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incense poem (what was sacred)

Ocean Vuong writes of poetry
as the architecture of a fire escape
a place to say help and offer a
listening ear to the storming emotions
underneath the surface chit chat.

if so, i would write a poem of my body
lighting incense and bowing three times,
the muscle memory bringing temple Here,
ancestors at my back, all I’ve learned from
loud aunties and coarse uncles laughing
with their mouths open feeding each other
from large metal trays, ribbing each other
and leaning in for gossip while children
run free, untended on the gravel
playgrounds speaking their own languages
of bilingual jokes, screams, chase and tag,
recounting last night’s tv shows over taunts
and dares,

going through the motions without
appreciating how the repetition week
after week of rituals you didn’t understand
and barely wanted to do can save your
life and bring you love 20 years later
when you find yourself far from that
home where you never questioned
your skin color or your tongues
or your ways of being,

that home where what was sacred
was the mess of people outside the
walls of the temple that made it living
and alive, where what was sacred
was never translated never performed
for outside eyes, where what was
sacred was packed away into your
molecules and your muscles, the
notes of the chanting creeping in
unbidden, keening on your yoga mat.
the rhythms of the fish drum pulsing
under your skin, below your conscious
memory, as if they wove their resilience
and survival into your very dreaming
for your always thriving. as if they knew
that you would need this smell of sandal
wood incense in your nose to remind
you who you are when you have forgotten

those long week ends when you forget
because you’ve been fighting battles
of identity, distraction, trying to define
your self against the what of what
you are not, against the invisibility
of people trained not to see you, an
american culture trained to assimilate
you, a raft of asian american friends
who never got to call themselves that
because they grew up an only and a
minority in their hometown skins,

and you just want to wrap them up in the
warmth of the living room of the sunday
night dinners you grew up in. and by
warmth i mean loud, and by
warmth i mean unapologetic, and by
warmth i mean f u l l
full of bo luc lac and boxed mac n cheese
full of char siu from hoa hoa and jien goh
from tan tan, kho ji yok and mango during
summertime and the smelly frozen flesh of
durian which depending on month or mood
sometimes made you smile and sometimes
made you gag. but the lychees always sweet
and juicy, the four-box of peach gumballs always
perfumed peach

the incense is burned down to red stem now
ash spilled outside its receptacle (a tiny
liquor cup full of rice, a gift from a friend,
korean character for strength carved into its face)
a container which can’t contain its lessons
its balmy humid
houston medicine

as if there is anger and grief for all my parents
were not able to do in their too-short lives

and yet look — Look what they have wrought!
Look what they have given!

Look at the sensual richness and the woven
tapestry and the web of relationships that they lived
so effortlessly

Don’t you dare underestimate the wisdom of
knowing. the hard-fought, sweetly easeful
ways they L I V E D full body lives,
lives which we in the colonized west are trying
so hard to analyze and optimize our way
into, figuring out with our minds how to be
and love and eat and feed the next generation

Don’t you dare paper over the ways they formed
my heartways with your shallow assumptions that
pretend we are starting from scratch or have
forgotten how, that devalues what we have always
tried to give you

if you would only just sit down
and e a t .

They have always been trying to feed you. They have been here all along. Listen.
Listen to the storming emotions underneath the surface chit chat.

Published inlove poems