We aspire to link personal expression to broader social contexts.
Some who never feel love keep traveling.
They sense that an airplane is a mystical vessel
That flies because it doesn’t know it’s flying.
They say goodbye to life and earth when boarding.
They must go on living because they have scores to settle.
And suddenly they like to talk to God.
Chatter like I tell you
when I was a girl there was an orange pearl that turned the butter yellow
with four turns of a wooden spoon.
I loved the shadow and being away from shouting girls at school.
This went on at a lowering frequency then lost its appearance.
In grade seven I suddenly understood the usefulness of good manners.
Ethics I could recognize.
Now the shadow is whitening, its patches quiver
on the tiles and fragment into petals that are neither living nor not.
In grade one I watched the lights of cars passing on the bedroom wall
for surely they were fairies flying at the speed of light.
And aren’t they still?
What Was North
What used to be north for me
was a little town in Minnesota called Bemidji.
When I was a boy I learned north was at the top
of the map, but in the world, I thought west was north
because it’s where the sun slept.
It took years to see things clearly.
Born and raised in Georgia,
following the sun would never have gotten me to Bemidji
or Fairbanks, Alaska which became north for me.
Aside from the way the needle points, north is a matter of perspective.
I later learned about the North Star; I followed it and the ALCAN—
a wartime project to keep this land secure from Japan—to Fairbanks
where I found a woman—a love—and, eventually, our son.
The way the needle points aside, north is a matter of perspective.
When I was a boy I learned north was at the top of the map
and where what was freedom for my ancestors could be found.
Measured in degrees—north and freedom—framed by culture,
weighted by history.
While outside of and between American borders, wending our way
through Canada on that road not a small number of Americans
of African descent had a hand in building—Black soldiers
the government wasn’t sure could stand the cold much less
cut a road through the wilderness, mostly southerners sent north
away from towns and villages to work south toward their white counterparts
—in the midst of our pondering race in America, our little family in the car,
him in utero, his mother, white, said He’ll never be white enough to be white
in America—not an expression of desire or regret but acknowledging the reality
of how things were built.
What used to be north was where the rare white father,
among the many, sent his owned children from his owned woman out of enslavement.
I learned north was at the top of the map when I was a boy.
What used to be north for me was Fairbanks. North is a matter
of perspective, the way the needle points aside. I’ve now moved
with my family to Georgia south of my hometown, and though
it’s now north it’s not what was north—the norths I called home.
Sun Yung Shin
Specimens of Immortality
Baroque elaborations and tableaux of the Dodo @ White mourning doves suspended by invisible wire @ All the rabbits wear turtle-shell helmets and face the sunrise as an army of sweet @ Sentinels everywhere hidden bones like flutes of wire @ Perpetual alert to the guards of the necropolis @ You are the largest of the lionesses with an assortment of cubs that died before you were born @ The birth of death @ Seedless grapes sewn in the vineyard @ Museum guard cultivars of boredom the gore the charge the wall of horns @ Eyes everlast the horizon prey or predator @ Freeze us in the hunt in the rut in the reliefless past @ My beauty is made mostly of proteins @ Astringent portraiture salts and cures and trophy @ Trophy with concealed bullet wounds @ The soft solace of killing @ The school of beauty saved from the burning @ Sightless zoo breathless savannah glass forest @ Dioramas of longing @ Big game hunter the new world the safari @ The feral the wild the stampede the old the lame the wounded @ The wolf and the lamb lie together at the end of the world @ My horns ground to medicine @ My blood blown into glass
Kao Kalia Yang
North, South, East, and West
I came to America with no knowledge of north, south, east, or west. I was six years old. I had never been to school. I was a thin kid from the refugee camps of Thailand. A Hmong kid without a homeland.
I learned of American directions and directives first in lessons on American history. A teacher told me that I was from the east and that I had entered the west. Another teacher talked of the thirteen original colonies, and then the westward expansion of the colonists, and “settlement” of the west, then it was slavery in the south. I hated all of it. So after learning it, I made a decision to unlearn it.
When I think of the north I think of the North Star. I think of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. I think of seventh grade with Mr. Cherrier and our history presentations. I’d gotten my outfit, a beige shirt and a beige skirt that ballooned away from my small frame, from a thrift store for $2.00. I sat in front of the class, a selective mute being interviewed as Harriet Tubman. I hadn’t had time to wash the outfit. It smelled of years past, of dust, of some old perfume that smelled like flowers and babies’ poop, sweet and heavy at once. I remember one question, “Why did you decide to save people?” I remember my whispered response, “By saving people, I was saving myself. Mr. Cherrier was confused, he’d read my lips, and he wanted to ask other questions, I could see the consternation on his face, but my best friend, the interviewer said, “Great job” and we were done.
When I think of the south I think of a place I’ve never been. I think of heat. I see a crusted earth, dry and thirsty, or swamps, thick with heat and mosquitoes. I smell gardenias and see tall dogwood trees in bloom. The feel of cotton. The feel of slavery. The fields from long ago, the scenes I’d seen from The Color Purple and other movies, black men and women toiling beneath the hot sun, underneath the watch of sweaty, dirty white men riding their horses between the long rows, whips in hand. I think of fear. I see a church exploding and little African American girls in their Sunday dresses dying. Shattered stained glass windows and crosses burning in the dark night.
When I think of the west I see John Wayne killing Native Americans. I see the Chinese laundries of long ago with the men and their long braids running fast to get this or that for the white men with the money. I think of the Gold Rush and California. San Diego, California, the place that Edmund Wilson called “The Jumping-Off Place” and wrote beautifully of death and dying, San Diego as a suicide haven in the early 1900s. Another white man recounting the death of others. My Hmong aunts and uncles settled in California’s Central Valley for a time. There they farmed the fields, planting strawberries and tomatoes, thick stalks of Hmong mustards and the bright yellow flowers of our preferred greens. There, my cousins sprayed and were sprayed with pesticide. There, they developed cancers deep inside, and tried not to die under the watch of white men and women who stood over them with masks on, men and women who’d eaten the greens they had produced, and were now dying from.
When I think of the east, I think of my years in New York City when I was making my way into a life of writing. I think of my time at Columbia University. On Broadway Avenue, there were so many Asians but I was not one of them because I was not international or wealthy. I did not travel in a group. I was a refugee Hmong girl from Minnesota wandering the streets alone, observing the pigeons with their missing toes, running from the rats when the day was done. I was a stranger to many people there, but I was finding myself by myself.
When I think of myself, I know I am a convergence. I am in between left and right, up and down. I am the center of the north, the south, the east, and the west.
We are the women of three rocks, having a dream together about listening in the dark. My elder friend El and I have been meeting once a year on an island in Maine for decades. In our dream we are with two old ones in the underworld. When we come out I speak a different language.
In her part of the dream I vanish. She calls out in alarm three times: Nor, Nor, Nor! meaning Alert! Watch out! Come back! All the things meant when we are lost and calling for a part of ourselves to return.
Today my ancestral rocks are not T. S. Eliot’s anglicized red rock, “Come in under the shadow of this red rock”—nor Plymouth Rock which I could claim, but will not.
They are the Sibyl’s rock at Delphi drizzled with the furious honey of oracular bees/
The Laughless Rock seat of our archaic mother Demeter whose daughter was taken from her/ and the
Rock of Ages, an elephant sized boulder blocking my path.
It had ground my journey to a halt, but, suddenly, miraculously… moves.
In 1763 Augustus Toplady wrote the Protestant hymn “Rock of Ages cleft for me…” after seeking shelter in a rock from a violent storm lashing the English countryside. Huddled down in a protective crevice, he was filled to the brim-of-being with words that poured in to his heart. The rock face sheltering him rose over two hundred fifty feet in the air -- surely the entrance to the Great Mother, and very much like the cleft of any Sibyl’s cave—dark, murmuring, enveloping, rank, deep, smoky. Resonant with her spoken word bouncing off black walls.
Echolocution is the language of seeing in the dark. Batty talk. A woman’s signals sent out to locate her beloved creatures. Signaling keeps the old ones up at night, trying to sense what matters in the absence of light. Findings ricochet between them. It’s why the poet at Standing Rock says, “you have surveillance drones, we got grandma’s eyes.” [i]
North American family trees of Northern European origin know virtually nothing about grandmothers. Their names are not grounded by footnotes that typically accompany the names of men: minister, mayor, matriculate, militant.
Genealogists might note birth and dying dates for women, or a marriage date. Great grandmother Sibyl Worthington, on my maternal side, lived to be 101 in Hadley, Massachusetts. Her great grandmother, m. 1661, was named Sarah Crow.
The weight of their beautiful names supports me eleven generations later, in the effort to value the missing narratives of mothers and single women. So often their records –thousands of letters written to families over the course of a lifetime for example—are burned instead of preserved—like their drawings, their dreams, and the works of their hands.[ii]
I actually don’t have much time left to learn a new language. I like the words ancestral, relatives, rock, earth, ephemera, more than the conceptual deconstruct, relativize, hegemony, meme.
My eyes are becoming light sensitive, my ears turning inward. In my part of the dream, El and I imagine walking into the ancient arms of Plutarch and his dear friend Clea who practice the art of writing letters to spiritual ancestors. First letter: Dear Sibyl at Delphi, you were so courageous to take care of your son whom they called slow. We know he was damaged, and divine…
i Standoff at Standing Rock by Wang Ping
ii Twilight: Growing Old and Even Older, Jill Lepore
- 210 2ND ST NORTH, MINNEAPOLIS, MN 55401
- 12-6 PM
Mapping North is an exhibition of photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and video by seven visual artists and six poets and writers, including a public reading. Curated by Form + Content member Jil Evans and poet and translator G.E. Patterson.
November 9 - December 16, 2017
Opening Reception: Saturday, November 11, 6-8 pm
Public Reading: Thursday December 7, 7-8 PM
Ta-coumba T. Aiken
Participating Artists + Writers:
Participating Poets and Writers:
Sun Yung Shin
Kao Kalia Yang