Gold, Then Jade and Then an Empty Sweater’s Arm
My grandfather explored our acres of apple trees and feral pines.
My parents asked me to keep track of him, so I followed.
He walked for his asthmatic lungs pretending he loved
solitude, so I became part of that, someone you could be alone next to.
My grandma envied our time and resolved to teach me to knit.
She hated Idaho, hated the pines, hated our mountain from which
town dissolved into a bright river hugging the valleys
and everyone else fell away. She’d yell at her husband and her son
in front of us, safe in our un-understanding
then pick up her needles sedately, as if we didn’t know she wanted to go home.
We didn’t know that yet that she’d win out.
I hadn’t seen my father cry when his brother called to say their father
died from the dirty air soon after they’d returned. I hadn’t yet
grown up to be the woman who’d give in, wishing for someone who didn’t
exist for me yet, someone who wouldn’t steal everything. I didn’t know yet
that my grandma had been the thief in her family, trading
gold then jade then rice for the slick feel of mahjong tiles in her palm.
So we started with a sweater’s arm—her discontented hands upon my hands
guiding their tiny, convoluted motions. I worked on it every day after school
while she worked on projects of her own—sweaters for her friends
back home, garments in the shape of missing bodies,
needles knitting the staccato language of absence.
Sleeping in the Crook of an Arm
I’ve brought home this man my father converses with more easily than he has
ever talked with me. Last night, my dad told him all about the war.
My grandpa was a Flying Tiger, that much I knew. But now I overhear that when my
grandma was pregnant with my dad, she was so sick one day
my grandpa’s friend flew instead of him and fell out of the sky.
My dad says he lights incense every year for the man who is the reason
he was born into a father’s arms, having slaughtered from the womb,
singled out already to be the one for whom the rest would sacrifice.
When my grandma died, my father just said
don’t embarrass me. We grew our hair, wore patches on our sleeves as emblems of grief.
The chanting and bowing lasted a full month. I never learned the
words, but I internalized the melody and postures.
I fell on the dirty floor over and over knowing only the concept:
hands down when you offer your service, hands
up when you offer your heart.
Johnny comes to bed after me. I curl towards him and sleep again thinking
love is a series of postures. When we rouse, my parents are stirring upstairs.
The language I know best is the one that I don’t speak, those mysteries of phrases,
misunderstandings of the truth. Weight shifting the floorboards.
Someone waking. Someone preparing to leave.
You know your life is fucked when you’re on better terms with the person you just knocked out than you are with anyone who loves you. But that’s what happened. I knocked her out, and then she hugged me, and then her father did. When I got home, I showed the video to mine. He loves Shaolin kung fu, believes the masters flew through groves of bamboo trees. I land a knee and then a flurry of fists. She crumples. He’s disappointed. He says maybe if I practice, I’ll learn better control. He says I should strike the air in front of her but never her. He thinks you win by never touching anyone and the deeper in I get, the less I disagree. When I was young, he’d grab my wrists then teach me to break free, saying be like water, knowing, though I didn’t yet, something of evil, some premonition of the ghosts I’d have to flee.
JENNIFER LIOU has a poetry MFA and PhD from UC Irvine. Her chapbook Vesuvius at Home was published in 2017 and her work recently appeared in journals including Curator Magazine and Zocalo Public Square. She has received previous support from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and was recently selected for a PLAYA writers' residency for 2019. She is a second-generation American, and her current project is an exploration of her father's immigrant experience, his passion for Shaolin Kung Fu, and her own martial arts journey as a professional cage fighter. Her current poems are about chasing her family's martial arts traditions from China and into the MMA cage, an endeavor that has brought them together, torn them apart, and taught her the impossibility of either fully acculturating into white America, even another generation down the road, or reclaiming the culture that her father left behind, which is hers only through fragmented memories, awkward encounters with relatives whose language she doesn't fully speak, and the discipline of martial arts, which they still share, albeit in radically different contexts.