On a Refusal to Mourn a Black Poet
For Maisha Baton
You foot it from Alvarado, perusing
Our Repuglican rag in Starbucks on Gibson
Alert to the daily murder. You see me
Years drop from your ancient face.
‘Hey, how you doin?’ welcoming despite
Shrunken body & cancer’d brain. You were
Shrewd & cunning. How many knew that in
This cowtown? Students don’t know nothin
Nowadays. It’s hot and grey
At 3:42 pm in this drought season, nerve gas
On the move in Syria, and I’m thinking of you.
What would you say of this apocalyptic weather?
You were trying to figure how to live in
A twittering age. What of the books unloved
Remaindered into pennies, digitized, paupering
Authors into slums as you were Zora-like
Margined to obscurity tho you knew August Wilson
Before celebrity in Pittsburgh and
Bellevued in Madhattern. Poets
Raise their eyes to cloud-mountains for rain that
Won’t come. Tangerine-colored fish crowd a tank at
99 Banh but you’re elsewhere in
A black belletristic heaven with
Gwendolyn, Lucille, June.
Pointillist rain spatters my windshield.
I head east toward the Sandias
Begin with the premise of the big lie,
Goebbels said. Repeat.
Paint the dark fields of the republic:
Rusted factories of Flint, flat wages,
Drafty, shuttered houses. Wall out the malignant
Nothing is true;
Everything is allowed.
Wild boars in Fukushima forage
Plants contaminated with caesium-137
Half-life 30 years.
Don’t trust me. Google
World Socialist Review or QAnon.
Compare factoids on your gadget
And evade the other’s eye.
Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda for the Third Reich said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
The Mad King
The tower was lurid and scarlet and gold. As you descended the stairs the banister changed into a snake and your vision dolly zoomed as you fell away from yourself. Crows rattled in the rafters. The orphans sprung from their cells had weasel-like faces and cabbage-shaped heads and snapped at your ankles. The Queen Mother was voluptuous but her touch froze you to ice. The rats were as big as goat with bells. We ate at the oak table in an enormous dining room and opened our palms to nothing. I believe we prayed for dollars. The rain pelted the sloping roof of the old dark house like birdshot and made the road impassable. A snoutfaced maid served the pig on an iron spit stuck in its anus. I was trying to read a book but the words kept running off the page. A whore named Jenny Defloration peed on me. The orphans raced around the table, stabbing the rats with icepicks. The deposed King at last made an appearance. He kissed the robotic daughter on the lips. He was a hulking seven feet tall and, shapeshifting, a self-loving dwarf with broken feet that gave him a plodding gait, trailing behind him on a leash a moonwhite sloth with a ball in its mouth. One had the impression that the King was coughing up a furball. He grabbed whatever cuts of liver he could with his automatic hand.
The King made pronouncements. At the moment of utterance whatever he said he thought to be true:“His one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities and they froze to death.” He took the fork and carving knife and seemed to commence to slice the hog then began stalking me from behind the fake plastic trees. I ran back up the stairs, my feet sinking into latex. The misty moon hung on a telephone wire. I stumbled into the children’s playroom where all the toy cabinets and the rockinghorse were smeared in red.
The painting is a series of fire-gestures,
Calligraphic circles, Zen scorings. Who are
The clients in a pandemic? Surely not
Appreciators like me—poor expat poet?
Sara Luisa reads me a poem on her cell:
“I think the mountain startled / my small grief.”
Her reading has been a careering around
Loss. If you tempt the gods, Greta said,
They will smote you down. Epic tragedy
met by a glib and crimped smallness, the meticulous personal.
For years I made an ofrenda, she said, but how to
Elegize so many souls lost?
The body goes to ash,
Fire-gestures in burning air.
For the Chiang family
Tomorrow the king spirals into brightness that falls from air
Reborn into an auspicious life. What startles me is
Not that the exemplary bloom of your moment is done, but that
It flourished despite the cuttings. The rituals you knew too well—
Spirit food at the grave, broom the grave, Chinatown banquet—
Your family will enact as you accompany your father, your mother who
Talked story of a cruel commandant, sounding insults worse in
Toisan, your brother exiled too soon in the ghost world. Your mother
Thought art a frill, wanting a wedding with lucky money
In red envelopes. Yet you had a vision audacious and bold.
Madness was a familiar in our families, eyes fixed above
Rooftops in Madhattern skies. You were the common, spanning
Suspension cables like Hart Crane’s bridge. The vision shook us. We
Made it into the shape of love, sheet rocking sixteen hours
Downing numberless coffees, bolting chow fun on Lafayette
A basement on the seventh floor, that
Improbable a seeing. This was before the cuttings, the dead cancerous cells
The stage 4 prognosis. Those were the finest of all my days
And you were the root, the stem, the new growth.
Fay Chiang was executive director of Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts center in New York. Originally located at 22 Catherine Street in Chinatown, the organization relocated to 199 Lafayette Street in a seventh floor loft. A survivor of cancer for 20 years, she died from complications of the disease on October 20, 2017. She was 65. This poem was read at her memorial.
Richard Oyama: “My work has appeared in Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, The Nuyorasian Anthology, Breaking Silence, Dissident Song, A Gift of Tongues, Malpais Review, Mas Tequila Review and other literary journals. The Country They Know (Neuma Books 2005) is my first collection of poetry. I have a M.A. in English: Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. I taught at California College of Arts in Oakland, University of California at Berkeley and University of New Mexico. My first novel, A Riot Goin’ On, is forthcoming.”