Esther Lin

Esther Lin

Esther Lin has poems in or forthcoming in Adroit, The Cortland Review, Copper Nickel, Crazyhorse, Guernica, Hyphen, Memorious, Tinderbox, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships from Poets House and the Queens Council on the Arts. She currently teaches in the English Department at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Jackson Heights, NY.

 


WHITE BEAR

Leaning one hip to the counter and therefore obscuring the menu,
I count bills in my clutch, twenty-one dollars toward lunch,

dinner, lunch, and the cook’s are you still in school? and oh?
what do you teach? tell me I miss the language of home, even when it’s

burred by an accent of I don’t know where: Guangzhou, Shantou,
because my idea of Chinese topography is blank as a drop cloth

I’ve never pulled; because soldiers shot my mother’s German shepherd
when she was eight, lucky for her, they said; because this is all I’ve gleaned

of her childhood that seems childlike; because I don’t know what
meals she ate with her parents, dozen sisters, as they fell in and out

with the regime: seated in the dining room some months, squatting
by the boiler in others, and goddamn, China’s so big it’s hard to just

walk out, but I’m potato-thick and peyote-dumb, my sole American
talent is knowing when to rise, like a catfish, to the surface because,

like a catfish, I’m evading something else: drawing crisp tens, thumbing
a wrinkled-to-velvet single, soft as an old lady’s palm, as my mother’s

palm, if she’d aged at all—stupid how nostalgic one can be
at a graying Prince Street shop, how one does trade to do family—

watch this!—twenty-one, thank you so much, I teach grammar,
because I’m not sure how to say lit, and I snap the kisslock,

hang the plastic off a sweaty wrist, guess this is diaspora via laziness,
and as I’m pushing the glass door, little bells a-jangle, her husband bundles in,

announces the temperature, and the cook, by quoting Oates, whether
she knows it or not, says what I’ve been waiting five years to hear:

Where are you going? Where have you been?




WUPING, 1969

Nights my mother sat on her bed, hair plaited
and plump beneath a woven scarf, and outside

the emptied fields, the tilted quarry speaking
low the verse she would write to her lover.

Nineteen sixty-nine was no one’s happiness
but hers, when she rode and then walked west

to teach reading and writing to farmers,
herders, their children mute and removed

from her as fish beneath the creek’s flashing
surface. Hunger, denunciations, these too were

mute and removed as she wrote for her pupils
the basics of the day:

The cock crows, the earth turns white.
How she marched and sang for such rhythms

and how she tended her love during those charred
nights as she considered her line. She listened

and would reach for the page, but not yet.
Not yet to any certainty, when waiting was

a shadow on her cheek and she was moved
at any moment. What were her words of intent,

words of control and that first gentle reaching,
her future was held before her

like a cool glass bowl, into which she would
wash her face, place aside, stand and dress.




DON’T BEAR ME ILL WILL FOR TELLING EVERYONE ABOUT YOU

                                                  Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words
                                                                    then labor heavily so that they may seem light.
                                                                                                        —Wislawa Szymborska

Don’t bear me ill will, little niece, for not wanting you to ever walk or speak words. It’s
          only because you shout and kick with such gusto.
Don’t bear me ill will, old boyfriends. You were a playground beside an oak, on whose
          branch I did some real thinking.
Don’t bear me ill will, California. I mistook you for someone else.
Don’t bear me ill will, Dad. On the train I read But today it is my father who keeps
          stumbling behind me, and will not go away.
No ill will, please, Orpheus. I showed my husband my favorite drawing of you and your
          wife, her eyes shut, already turning away, as if she hardly knew you, as if you
          were a man who halted suddenly on a rush-hour platform. Then we, my husband
          and I, quarreled.
Don’t bear me ill will, mother, that I have your wool scarf, polka-dot umbrella, and
          angora mittens now.
Don’t bear us ill will, that we gave everything else away.
Don’t bear me ill will for refusing to tell your boyfriend what happened.
Don’t bear the hospital ill will for accepting only your corneas. Everything else, they
          said, was too far gone.
Don’t bear Dad ill will, that, a week after, he told us a folk tale called “The Ghost Wife,”
          but it wasn’t about you.
Don’t bear me ill will, ghost.
Don’t bear me ill will for not visiting the pines, where we buried your ashes. Your
          specifications were so exacting, and I spent all the love I had finding a piney hill
          overlooking the Pacific. We did it nightfall. In a national park, apparently the dead
          can’t be buried.
Mother, don’t bear me ill will, even though I struck you after I walked in on you and him.
Don’t bear me ill will, that I found it satisfying.




Interview with Esther Lin by Phillip B. Williams:

Phillip: I truly appreciate you doing this interview with me, Esther. Your poems are incredibly warm and intricately structured. Nostalgia, the desire for home, the desire for language: can you talk to us about your poem “White Bear” and how you got started with writing this poem? I am taken by how quickly it moves through memory and want, through so many images within a single scene as if this restaurant is itself a menu from which so many cultural selections may be chosen:

“burred by an accent of I don’t know where: Guangzhou, Shantou,
because my idea of Chinese topography is blank as a drop cloth

I’ve never pulled; because soldiers shot my mother’s German shepherd
when she was eight, lucky for her, they said; because this is all I’ve gleaned

of her childhood that seems childlike; because I don’t know what
meals she ate with her parents, dozen sisters, as they fell in and out
with the regime[…]”

Esther: Thanks, Phillip. I’m grateful for this opportunity.

Menu is a key word, I think, for “White Bear.” The event that spurred this poem was my visit to the real White Bear, a dumpling shop in Flushing, Queens. It’s a particularly unglossy establishment—a Styrofoam-plated, gritty eat-and-dash—exactly the kind New York Magazine would urge hipsters to try, for “authentic Chinese cuisine” in “one of the most diverse” parts of the city. Ostensibly I was here as an insider, a fellow immigrant, with parents from China. But as I fumbled through my poor Mandarin, I felt embarrassed to be as much a cultural tourist as anyone, ogling the natives and their woks.

The images of my mother’s pet dog and where she and her family ate refer to the casual brutality of the Chinese Communist government in the 1950s and 60s. Because my mother’s father was a pharmacist, he was considered bourgeois, and therefore suspect. So every few months, seemingly on a whim, the Red Guard would force her family to live in the basement of their house. Then a few months would go by, and they were allowed back upstairs. On one occasion, the Red Guard shot my mother’s dog right in front of her. I don’t know why; the one time I heard her speak of it, she was crying so much that I never found out. Probably there was no reason.

These stories cast a shadow over my life in the US, but they felt foreign. Whenever I stepped out the door, the Red Guard seemed imaginary. As if nothing like that could happen here in the US. Which of course is the real fantasy. The US is a place of forgetting, not reconciliation.

Yet hearing Chinese spoken makes me terribly homesick. I miss hearing my parents speak to each other. I miss being spoken to in Chinese. In the moment of a cash transaction in White Bear, speaking to the cook felt like speaking to my mother, who died five years ago. And I was grateful and embarrassed to feel such intimacy through the cook’s mere politeness.

So at White Bear, language became a dizzying blend of longing for my mother, a deeply troubled family and national history, and my intensely nonexistent relationship to that nation.

Nevertheless, I hope a sense of self-indictment comes through when I write “diaspora via laziness.” I’m not in a diaspora because I fled my homeland, the way my parents did. I’m in a diaspora because I’m too indolent to learn more about the culture and language I was born into. I really am. I couldn’t find my mother’s city on a map if it weren’t for Google. This makes me, in that special American way, lucky.

P: The way you consider language in these poems is fantastic. What can be uttered, taught, learned, and forgotten all seem to be foci of your work. In “Wuping, 1969,” a teacher of reading and writing at the end of the poem wonders, via the speaker of the poem:

“What were her words of intent,

words of control and that first gentle reaching,
her future was held before her

like a cool glass bowl, into which she would
wash her face, place aside, stand and dress.”

What is the source of this delay, of that “charred nights”? Can you speak to the importance of the title of the poem?

E: Wuping is the name of the rural village my mother was sent to during the Cultural Revolution. The “revolution” was a way of keeping the populace in fear. Schools and universities were shut down, and the students—would-be intellectuals—were sent to the countryside to work. They were also charged with rooting out dissidents: spying on neighbors, beating suspects—even to death. It’s one of those huge historical events, of violence, censorship, repression, in which it’s hard to imagine there was such a thing as an individual experience.

I tried to imagine my mother at 22, in 1969. She both loved the stirring spirit of what she saw as patriotism and harbored subversive thoughts that would be worthy of denunciation (a form of public punishment specific to the revolution). Practically, the delay is her education being cut short; suddenly she was made from a college student to a “revolutionary.” I think she found solace in teaching children how to read and write, but she herself had wanted to be a writer of some kind.

So in those lines, I tried to think about the delay any writer knows, the moment before you’re ready to write—when you don’t know the future of your own life, don’t know how cruel you can be nor how much pain you can endure, don’t know who loves you and how to escape—much less the future of the page before you.

P: In “Don’t Bear Me Ill Will For Telling Everyone About You,” we get a speaker who’s traveling through decisions made and thoughts had about her family, specifically their dead mother. There is, within the poem, mythical figures and mention of folktales; however, the poem itself acts as a swift myth, moving in and out of a plot that gestures toward what can be saved and what should be remembered:

“Don’t bear the hospital ill will for accepting only your corneas. Everything else, they said, was too far gone.

Don’t bear Dad ill will, that, a week after, he told us a folk tale called “The Ghost Wife,” but it wasn’t about you.”

How important is personal history to you and your work? In what ways do you see folklore as a backdrop to your daily life?

E: With these poems, I must stress that while the broad outlines are true, I can’t be sure of many details. My mother rarely spoke of her youth, and much of what I know is secondhand from my father and research. I’m striving for the truth of the matter, if not the fact. Because I can’t ask my mother, I have to imagine. It’s an intimate, cathartic, and frustrating thing: to imagine her as a figure. A lot of Asian American poets are coping with their parents’ trauma, I think, in a similar or adjacent way, by making a mythology of history as a way to examine it.

In this manner, my mother’s personal history has become a form of mythology, or folklore, for me, as folk as the old story, “The Ghost Wife,” which my father told us, just a few days after she died. We were mourning, and by telling this story, my father had very quickly mythologized her, consciously or not. It’s the story of a man who marries a ghost. She’s a capable, beloved wife until the family starts worrying what to do about her when she won’t die. But the rest of them are aging. The metaphor allowed my father to reflect on my mother with some remove, and likewise my poems allow me to do the same.

However, there’s a dark side to this mythologizing. An example: I read “White Bear” and “Don’t Bear Me Ill Will” at an event in Queens, NY, with a young Chinese American writer I hadn’t met. Afterward, in conversation, she volunteered: “Who knows how much truth there is to these stories?” referring to the testimonies of Cultural Revolution survivors. She continued: “There are so many stories and no one knows what really happened.”

When your parents’ history becomes folklore to you, it’s easy to get lost in a self-satisfied haze—a fantasy that I’m doing important psychological or intellectual work. But the barest, most fundamental facts are still being contradicted. To many people who grew up in mainland China, too young or too removed to be affected by the revolution firsthand, it is just that to them—folklore.

P: Are these poems part of a larger work? If so, can you tell us a little about how they operate therein?

E: These poems are part of a loose network—that I’m hoping(!) will jell as a major part of a manuscript called Up the Mountains Down the Fields. The title is one of the rallying cries of revolution—that students like my mother would use to spread the good word of Communism far and wide, or up the mountains, down the fields.

P: Thank you, again, for speaking with me. How can people learn more about your poetry? Where can our readers find more of your work?

E: And thank you, Phillip. I have a rudimentary blog: estherlinpoems.wordpress.com, which lists current and future publications, as well as more poems related to my mother forthcoming in Hyphen, Copper Nickel, and Adroit.

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