by Sophia Peng
To view as a PDF: click here
When I was eight years old, my dad moved back overseas to China, his home country, in pursuit of a better job opportunity. Too young to think much of it, I tumbled through my elementary and middle school years in apathy, accepting of my dad’s absence, curt with him on phone calls, agreeable during his visits home. Not questioning the distance between us until it came to my attention in early adulthood that our lives had become islands, only hazily cognizant of the roads, rivers, and contours of the other. When a global pandemic rendered international travel – particularly to and from China – all but impossible, I felt, over the course of the last two years, that stretch of blue, blue sea expanding, all the faults and misunderstandings between us sedimenting without fresh discoveries to wash them anew.
More pressingly, in the span of my dad’s physical absence I have been metamorphosing. I started college, I acted on ambitions, I reckoned with failure and mental health, I learned intentionality, I broke into a self separate from my twin sister and the expectations of an insular Chinese American hometown community. In this blur of change, one dormant thread: who I am on the phone with my dad. The wire connecting us rewinding time until I am eight years old again, a broken record reciting my grades, my leadership roles, and my plans for the future before a reproving coach, whistle around his neck, stopwatch perpetually running. The cognitive dissonance is sharp and often overwhelming, a hole that only seems to widen the more I try to fill it in, to fill him in on my life as it inconsiderately races ahead, unaware of who is left behind.
One relief, though: Late night walks, the ability to dissect our conversations, to contextualize. In the span of my dad’s physical absence I have been carving. Soft clay peeling until the outline of a man, his childhood on a farm in the rurals of Hunan Province, fingers stained with ink, throat clutching songs of grasslands and gods he’s never seen. A snake forced to shed and shed until only one stick-straight spine, one linear lifeline, remained. Clay hardening.
The following pieces are an attempt to impede latency. To keep the stories that form my conscience, the Daoist philosophies and the displaced laborers and most importantly, the tangibility of a father, from fraying with the passage of time. With the eclipsing of Chinese and American cultures. They are a healing that starts not with the body, but with the world entering the body. An odyssey that, like Homer’s, seeks for its protagonists not an end but a beginning. How the way he started led to the way I am now. Biding identity, searching back and back and back for reconciliation, while the path forward – reuniting with my dad – remains suspended.
body as passing ground
the moment your mouth
the pouring in.
the lost Shen; Holy Spirit
down the womb of your throat
to your rooted
for an instant you are
every blood vessel blitzed
with birth energy
gold veins of fat and
a thousand years
water pressing at skin
to be freed–
then the diastole passes.
passengers disembark at fingertips
the opening of your wrists
the jut of your pelvis
your closing lips
until the station is
so it is
to be the misty middle
and more than you can hold.
pinch your nose;
the moment your mouth
mining like the ancient floods
youth washed gray in mirage.
at least it is not the gray of opium.
the first time we were drowning,
our lungs like silvers peddled out to sea.
veins in our fingertips dragged in axeblows toward the dark,
water rising and each past life smelt down to a horizonless mythology,
and it is at once an avalanche of earth and
awakening behind our knees our blistered palms
freed in the
torrent of collapsing;
how once Great Yu broke rock into canals
with the precise strokes of an inkbrush to
rescue drowning villages
so we here now can seek the sky heaven,
seek to hollow this ancientless land like husks of rice,
gravel dripping like grain off our backs;
and we are not home not heroic not lost ingénues leaked out of a miscreant war–
shavings of bitterness
down the river of time.
and from the river
luscious, bitten were spirits born
my hands swirled in
your voice preaching
shoals of Buddhist sayings–
what are gods but followed?
what is belief but ebbing and flowing
home to home?
in xiāngxià you take me to the water
weaving through the radiant rice fields.
I blink and there–
the myth of you
morpheus rising from the Yangtze
cradled in his arms the body
of a snake.
to survive, you said
we stood for years
in the water
weeding and weaving grains into gravitures
the seedy rice a rope
around our livers
while the leeches
learned reverence by our muddy knees
and the bleeding
sold hunger to the river
of our dreams.
in the fields it is all bitterness,
each blade of blemish
burning with green.
in the jiàoshì it is salted pages,
ink and stuckthroating
and lead breaking open equations.
such is growing up
on nóngmín shore.
running and running until your legs
turn into waves
wings prickling for updrafts
at a foreign god’s feet.
when you told me there were Shen in the mountain caves
in my mind I saw apollo’s cows
getting snatched by hermes.
how you pulled on my sister and I silently then–
liǎng pí xiǎo mǎ tuō zhe yì tiáo lǎo shé
(two young horses dragging one old snake!)
yoked to your arms
sinew of your sinew as the sun set
at the zoo
and the animals if not but
gods cloaked in zodiac menus
melted into red–
sacred before my eyes
then ebbed blueblack out of view.
your dreams come on a current
against which you must pull pull pull.
your dreams silt with the soil
sleep down for you to fertilize whole.
your dreams grow leaves and legs
shoulders broad– a god to beseech.
your dreams walk stoically towards the west
a pretty blonde town
a civilization dawning anew.
you arrived with fifty dollars, you said
and the first thing you saw
was the ocean.
you bought the cheapest supermarket rice
brown and broken–
the fruit of what would have been
your worst labors
and stood there out over the water
how unrunning, how unlike the reddened
rivers of home.
how untight, snakeskin peeling away
in the reflected sun.
shed from yourself the leeches and the old scales–
shed ten years later
these countries, this deity fade
scars healing scars
blood licking blood off your feet.
a new religion cleansing
it is cháoshī summer.
mosquitoes string the rooftop
of your childhood home.
you are teaching me to throw fireworks
into the night like
nocking arrows, and
calloused –like how I want mine
are a ropebraid,
ariadne’s string guiding
through the smoke.
together we dip the sparkers in the rivers
of our hearts
and watch them rise out to sea.
Poem I would not show my mother
she has already seen it.
I gave it
for her to see.
She read it–
A lapse of understanding,
At all the floral.
At the salt.
But with the guilelessness of an egret
pecking apart a mouse–
she presses ‘Send.’
And I get a text
from my father.
Now the subject of the poem
has seen it too.
Suddenly it is a funeral
in early January,
fists closing over
the rest of the year.
My words swirl to gray
in the graveyard,
It is quick,
so quick this loss–
a nimble beak
snapping the olive branch
before warring sides
meet. My father
out at sea. And I–
phone in one hand
at her feet.
after 3am on girls' night out
four of us darkening in the car after a night
at a nightclub
bluelight weeping its way in.
a world rolling off her tongue
long as skin.
press of the pedal and we are off,
tearing open the city’s womb as water breaks
the first heartbeat is how silent.
Fireball whiskey sloshing.
how this too is thoracic:
syllables like veins threaded between us;
lungs purging breath as flesh into the sectioned air;
shine gilding the oil of our skin like a sunrise.
lived and living
swallowed down the throat of a road.
how when we arrive
there is just
the tremble of water
above reaching fingers
the skinniest impression
by the drowned.
Truth is, Dad
I’d be the exact same way.
Fingers fused to a hilt,
Maybe if that bull
hadn’t bucked you near breaking when you were
the sky never would have tilted
as you fell
and slammed itself into your shoulders like
you lost control of.
I understand you like I understand
a romance novel
and the hero is tall dark and brooding,
his saving emotion the trauma
that bore him.
Pain is not a good mother,
No matter how successful
you turned out.
And I am not a dashing heroine
who would startle your armor with
a single glance–
just scales you’ve shed in your wake.
And you are past the lure
So really, Dad
what is this story?
Are you still a hero if I cannot
or because you think yourself one?
Maybe I am the hero,
and you never should have crossed the ocean
to steal a plot
My selfish glory didn’t mind,
but the artist–
the artist who knows and knows and
you browned in the sun
pacing the vegetable garden that we’ve since
abandoned to weeds,
three kids reading around the dinner table,
lost in tales of romance
advised by Samuel Lê, Summer Nguyen, Brandon Ba, and Dr. Lan Li