B.A., Harvard (Radcliffe), 1989
MFA, University of Virginia
Middle Kingdom (Alice James, 1997)
Radcliffe Quarterly Fall / Winter 1997
Miss Chang is Missing
by Adrienne Su
We know it's to San Francisco
or New York-she couldn't have stopped
anywhere in between, and she requires
a coast. It's her taste for seafood
and the smell of salt water, even
industrial ocean. She couldn't
have been abducted; she would have
karate-chopped the guy's pistol,
snapped his partner's neck. She wouldn't
have run away-in spite of herself
she's the Buddha
through and through; she dissolves
ill humor with her eyes. Nor
has she eloped; she doesn't like men
as much as she likes lemongrass prawns
with black pepper, and marriage
in the only world she knows
doesn't suit her. She once talked
about relatives in Hong Kong, but
they must have perished years ago
and her Chinese was broken anyway.
Not was-she isn't gone for good.
She often leaves town on short notice,
just never this short. She left
a syllable on a client's machine:
way, which could have been wei
the Chinese telephone greeting
or the beginning of wait, or
way do you think you're going
as she sometimes said. It must
be tough to have an accent
in both languages. The neighbors
think she intended to come back
that night; she hadn't taken the trash
to the curb, the cat came looking
for food, and she couldn't have vanished
into thin air. But she was
oriental in a way most Asian people
aren't, somehow immaterial and bound
to outlast the trees, the house,
her body-one could get in trouble
for saying it, but anyone who met her
would agree. She was the only woman
who really was that creature hovering
at the edge of the movies: dark-haired,
dark-eyed, supernatural, ginseng-
scented, otherworldly. Likely to one day
walk off the earth and into the sky.
From Middle Kingdom by Adrienne Su. Copyright 1997 by Alice James Books. Reprinted by arrangement with Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine.
Adrienne Su '89 grew up in Atlanta and currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her poems have appeared in several literary journals, including Chelsea, Epoch, Greensboro Review, Kalliope, The Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and the anthology Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (Henry Holt, 1994). She was the winner of the Alice James Books' 1996 New England/New York Competition for Middle Kingdom.
A native of Atlanta, Adrienne Su, author of "Middle Kingdom," studied at Harvard and the University of Virginia and currently lives in Iowa City. In 1995 she was the first Ralph Samuel Poetry Fellow at Dartmouth College. Of Su's work the "Virginia Quarterly Review" writes, "Here is a fresh and profound voice heralding new cultural bridges in poetry...dynamic, fluid, and fantastically readable poems."
She has poems in the anthologies American Poetry: The Next Generation, The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology, Pushcart Prize 2000, and Best American Poetry 2000.
Poet-in-Residence, Dickinson College, Carlise, PA
The Emperor's Second Wife
by Adrienne Su
This instalment comes to you from a young American woman poet. I first encountered Adrienne Su last spring, when she gave a poetry reading at my university back in the States. Remembering one poem which left me breathless, and not finding her work anywhere around here, I wrote her asking for a copy. She graciously sent me the poem I requested, so I could share it with you.
Anyone with scruples about poetry, cease reading; Su has exercised her artistic license - tastefully, I think. "The Emperor's Second Wife," the speaker of this poem, relates with stark openness the anguish of her incipient desire. I believe Su's emotive empress asks us to question the structure of our selves. She asks us to identify in ourselves the modalities of spirit and desire, mind and flesh, years and tears - and then try to meld them all back in one to discover just how intact or fragmented we really are.
Adrienne Su is from Atlanta, Georgia. Her poems have appeared in Chelsea, Prairie Schooner, Epoch, Greensboro Review, and other journals. She has been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and was a member of New York City's first national poetry-slam team.
I light the extra room and stay there nights
when I'm not called. I curl in the empty quilt
and know she's with him. I pull the blankets tight
and hope I won't remember how she goes
to him in nothing, original and dank, denying
little. She understand his need; she knows
I'm filling in the nights when she's unwilling.
She knows I'm twelve years old and only starting.
But I'm the one whose sleep is shallow, spilling
into day. He's everything to me but lover.
He tells me, if we don't make love, it's right.
It's best my spirit stay intact, all over.
No one else must know. They think the two
of us are fucking all the time we're here.
But we just talk. The rustling girls who do
my nails are scared for me. They think I'll swell before the winter. But in the chamber's privacy
he only wants to hold me, kiss me, touch, and tell
me I am gracious. He won't do violation
that's how he calls it - so we lie beside
each other, tumid with desire and the patience
of two statues. It's wrong, he says. You're young.
You should be learning grammar. I cover my face
when he says these things. I ache. I've just begun
to see the error. He thinks girls happen slower,
that as long as we're unopened, we're immune
to breaking. He imagines I'm intact all over.
That lady must go. When I learn magic,
I'll erase her, have her put away for stealing.
But she doesn't hate me back. She brings elastic
ribbons, ties my hair in twists. She comes
with plates and pastries. She gives me stockings, pins,
and slips, and asks me if our husband's won
me over. I tell her he is all a girl
could want, and more. She snickers when I say it,
then agrees. In recent months our emperor's revealed
another side. He can't be still. She likes
my work. It's clear she thinks I do the service.
We talk about his mouth, his hands, his eyes
and feet. She says, when I'm a few years older
I'll be deadly. She thinks I never cry,
that I'm serene, divine, immune. Intact, all over.
The Toy Shop
from The Tribes Magazine
David accumulated the best Chinese toys
in his room. Outside the window
hung a brown inflatable cow.
On the desk, round fish revolved
in a plastic pond.
An orange tiger nodded and glowed,
its body firm as armor.
No one could visit David's place
without laughing. Even the ceiling
sagged with loud prints
from a far Friendship Store.
In a drawer he kept
the Hong Kong remakes
of bad American songs.
Somewhere he had gathered
solemn items, too: two hundred pins
with Mao's imperial smile,
an opium pipe, the armband
of a young guard. I think he was there
for the souvenirs. In Suzhou he bought a crude cat silk screen,
the two-sided kind
in a lacquered frame.
I liked the room
for its misprinted panda towels
and the plastic terracotta warriors
from Xi'an. They were so openly
plastic. There was no better place
for a joke, or a masquerade.
- Adrienne Su
Bluish and thirsty, packed tight as oranges,
they come from the coast in the iced trunk
of the blue Buick our aunt drives. She's sunk
in thoughts of dinner and not the tinges
of dread that will stain her African violets
as she tends a back pain. She does not think
of her mother, who'll die this fall under pink
bedclothes without a goodnight, the eyelets
of her gown will spell the Chinese words
for loneliness, lovelessness, white birds.
When our aunt and her passengers get to town,
my brother and I crouch by the crate,
poke slow ones with sticks. Two escape;
our parents chase them with tongs around
the garden, then dump all seventy-four
in the laundry-room sink. They scuttle and flip
like flat gymnasts; they amaze us kids.
We salt them, singing When it rains it pours.
They spit back curses: You'll ache, you'll smother;
you'll never be able to talk to each other.
My aunt has brought me a spiny, off-yellow
shell, big as my hand. It sits
on the dryer, where I forget about it
to watch the steamer, where waving hello
and goodbye, the first mute batch reddens
and stills. I think of my shell and go back.
Out of it, welt-ridden legs grasp
no sand. He's ugly, a hermit, threaten-
ing. I peer in his house and read the prophecy:
You'll find joy, but you must leave the family.
WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN AWAY
Yes, Mother, it is unfair
that at 21 you were already given over
to Father, to currying chicken,
to dining cheerfully among synthetic wives,
that seven years later you were still
ironing, an English major studying
baby books, when I wailed
into your little white house & promised
to be quiet if you would just stay there,
that now I am 24 and you never see me
because I'm off writing more English
and loving a man--yes, it is unfair.
But would you have wanted these three years,
night to night not sleeping
in a floral bed in an exhausted city
that's eaten your soul and all your poems;
would you have held the wrong arms
to stop the future stretching catlike
toward more rooms with window grates,
with friends moved to California
and boyfriends marrying other girls and poems
deflating on the desk, struck birds found too late--
would you have met the mirror before work
and seen your face taper and disappear?
Every day I am more untraceable,
so far from the center of the world
that I might fall off, while in your suburb you dream
of a room of one's own, what might have happened there.
Less happened there than you think. More happened there
than you want. Mother, we have both been cheated.
We were put on our feet. The road opened and we traveled it.
Adrienne Su, who studied at Harvard and the University of Virginia, competed on the New York City national poetry slam team and was a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. Poems of hers have appeared in such journals as Chelsea, Kalliope and Prairie Schooner, and in the anthology Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (1994).
The trouble was not about finding acceptance.
Acceptance was available in the depths of the mind
And among like people. The trouble was the look into the canyon
Which had come a long time earlier
And spent many years being forgotten.
The fine garments and rows of strong shoes,
The pantry stocked with good grains and butter —
Everything could be earned by producing right answers.
Answers were important, the canyon said,
But the answers were not the solution.
A glimpse into the future had shown the prairie
On which houses stood sturdily.
The earth was moist and generous, the sunlight benevolent.
The homesteaders dreamed up palaces and descendants,
And the animals slept soundly as stones.
It was a hard-earned heaven, the self-making
Of travelers, and often, out on the plains,
Mirages rose of waterfalls, moose, and rows of fresh-plowed soil,
But nobody stopped to drink the false water.
Real water being plentiful, they were not thirsty.
A few made their fortunes from native beauty,
Others from native strength, but most from knowledge,
As uncertainties in science could be written off to faith.
Faith was religious and ordinary life physical,
And spiritual was a song that had not yet arrived.
At first it was a void from which the key people had come.
Then it was an underworld from which few ascended,
And then it was a land of burning cities from which sons could not carry their fathers.
The terraced earth had a life only in photo essays, later in films.
I did not know it was being shaped by visionaries who had everything wrong,
Nor that the shape had been drawn by my own cramped vision.
Many around me preferred garden photography to real gardens; we got along fine.
We spoke only good. I never expected to walk into a garden eventually
Or to find it full of wasps, or myself at a loss to describe the animals, or the sound of the water.
© 2001 Electronic Poetry Review
Poetry.org hosted by Jeonet