of home and other closely guarded things (Justine Poon)

Posted on December 15, 2017 by in Heightened Talk

grandmother.

dawn begins a golden thread
circling the dark earth
and coils us back from dreams
like deep sea divers
inside diving bells

                                                breaching surface, breath-fog
                                                                        clearing from the glass,
                                                                            dripping off
                                                        water and sense memory –

my sticky skin in summer, the fan
moving teeming currents of odour –
food, motors, hot and desperate prayers
for money and more of it and now,
damp wooden walls and bleach for the mould,
sour milky grief, soap suds and cotton
on the bloody birthing bed –

up, out of bed and up the stairs
into the dry, winter morning air
to feed the birds already waiting
on the balcony.
everything smells clean here
and the kitchen has been freshly
done and varnished. there are
few soft surfaces in which the
old world can hide but still
I find them sometimes. I leave
crumbs on the faux-granite
getting bread for birds and I
know this will annoy my daughter-in-law
when she wakes. beyond the
kitchen window, the dark blue
dawn is changing, like a blush endlessly
drawing across a face: the clouds go
lilac and pink and apricot, not unlike

                the muted hues of mountain watercolours, although
                   in some temples of Guangdong, the gods and their cavalcade
                     of semi-enlightened consorts, animals and minor mischief-makers
                       lined the walls in murals of such colours –
                         you would not believe that human hands could mix pigments so bold.
                           every day firecrackers stained the ground scarlet, the acrid smoke
                             making your eyes water, and my cheeks felt feverish
                               as I scrawled our names on paper, wrapped it around the
                                stem of a grapefruit and flung it over a sprawling tree, dangerously
laden with love.

the gunpowder smell fades.
looking at the sky, now an opaque nuclear blue, cloudless and
unveiled, bare,
and yet not endless but a domed ceiling
of painted plaster which the eye hits and then
stops –
how can this be natural? this flatness holds no
promise and resists the murky imprint of
life boiling over in excess. my daughter-in-law
tells me that everything here is natural, better,
and she takes
the pouch of powdered dye out of my hand before
I can dump it into a pot
of brined and boiled eggs,
the eggs are fine, she says, and anyway the kids won’t eat them,
she fishes one out of the speckled ceramic pot and takes a bite,
just like ma-ma used to make. they’re going through a phase and
only want to eat pancakes and eggs Benedict.
too rich for breakfast.
I made these for their birthday.
they won’t eat. trust me, I’ve tried.
have you?
she takes out a Teflon pan and bagels and
bottles of sauce from the fridge and slides
out the slimy fish that looks raw to me
from a packet,
and this is the first
of a thousand dismissals
of the day. the little granddaughter,
almost grown now, walks in, sees the bobbing eggs
in my pot and beams, thank you por por! and
I feel my life expand a little again.

* * *

grandfather.

gaps widen in my bones,
fill with sea water,
                          I am swimming to her,
                              her letter and her face,
                                  held every night in my hand
                                      as we were apart,
                                          she has been written into my palm,
                                              the lifeline, the headline, the heartline; all,
smuggling myself, they might call it now,
with my body as the boat
and my hands and legs the captain,

he wakes, limbs achingly curled around
her absent body.
was it years? yes, it was years
between the four years they had known
each other first and then swimming to her
with a ring tucked behind his teeth.
that time seems both a snap and unimaginably
long, filled with days of hauling bok choy
out of water at dawn, taking them to market,
eating one meal in the evening with his mother
and then again the next day and the next, even
the soldiers he heard were getting sleepier
in their patrols, which was when he took his chance
to find her. the real life of wartime occupation is now
the fodder for soap operas where flash forwards
and some powder in hair suffices for endurance.

when he arrived in Hong Kong and married her,
he was told to leave those country manners behind, so he did,
and for another thirty years they lived in wooden houses
built from scrap that clung to the umber foliage of Lion Mountain.
when the whole town burned to cinder she saved the children
and their doonas and they were warm that night, at least.
they were glad, he saw, that their home was ash and that
they would be migrating into the high rises;
they wanted to be millionaires, not refugees.

he didn’t talk; he never talked much, which was why
instead of replying to her letter, he had swum
to her instead. when his arms opened in the
water he had felt the breadth of the sea and that measure
of his body making a clear path to her
was all that he could offer. now, their children
snap and shut their ears up when she talks
of what they call old times. he will be her witness
always but he says nothing to make them see
what life was like. it wasn’t good to be
the youngest son of a man with eighteen other
children and three mothers under one
roof in a peasant’s house. they don’t want
to know about those things, he knows, and so
he lets it all be erased.

it has been years again now,
since she flew to their child’s child
and was captured there.
he will swim again, he thinks,
foot on the metal step of the plane,
into the air;
outside the window, clouds bob in half formed shapes –
                         I sifted mud through my lungs for love,
                              and that was most dangerous;
                                  my blood rang strong in the saltwater
                                      and was loud to sharks and snipers,
                                          but the earth-god I carried with me kept me
                                             safe and steady and has done so ever since.
                                              I will show up wet and bleeding and propose again,
                                                  start this new life like the last.

this time is nothing, mere hours,
they bring cards around and nearly
everything in his suitcase
is forbidden. who is guarding
                                                  the shoreline this time?
she and I will have to hold the soil in us close –
for as long as it will take
the both of us to find the scraps
to build this new place
into home.
 

____________________________________________________________

Justine Poon writes poetry, fiction, and law and humanities scholarship. She has been published in Going Down Swinging, the UTS Writers’ AnthologyLip Magazine and Demos Journal. In 2017, Justine’s writing was commissioned to feature in the Greater Together exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. She is completing a PhD at the Australian National University on refugee law and critical theory.

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