew
I couldn't master,
and wished and wish for
just one word.

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