Saturday, July 18, 2009

"The Lesson of Plenty"

Being in Malaysia, I can’t help but sniff around for Malaysian poetry. I’ve always loved the Malaysian pantoum—that slippery, muscular, eel-in-the-hands form that is as much about repetition as resistance to the repetition. I mean, even when a line is repeated, it takes on a slightly different meaning because of what has come before it (if it’s done well).  Admittedly, I’m at a disadvantage trying to find the pulse of Malaysian poetry since I don’t know Malay or Chinese, but I’ve been enjoying some poets who write in English. One poet, fairly well known in the States, is Shirley Lim. She has won the National Book Award for her memoir Among the White Moon Faces and awards for her poetry as well. I love this line from “Eating Fruit in California” about a foreign speaker’s encounters with fruit from the U.S.: “Still, I do not know how to shop/ 
For two, for one, cannot learn the lesson/ 
Of plenty.”  Yes, learning “the lesson of plenty” is one that I keep learning—and traveling is great to remind me of how little I actually need. And I always vow to keep that philosophy of needing less once I return. But one thing the U.S. does very well is creating that link between what one owns and who one is: identity and ownership. Again and again, I learn the lesson of plenty. Anyway, here is a poem by Shirley Lim:


Going East, 1848-1948

California is an old place for Chinese. 

In 1848 Guangdong fathers

Were already walking, and walking away 

From young women’s beds and mothers’ kitchens 

Toward the Eastern rollers. Endless motion 

Glittering like silver pieces and demons.

The cutting smell of bilge and their own piss.

Rice boiled any old how. Salted black beans 

For sixty days of slurping ocean,

Before land fall in San Francisco, January, 

Having left after October harvest.

No one had told them snow would cover

The Sierras where they’d look for gold ore,

That it would take wars and a century

For Guangdong fathers to become American.

No comments:

Post a Comment