Poetry / May 2010 (Issue 11)

Two Poems

by Fiona Tinwei Lam


Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals
That will do for a place to sit.
                  Kabir, “A place to sit”

Rolls of rice paper in the corner,
jars of soft-haired brushes,
elegant cakes of watercolour,
black inkstone at the centre.

My mother held the brush vertically,
never slant, arm and fingers poised,
distilling bird or breeze into
diligent rows of single characters.

Hours rippled.  Years of practice urged
the true strokes forth—stiff bamboo
now waving in white air, cautious lines
ribboning silk folds of a woman’s gown.

My favourite of her paintings
was of chrysanthemums.  They began
as five arcs of ink, long breaths in the emptiness
alluding to stem and blossom.  Then,

from the finest brush, the outline of each petal.
Flesh flowed from the fuller one, tipped
with yellow or lavender, until every crown
bloomed amid the throng of leaves.

If only I had been paper,
a delicate, upturned face stroked
with such precise tenderness.


Kneeling by his grave, I offer my father
a cup of tea, the way he’d wanted it
before he died.  I was eleven
when the rented wheelchair came.
I ploughed long furrows
into the carpets.  He was home
after months in hospital.

Ringed by family, he asked for lemon tea—
a bit of sugar, not too hot.
Assigned the task, I went to the kitchen,
filled a mug with lukewarm water
squeezed a tea bag against the side
to tint the water, a splash
of lemon from an ancient bottle.
Sugar not enough. A precarious march
back to his bedside.

He sipped it and winced.
Good he said, though it wasn’t.
Fell back to the pillow.

Christmas eve, he was wheeled out
for company.  My mother, a red-eyed bullet
through the thrumming house.
Amid the clink of teacups,
he lay on the couch, filmed
with sweat from the toll
of being alive.

Quiet and cool in my room, I sat
alone with a box of Swiss chocolate,
miniatures in neat white cubicles.
The waxy sweetness
of the milk and white bars,
a prim smothering.  The nuts
were grit on my teeth and tongue.
Only the bitter one tasted
of something I could have felt.

Today, at last, I’ve done it right.
A good pour of amber honey,
fresh lemon, boiling water, loose leaves—
tea brewed hot and strong.
Drink, my father, as I drink to you
this striving of sun, sky, earth and flesh
held within these porcelain cups. 

Editors' note: Poems reprinted with the permission of Caitlin Press from Enter the Chrysanthemum © Fiona Tinwei Lam 2009. Read a review of the collection by Martin Alexander in Issue #11 of Cha.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.