Poetry / November 2008 (Issue 5)

To John Lyman and the Portrait of his Father

by Gillian Sze

I meant to write something that said,
Yes, I know what you mean.

Your father sitting there, dark and broad,
like the old rock at the riverfront by my house.
The deliberate crossing of his legs,
his spectacles balanced on a hard bridge,
a left elbow digging into the cushioned arm.

He's been keeping a shadow in his shirt pocket.

Your painting:
I think chiselled stone. 
I think a firm no.
I think of my father's straight gaze
out the living room window,
cutting off the breath of the boy
talking with me at the end of the driveway.

The metal rim of glasses.
The worn edges of our kitchen chairs.

Your father sat there reading when you painted him.
My father stopped when he was only two pages in.

Did they both sigh, I wonder,
when they found out who their children really were?

A river is cold in the prairies.
The water moves north.
The current is crimson,
strong, a dictator
moving along lost mittens, shoes,
stirring stories of how the river got so red,
collecting the spit of kids leaning over the bridge railing.

A river works in tradition.

I left carrying my father's prediction
of me, grown up and malnourished.
Spending days on the street corner,
ignored by passers
and begging to sketch their portraits.

I meant to write something that said,
Yes, I know. Someone had blundered and it wasn't me.

Yesterday I learned about my grandfather.
How he crossed a bay into Malaysia to marry again,
abandoning his first family in China as a false start.

And my own dad, fourteen,
going over to search for a missing person.

This is where a sigh is born –
on the shores of a strange country
and nurtured in water;
practiced as an immigrant,
natural as a middle-aged man
and making up most of what I remember.

The river is loud. It is a long moan.
This isn’t what I meant to write.
The river lifted it and deposited the dregs elsewhere.

Somewhere back there a man birthed an unspeakable name.
Somewhere a man grows old and resembles a boulder from childhood.
Somewhere I hear of a river being blamed for draining a lake.

Now the current has moved me down the river line.
The rock by my home has gone from sight.

Editors' note: A review of Gillian Sze's Fish Bones is available in issue #8 of Cha. 

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