Vuong Quoc, my name means “kingdom,”
but for what kingdom was I named?
The great kingdoms of Vietnam had long gone,
the last monarch had long left his walled palace
empty as a tomb by the year I was born.
And what year I was born, my mother still
cannot recall, lonely in that dark hospital room.
The city outside no longer a princely realm
of tree lined streets and gardens, a busy marketplace,
but a fallen city, in ruins of war,
smoke still rising from its rooftops,
bodies floating down its river.
O, What was it my mother must have dreamed
to have named me Vuong Quoc—
what fabled era of history, for what period
of peace time and prosperity had she longed
as she held me in her arms?
We left Vietnam soon after I was born,
and we went so far away I could never
find my way back home—that distant kingdom,
that place to lay my princely heart.
The bomb / also / is a flower.
—William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”
My brother, come home from war,
sits now for hours in the garden.
I see now, he says, everything
as flowers, the tendency of all things
to bloom—the way the body bleeds,
the fire from guns, the sun unfurling
after the longest night. Everything blooms.
Brother, he says, I saw so many dead
I’ve realized that the body is, after all,
a fragile flowery thing—its soft tissues
and clustered petals of cells.
Despite the marble column of its spine,
the great architecture of how it stands,
the arches and taut ropes of muscle,
it is easily torn apart and buried under,
how it wilts and withers with hunger.
When I saw the dead, I didn’t look at faces
and never, never into the eyes.
I avoided all implications of a soul.
I looked at the hands of the dead—
those miracles of sinew and veins—
and imagined them to be leaves.
I have seen hands severed
as if they’d fallen from a tree,
hands crushed and burned crisp
like autumn leaves. I have seen wounds
like purple trillium forced through the skin.
I have seen blood that spilled and splattered
like asters, the plum colors of viscera.
Brother, I have come home from Hell.
How now shall I tell the story of Man—
the wars, wars, wars until the end of time?
How now shall I tell—my mind
already a shattering lake of glass,
my heart bullet-holed—
to write in blood or with red rose petals?
The bomb also is a flower.
EVERY GHOST STORY IS A LOVE STORY
What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?
An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive.
An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph.
An insect trapped in amber.
—The Devil’s Backbone, 2001
We lived in a house that was so old
its wood moaned and walls cracked
and fell to the floor like bits of bone.
There were thirteen of us children
in the house, and on winter nights,
we lay closely together, not so much
for the cold, but because of the dark.
There was a man who died alone
in the house before we lived there.
No one told us, but we knew.
My mother’s window overlooked
an old orchard, where fog clung
like rags to the few trees left standing.
One night my mother saw her sister,
the one who died in childbirth,
sitting at the foot of her bed, her skin
like pressed flowers, likely to crumble
if she were touched, and she said,
I have no children, no one to remember me.
The man I loved now loves another, but you
with your house full of children, you will live
forever in their poetry and songs.
My mother insisted it was a dream,
how homesick for Vietnam, she dreams
of all she lost—families and names and places
that haunt her still, that call in the night.
What is a ghost but a love story
that refuses to be forgotten?
After Sasha Pimentel, “Wanted: Encyclopedia Missing From Move.”
I read one summer an entire volume
of Encyclopedia Britannica. I read
about tetanus and I feared for my life,
the hours I’d spent rummaging through
my father’s rusty tools for coins to collect.
I read about an explosion over Tugunska,
Russia, in 1908. Entire forests were leveled
to the ground, but the cause of that blast—
meteorite or UFO crash—I never learned.
I learned about testosterone and thought
how awesome when I become a man,
how to be a man is to be a warrior, a victor,
like the Roman Emperor Tiberius marching
into the barbaric heart of Europe with sword
and shield, but I also loved flowers and read
and reread about Tulip Mania and toad lilies
and trillium, which blooms with three petals,
like the stripes of the French Tricolore.
In pictures, I saw how the French kept
lovely cities—Tours, Toulouse, Toulon,
but they lost a city in Vietnam called Tourane.
My family had also lost a city in Vietnam,
a place that seems so distant to us now
it is terra incognita on a map. But what
did I know about loss back then,
and what did I know– little boy I was,
what did I know about love?
Tachycardia, I thought, was the worst
that could happen to a human heart.
When I was alone I’d repeat to myself
new words I learned: tetanus, tinnitus,
Tantalus…tetanus, tinnitus, Tantalus…
How I love those metallic sounds!
I whispered to myself those words all day.
I don’t think, as a child, I was ever lonely.
My family arrived in America
late November, 1979.
Autumn had made way for winter—
every leaf fallen, the sky cloudy
and raining for days.
We were brought to a small house,
in the suburbs of South San Jose,
back then still surrounded by grass fields,
farmland, orchards of apricot and plums.
The cold had turned the grass brown,
farm fields were little more than withered corn
and pumpkin vines, and the orchards
seemed dead to us, acres of them.
In the rundown house,
there were blankets, some clothes,
a small lamp donated by the nearby church.
It had never been so gray for us,
even in that limbo of a refugee camp,
even in those moments of hopelessness,
having lost Vietnam as one loses a face, a name,
we still had the comfort of sun and warmth,
of coconut palms by the sea.
But here, the gray rain beating on the windows,
the cold, and those dead trees—
we wrapped ourselves up in blankets,
and sat around the lamp and huddled for warmth.
The fourteen of us, my youngest brother,
an infant clinging to my mother.
Three days later, a nun from the nearby church
came and saw us shivering in our blankets,
the small lamp in the center of the room
barely keeping us warm.
The house smelled of mildew,
the cracked walls fell
on the carpet like dandruff.
We hadn’t eaten a thing—
the crying children,
my infant brother chewing
on my mother’s breast.
The nun took my brother and father
to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That meal of fried chicken,
mashed potatoes, and gravy—
which we thought was an overly rich soup,
and ate by the spoonfuls—
that meal for the fourteen of us,
cold and hungry, lost and lonely—
that meal, with wealth of grease, glistening
on our lips, that breaded chicken—that meal
“For a time I believed not in God nor Santa Claus, but in mermaids.”
—Sylvia Plath, “Ocean 1212W”
When I was a child, my mother told me
she was once a mermaid who left the sea
and never wanted to turn back.
And I recall, there were times,
in the gentle sunlight of my childhood,
her skin glistened like fish scales.
I found an old photograph of my family
when we first arrived at a refugee camp.
Our faces wore the weight of exhaustion.
Everyone looked away from the ocean.
It was only I, carried in my mother’s arms,
who turned to look back, back into the sea.
Look at my mother in the picture—
her skin, the color of seaweed.
On the sea my mother became ill, and water,
handfuls of rice, nothing she could keep.
I was told that I kept crying, and my mother,
too weak to do anything else, stuffed a rag
in my mouth and sang me to sleep.
At the refugee camp, she found
it was not sea sickness, but morning sickness,
that she had been carrying my brother
for weeks. He was to be the last
of her children, and she never again
ventured out to sea.
Every summer, I begged. Mother, I said,
I’ll bring watermelon, sweet sticky rice.
We don’t even have to go into the water.
We’ll sit in the shade and watch the sky,
the clouds like mounds of rice,
and we’ll look out into the sea.
The sea, my mother said, I know the sea
too well. Looking deep into me, her eyes
as dark as an ocean, she said,
I was once a mermaid.
A man named Thedeus of Judea claimed himself
Messiah and the year 44 A.D. to be the end of time.
He was beheaded by Romans soldiers
in the desert, and the world did not end.
My mother used to tell us, as we were falling
asleep, that at the end of the world,
the seas will rise to meet the clouds,
and fish will eat the stars.
In 989, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky
like an omen, an apparition, a cloaked star.
In 958, Emperor Otto I took an eclipse
to be an apocalyptic sign and led his army into holy war.
I believed my mother about the end of the world;
I believed her stories about Jesus Christ,
the Second Coming, the rumors of war.
A Roman priest predicted the Second Coming
in 500 AD, based on the recorded measurements
of Noah’s Ark. Armageddon was predicted
for 1666—that is, 666 marked onto
the thousandth year of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believed the world to end
in 1994; 6000 years, they claimed, after the creation
of Eve to ease Adam’s loneliness.
The year my father went to war, my mother
waited each evening at the train station,
the city darkening, the echoes of war
in the night, and the world did not end.
New Age believers foresee the end in 2012
based on ancient prophecies and stone Mayan calendars.
Just last year, a German man sued to stop
the Large Hadron Collider; believing it would create
a black hole—and darkness to swallow us all.
My mother remembers still the meteoric light,
the approaching roar of the train, the night
my father came home from war.
My mother used to tell us, as we were falling
asleep, that at the end of the world,
the only stories that will matter will be