Site hosted by Build your free website today!
Su, Adrienne
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.

Adrienne Su


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

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).

Adrienne Su


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.

Adrienne Su

China II

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 hosted by Jeonet