Caroline Wong is a West Coast writer whose poems and stories, which appear on this site from time to time, follow the interior journeys of a transplanted woman who is paradoxically a dreamer, a story teller, a conjuror, a jester, a realist. Her journeys often begin with a physical landscape: a summit, an old cannery, a hospital room, a flower, a feast. From these real, remembered and/or imagined objects she weaves in and out of her early childhood in the village, her growing up in her adopted land, adulthood, and all the confusing, sweet and bitter stages in between.
Bones and Seeds
My birthright I have exchanged for an alphabet
tablet and a dirge. I have pawned my Confucian
ink stone for an amber the colour of unpreserved bones.
If I could sail on an ox bladder on a vertical
ocean I would burn my nostalgia to honour
the cinnamon peeler in the moon.
For some of us, home is a leprosy
we carry throughout our journey west
bereaved of Monkey’s eight fold tests.
I sleep today. My mother, long dead, cracks open
her sarcophagus to make room. “Ma, I’m not ready yet.”
In answer she bestows upon me three blessings.
The sun beams seeds of incandescent catastrophe.
A stick girl plants flamingos in a broken lawn.
It’s no one’s birthday. Some stars are not born yet.
Half out of the sky, the gibbous moon
floats between branches of dogwood.
No chance for the stars to break through.
Clouds and grass a rain-stitched
carpet on which to fly straight into the pool
of drowned longing.
Rise, my lotus girl, who sits shy and sweet
fecund with Pablo’s leaves.
Plug your ears against the courtier’s serenades
bled now of concretized lies and heat.
Go where a stranger’s touch, his wordless pleading
will not move you
where the one worthy of your heartbreak
The green grass in the meadows
Grows long with your absent shadow.
On Peacock Tower
By Li Qing Zhao (1084-1151)
In the gilded censer the fragrance is cold.
The silken counterpane tosses like waves.
Rising, a heaviness in my limbs.
My hair hangs in unwashed tangles.
Dust from habit layers over my fine things.
Outside the curtains the sun has burned up half the day.
The aches inside, so much I wish to tell you.
But never mind.
This new thinness—
comes not from autumn
or from too much wine.
But never mind.
You are gone—
A thousand songs of farewell have not detained you.
Thinking of you on your way to distant Wuling.
The wall of smoke and mist in between.
I’m grateful for the river flowing past Peacock Tower
witnessing my watching.
Watching thus adds a new length of sorrow to the long road.
The scheduled coming and going minutes
Sweep clean the station’s white-tiled platform.
I am barely settled before the whistle shrills,
Engine groaning, wheels creaking to gathering speed.
We leave behind Zhengzhou’s neon forest,
Chug past dim-lit dormitories and factory stockades,
Ahead thread twin tracks on bed of concrete ties
To places with never-heard-of names.
I clear a space among the clutter of cups and snacks,
Push back curtain, grip pen in hand.
The pages waits for now, a pristine field
Seeding its first acre of green.
The lights across Huang He dip like strung pearls,
Too bright to see the waters weaving between
The archways and silted channels.
I write: through Gongyi, an hour from Kaifeng.
The moon and her shadow follow
The squares of yellow thrown from the train’s windows.
A patchwork of millet and wheat stretch away.
A mist uncoils long tendrils.
Each place I pass through is more than a name I mark down.
Handan, Baoding, Xushui of the Hebei region.
At quarter to three I am back in the land of my birth, Dingxing,
Its name a recollection, a reservoir of rooted reasons.
The teeth of machines tear at misty green hills,
The white birch vales.
The muscles of men disembowel endlessly sweeping
Wheat and millet fields.
Shovels and picks have no fleshly eyes to sort
Should they one day crack open your subterranean tomb,
What then, Prince?
Your skeleton strung back on display in a sand-filled
Box beside your glassed-in sarcophagus,
Sacrificial vessels placed in wrong order,
Handful of corroded coins,
Palace bells whose ruined sounds dully echo,
Jade and silver pendants,
Ceremonial gowns lain in tatters?
After the experts scrutinize and categorize, tourists
Visit in irreverent streams.
Crescendo of guides’ spiels—
Camera flashes, harsh—
Implode the last of your dark sanctity.
Few pause for long to read the simple lines that explain
Your brief reign.
Few know the depth of your loving.
Fewer still to grieve your anguished passing.
You would prefer to remain in anonymity
beneath earth’s covering?
Not to have your humiliation replayed, your afterlife
An indignity splayed.
Ravished again and again in the light of day.
Things We Cannot Bring
High up in the blue-green heavens
our ears droned the unknown miles
in our village
three migratory creatures flying
mapless. No certain return.
the glazed tiles
Dark shadows under mother’s eyes
her mouth a thin line holding in
the upside down days and years
In the river
ahead, beyond her grasp.
the boys swam naked
For two days and nights in motion
Behind leafy screen
sickness, she shook her head at
the meals brought by the neutral-voiced
attendants suited in gaberdine blue.
My brother and I ate, read Bugs Bunny
Woody Woodpecker in Cantonese, slept.
over rice fields turning to
Across the International Date Line, blackness
stretched on to make up the charted lost
Night came and sat
day. Snow-caped mountains at last rose
with us as
up to meet us. The land grabbed us
thudding and bumping. Cold wind cut into
Po Po taught us
our pale mango skin as mother gripped our hands.
Jade Buddha chants
Somewhere inside the labyrinth of the stark
wooden building a heavier version of our
a trillion stars
father waited in a long brown coat, five-o’clock
shadow, twisting his grey felt hat.
The Year of the Water Dragon
Drums and firecrackers marched us down Chinatown.
New Year’s dragon undulated in blue-gold waves.
Flag of old China, blue sky, white sun, red earth
in our hands. Plum blossom buttons
the Republic’s flower.
Sun Yet-sen’s Principles swelled our heads.
Our teachers looked on, out-casted
scholars who drilled us in nationalism
filled us with hatred for Red China.
A chilly breeze tugged. I recalled
another parade through a county town.
We wore our green tunics, red arm bands.
Fisted slogans the cadres taught us.
Danced the Five Stars, Spring Sowing
our breaths white shield against mid-winter’s cold.
Return to North Pacific Cannery
3. Lamplight, Window Boxes
Silences wakes me to the night.
I am alone in the cabin that smells of mildew.
The blankets are heavy from the tenacious damp.
The air invades with unseasoned chill.
Outside, the dripping rain tells me
I am back.
Down the boardwalk the row of bright yellow lamps
stand like beacons, beckoning the fleet of seine boats
and trawlers now long gone.
I sit down on a sodden chair outside the mess hall.
They had not salvaged the beautiful window boxes
my father, the cannery cook, had made.
How the profusion of lobelia,
pansy and nasturtium he planted each summer
had brought the hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.
Inside the dimly-lit cannery museum are sepia photos,
maps, rusted tools, a hodgepodge of fishing
equipment and canning machines,
a few workers’ biographical compilations, incomplete.
The loft where the women worked for sixty-cents-an-hour wage
is now a storage for item whose histories
no one cares to look into, like my father’s flower boxes’
and his dovetailed cabinet. The carpenter told me
he wanted to cry when he sawed them to pieces.
Portrait of Passing
Burning, my mother is burning.
She tears at her gown until the ties come loose.
Her bones show
a raw woman.
The fan turned high, she shivers as I bathe her.
Screams, my mother’s screams.
Not the kind she used to make
which soothed us.
These pierce my heart like flints.
Send slivers of dread
into my veins.
She shakes her fist at the demons waiting.
She rants at me
for not believing.
Lump, the lump in my mother’s throat
the soft tissue rises like dough.
It muffles her words.
“Don’t let me starve.”
Lightning. Lightning forks and flashes.
Gusts of wind billow the curtains
turning mother’s room
into a galleon set for
the journey across unseen ocean.
Rain, it rains at mother’s funeral.
Rivulets run down the grave’s lip.
Daisies and lilies droop.
We say our last goodbyes with handfuls of rose and dirt
We carry her portrait home
We propitiate her with meat and rice—
a ritual recalled from memory
a ceremony of peace.
On Thin Air
The day her ex married she took me on
a hike up Brunswick overlooking
the hazy sound, the sleepy islands.
Another summit, a different atmosphere
to reclaim herself.
All that August afternoon we labored under
a white-torch sun, the air thin,
struggling over rock-strewn clear-cuts
through field of stiff fireweed, wilting pearly white.
Shimmering heat waves rose from the dusty ground.
My lungs strained, gasping for breath.
I wanted to die on the spot
where the sun edged toward the chain of sapphire isles.
Not used to failing she urged me on.
We ate our meal, peanut butter and jam sandwiches
then pushed on. A breeze blew
humming though lacy hemlocks, old pines.
The sun spilled its last gold into the copper sound.
We stood to look at the spectral moon
taunting us high above the jagged summit.
In silence I hid my knots of cramped muscles.
She, her five-foot three, ninety-pound pride.
Washed by moonlight, the bare slope to the peak
changed to layer of loose shale
tearing loose from our unsure footholds
as the valley sank into night’s darkness.
I stopped, waited for her to be the first to reach the top.
She froze, her hands clenched white on the final stretch.
Days of Wine and Prayer
His life common the monk prays past midnight.
On bitter wings a lone goose takes to the sky.
For months he lives in a country of red maples.
With a quavering heart the lake holds the sky.
Her fragrant breath he will savor in later years.
In his dreams, the same emptiness etches the sky.
Not used to wine he delights us with boisterous lines.
Heady with longing he sings to the wintry sky.
His faith lies in the decaying dust, in the wilting stars.
Some days he walks naked as snow blocks the sky.
Some days he rouses himself to galactic gaiety.
Unknown to him, magenta petals flock to the sky.
To the bruised sunset he asks the same nine questions.
As always, there is one answer in the throat of the sky.
He packs up his crumpled thoughts in a steamship trunk.
Echoes of temple bells fill the morning sky.
Together the Lights of Home Expire
after Bei Dao
Before the ocean changed
I knew my way home.
I knit a scarf of pebbles—
each one a wing, a cardinal wind,
a breath of the moon as it glided,
oblivious of the owl’s journey,
a voice in the rain,
a lotus thread wheeling me in
seven thousand days or more
before I was caught,
a golden carp on destiny’s hook—
What gestures passed between us?
What words exchanged?
The rain drummed on the roof
gliding down the window pane,
sealing us in.
The crumbling of old vows,
the waves pushing
toward disappearing shores.
When we surfaced, we breathed through gills.
Master of Nets
I am intruding upon the Master of Nets’s garden, disturbing old ghosts hovering above half-hidden moongates. Narrow paths wind past rock mountains. Carved dragons in white-marble flight. Sweeping eave pagodas rise from waxy lotus pads and mallard ducks….
Endless corridors carry me to shadow-filled mansions, their faded vermilion doors half open, held by loose hinges and corroded chains. Inside: dust floats in semi-darkness. In the air, mildew of the century dead: the poster beds, the pear wood chairs, the empty shelves where once books of bamboo, the blank walls on which silk scrolls had hung, their flowering pine stumps and mist-shrouded crags….
Standing on the threshold I am reluctant to take leave. A part of me lives in the floating dust, in the footfalls gathering in the dusk….
On Way To Jiang Ling
The thoughts I wish to take flight
get caught in the pavestone cracks.
The words I wish to send—
the ink won’t flow,
leaving a web of ghost lines
hovering over the page like bled veins.
The long road stretches into decades.
How many times—
the hands of dreams sweep around twice?
I would be content now—
a mossy trail, a hermit’s hut,
the song he sings:
Morning leaving Bai Di among the clouds.
Jiang Ling a thousand li east.
The ceaseless howls of gibbons from red cliffs—
Our sampan lightly sails through ten thousand peaks.¹
Joy of Flying
The mind retreats,
shrinks to a green plum pit.
pulled by centrifugal weight,
the dull throbbing criss-crossing the brain.
There are times when it rises
out of its corporeal cage, trailing its sensed
cache across time and space,
blazing in coral-ringed symphonies.
We meet on the north bank of the Yangtze.
The moon is like a hook.
The breeze has vacated the painted pavilion.
Your peipa lies unstrummed.
Where is she who fills your cup with hinted grace?
In her absence the grass grows long.
I don’t know whose lines are these.
I am rising, rising to the moon’s crystalline nook.