FIVE POEMS by PEG DUTHIE
(first published in Measured Extravagance [Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2012])
We talked about our mothers too damn much
at Thanksgiving dinner. Then the fresh guilt
clung to the days that followed, like the silt
of drippings refusing to leave the pan.
That’s what ghosts do, you told me: they stain
our lives with should-have-dones. I cannot touch
my father’s diaries to this day. No crutch—
not booze, not sweets, not framing the story
as someone else’s parents’—nothing can
bring to the dead the children or glory
they wanted for me to want for them. Their pain
isn’t mine. Yet it haunts the life I’ve built.
And so we talk, and keep on saying grace,
fumbling for the words that best fit our place.
In spite of knowing better, some days I covet
the girls who wear Greek letters -- their chants
and chosen flowers, the three-character charms
dangling from dainty chains -- their societies’ names
so much like incantations: Abracadabra,
Chi Omega, Delta Omicron, Tau Theta Pi.
But I have never been much of a sister
in fact or friendship, and there is no magic
that will make me so -- no wand to transform
this square into a willing peg
corresponding to a circle. Most days,
I give thanks -- my strangeness is my steel.
Still, I remember the monogrammed bags
that were all the rage at my junior high --
and the sorrow I stewed in, what
with my stub of a first-gen name -- so short
I was always being asked, “And the rest?” --
and not yet grown, not yet wise to the ways
of making my name and the rest of me mine.
To My American Nieces on My Daddy’s Side
If a man fishes for your Chinese name
and then wants to call you by it,
throw him back into the worldpool.
A man who would treat that name as more “you”
than the one that’s served you every day for years
is a man who expects you to be an easy answer.
You should wait for men who, asked to carry water,
will recognize which handles can be relied on
and which are for show, are gestures to tradition --
key to the shape, yes, but neither spine
nor skin nor skeleton. A grain of grit
surrounded by layers of nacre -- your suitors
should already know how pearls are formed
and how one setting cannot fit all,
not even gems from a single bed. Start
with that. You’ll have plenty of secrets
(even some of ancient Chinese vintage)
to share with the man who doesn’t presume
anything by or with your given names,
holding his tongue until he learns more
about the things to be truly between you.
Longer Than Tennessee
Sometimes it's a way
to describe a slip of the knife
or a slip sliding past the hem
or not being able to slip away from a meeting:
That gash was longer than Tennessee!
That lace could have curtained all of Tennessee!
That goddamned speech was longer than Tennessee!
Sometimes it's the night ahead -
too shallow to soak up all of your regrets
yet so, so long you don't know how you'll make it to shore
except that you've somehow done it before,
stumbling past sad mountains
and make-believe grace
and poison-laced songs
and heavy but hollow prayers
to return to that grove
where light slips in between the leaves,
where the day is a rustle of silver,
its dazzling train of possibilities
stretching out longer than Tennessee.
Goose Goose Duck
(first published in -gape-seed- [Uphook Press, 2011])
Years later, they couldn’t remember
if it had started over scallion pancakes
and plum wine at Moon Palace
or haloumi and harissa at 2 a.m.
in her best friend’s kitchenette
or ramekins of olives
on his father’s back porch
the day before Rosh Hashanah.
They’d been arguing, as usual,
about the chicken and the egg,
the rain and the sea,
the ball and the bat,
festivals and gods, and on
and on, but they always returned
to chickens and eggs and falling skies
and roads that were taken --
and before they knew it, it had become
how they knew each other. IMs began
with “goose goose duck” and
“grace of full, mary hail” and
“ye afore Scotland” and even
“bark wandering.” His dying
made widows of the questions he liked to answer
and stranded the answers she liked to question.
Before the undertaker arrived, she leaned
close to the lips of her love, as if she could hear
a phantom punchline within the absence of air,
and then she whispered, “Who’s there? Knock, knock.”
Peg Duthie is a Taiwanese American indexer and copyeditor. She is the author of Measured Extravagance (http://www.upperrubberboot.com/measured-extravagance/). Her poems and photographs have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, unFold, and elsewhere.
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