Joseph Farley, US




Free Verse


Longing For The Mother Tongue




Faded black and white
photos seem much older
than the age you carry
with such grace.

Beauty defined you
or you define it,
bathing at Lake Tai,
or stretching by the river.

Youth going but not gone,
still there behind eyes
crinkled in the corners.

Your skin remains smooth
as the silk you love to wear.
In the dark things appear
black and white anyway.



Welcome to Ji'An


Far from home
with no one
who spoke my tongue
I was a unique
a stranger with
“jin toe fa”
golden hair,
among a sea
of black hair.

I grew used
to the stares.
Most were friendly,
polite, just curious,
but there were a few
that spoke hate
and I learned to live
with their gaze.

Lao Wai Po
(great grand mother)
saved me once
from the anger
of a crowd
of construction
by my presence
in their country
and their town.
I don't know
what she said,
but it sounded like
a scolding.
I just smiled
and stood between
the men
and my small son
keeping him
out of harm's way.

Lao Wai Po
was ninety.
Her age demanded
She kept talking
until the men
lowered their pick axes,
their fists,
their heads
before skulking away.

I thought I must be
very ugly
to bring on these
cold and ugly looks.
I must be
extremely ugly.
I had done nothing
to provoke
such hostility.
All the same
I stayed away
from mirrors
for the rest of my stay
what I might find
looking back at me.



Longing For the Mother Tongue


Lips move
but the ears
do not hear
the sounds
they long for,
familiar tones
the voice of
the mother tongue.

Far from home
so long since
I have spoken
with someone
who will listen,
with someone
who will understand.

Stammering idiot
babbling nonsense
to the locals,
they cannot understand
my words.
I cannot understand
All we can do
is stumble over
each other's languages.
more frequent
than honest exchange
of information.

The sun falls.
It's sound
is a familiar thud.
The feel of the wind
reminds me of home.
Clouds look the same
but my hometown
lacks the mountains.

Some buildings
could have been built
universal structures
of steel and glass
pretty in their own way
but do not speak of place.
The old houses
in the countryside
are more interesting
with their red or green tiles,
doorways for chickens
and occasional dragons
gracing the corners of roofs.
They make it clear
that I am elsewhere.
They remind me
I am not at home,
away from my center,
my source,
my roots.

After so long away
I need to touch base again,
become grounded,
feel the comfort
of a way of living
that is my own,
see faces I remember,
hear voices I know,
drown in vocabulary
seasoned with Spanish,
Italian, Yiddish,
Chinese, Polish,
revel in the words
I have missed,
the language
of the street corners
and the markets
that is my
mother tongue.



Thoughts on The Motherland While Sleeping In Ji'An


“The Motherland”
sounds foreign,
a far off place,
but here
I am the stranger,
and maybe
can admit
that a land
with checkered
red and blue states
can be
as much my mother
as the woman
who bore me,
and I can miss it
as much as flesh and blood.



Cold Water

Ji'An, Jiangxi Province, China, 1993


Such a simple thing, yet
so hard to get,
leastwise here, in Ji'An
where the temperature bubbles
close to a hundred degrees
and the sun has no mercy
on residents,
permanent or temporary.

Such a simple thing.
Cold water in a glass.
Cold water filled with ice.
Tap water must be boiled,
then a refrigerator must be found,
not an easy task.

The locals prefer warm drinks,
hot water or tea,
calling both “cha”,
say it cools you
better than a cold drink
and is healthier for the body.
They may be right,
but most have never tasted
a cold drink on a hot day
and cannot know
the joy it brings.

Nor can I now,
sipping hot tea
while my mouth cries out
for cold water in a glass
filled with ice cubes.



Fish Pond, Ji'An, Jiangxi Province


Watching the shadows
in the water,
the bubbles,
beginning and ending.
I know the fish pond
is well stocked
with tomorrow's supper,
but this is not
as important
or as wonderful
as the sun
painted over
the mountains,
a few clouds
here and there
and one swallow
skimming across
pale green water,
catching a sip in flight.



Mid-Autumn Festival, Ji'An


In Autumn comes the harvest.
On the night of
the Moon Festival
the town glowed
with light from many bonfires,
much smaller
than in the past;
fireworks were banned,
breaks with tradition
deemed necessary
for safety.

I stood with the neighbors
around a small fire
circled by a cone
of piled bricks
in the common alley
and raised a cup of wine
some of which was spilled
on the fire in folk ritual.

There was no song or dance
and little talk.
The entertainment
was the fire and the sky,
watching the flames
lick through
the red bricks
and seeing the moon
huge and full
among constellations
I had never seen.
My son was two
and found it enough.
So did I.



The Song the Frogs Sang


The commune and the city
The farmers brought
their cattle
into town
to graze on
the lawns and traffic islands.
Fish ponds and fields
come up to the back
the house
where my in-laws lived.
From the balcony of their house
I watched men and
with pant legs rolled up
wading through rice paddies
carrying buckets
of night soil and water
to be ladled onto
ripening cabbage
and peppers.
At night we heard
the frogs singing,
field chickens
they are called.
Some are good eating,
some are poisonous.
My mother-in-law
knew the difference
but preferred
to buy frogs
at the market for dinner
rather than catch them
in the garden.

Now I hear the farms are gone
the pond
that my son liked to throw
his shoes in
has been drained,
by concrete
apartment blocks
that overhang
the family garden.
Instead of
the singing of frogs
the croaking
of a hundred television sets
fills the night air.



Chang 'Er


Moonlight turns
your skin blue
you hang above me,
face framed
by black hair
like dark clouds
in an evening sky.

You smile
but say nothing,
lost in the moment
as I am lost in you.
You are my Chang 'Er,
my moon goddess,
cold and beautiful.

You often seem
so far off,
I cannot reach you.
Then there are times
like now
when you descend
to this mortal plain
and become a woman
with pale skin,
red lips
and black hair.

How can I not love you
when you grace me
with your embrace?

Soon you will return
to heaven,
become again
a cold object,
distant and
of men who
work the soil
or plow paper
with fox tail brush
and fresh ground ink.



Waking The Dead


One night we argued so hard
that we must have stirred the dead.
A cane fell from a cabinet ledge
and smashed the glass case
holding Lao Wai Po's photograph,
still wreathed in white chrysanthemums.
And then we knew not to yell
at each other so loud.
There is always someone listening.



Bargain Hunting In Kowloon


The hotel had four stars,
more expensive than we'd hoped,
but convenient for our needs;
a place to recuperate
from the deprivations
of seven weeks in Jiangxi.
No bread, no dairy.
I had left twenty pounds
on the mainland,
but was ready to start
dining out to gain some back.

On the ground floor
of the building
next to the hotel
was a massage parlor.
My wife warned me
not to go there
lest I get castrated,
said I would be
disappointed anyway.
“The girls don't
use their hands.
They use a machine
similar to
a palm sander.”

My wife steered me clear
of the nude bars
a stone's throw
from the hotel,
took me shopping instead.
I carried her bags
as she prowled
stalls and shops
of back streets
and small alleys
searching for bargains.
She bought clothes
and cameras,
but blushed
and pulled me fast
past the small table
where an old woman sat
selling sex toys.



The Eye of the Beholder


It had only been a month
since the tanks rolled through
Tienanmen Square.
The goddess of liberty
had been crushed
along with who knows
how many protesters.

From the window of a bus
I looked out on Beijing
armed with soldiers
at every intersection
and in front of the gates
of the universities.

I saw many people
sporting bandages
large swathes of white gauze
taped to arms, legs, heads.
A man on a bicycle
drew my attention.

“Did you see that?”
I asked in my innocence.
“The man with the bandages?”
You, a native to China,
stared straight ahead.
“I saw nothing.
I don't know what
you're talking about.”

During a paddle boat ride
in the middle of a lake
at the Summer Palace
a friend felt it safe
to open up to me
about what happened.
“There was so much shooting.
Tanks in the streets.
Wounded everywhere.”

Later, in private,
you still refused
to discuss
what was obvious
and you have maintained
this blind spot
since returning
to May Guo,
the “Beautiful Land”,

What had changed in you?
We had both watched
the protest on television,
marched in support
of the fallen
through Chinatown,
and proofed
the translation
of a letter of protest
to the U.N.
from the Chinese
Students Association
about the crackdown.

But that was before
we went to China
and you spoke in whispers
to your family
and were warned
to be cautious.
The Cultural Revolution
was too close in time
and everyone was
running scared.
Then came the boom.

Twenty years have passed.
Sometimes we see
middle age faces
on the street,
immigrants we knew then
who cursed and shouted
about justice and freedom.
Now when we meet
all they talk about is money.
How big their house is,
how nice their car,
how expensive their clothes.
Friends in the Mainland
talk the same.
No one speaks of politics.
Money makes things good,
or so it seems,
and history is a dusty book
sitting on a shelf.
Everyone knows it is there,
but no one wants
to take it down
and read it out loud.



Eyes That Burn With Delight


your young cousin
with the crossed eyes
was torturing the chickens.

the birds,
fresh from market,
waited under a woven basket.

The knife would later come
to make them
a treat for dinner,

a dish for the banquet
held for relatives
visiting from across the sea.

until then, the birds
were playthings
for the boy.

he was nine.
ten at most.

he jabbed the chickens
with a stick
through the holes
in the basket.

he quickly grew
tired of this
and fetched matches
from the kitchen.

he began lighting
the matches
one by one,

pushing the flaming wood
through the gaps
until feathers
were singed.

the chickens squawked
and shit themselves
and hopped away,

but there was only
so far they could go
in that round wicker cage.

all your cousin
needed to do
was shift positions.

he'd find
another angle
for inflicting pain.

your cousin was
the eldest
of a group of boys
and girls,

some from the village,
the rest other cousins
of one degree
or another.

the children watched
and laughed
as your cousin
burnt the birds.

they cheered him on,
mocking the stupid hens
who could not get away,

taunting flesh
still live with blood
soon to be stir-fried
and eaten with chopsticks.

the adults were nearby.
they talked and
glanced now and then
at what the boy was doing.

no one said a word.
no one tried to stop him.
It just went on and on.

I whispered something to you.
you whispered back,
“mind your own business.”

it was not my affair,
maybe not even
my dinner.

when I asked you
that evening
why no one
put an end to it

you said
“he's just a boy
raised in the country,
use to animals
raised for food.”

I thought he had the makings
of a psycho killer.

his crossed eyes lit up
at the sight of the flames
burning flesh.

after we left that house
with the courtyard
where the pigs
shared a shed
with the squat toilet
I never saw
that cousin again.

many years have passed.
sometimes I wonder
about the boy
who became a man.

what does he do now?
where does he live?
and do his eyes
still burn like with delight
while inflicting pain
on other things.



Night Soil Man


the little boy stared at the cart
with the black steel cylinder,
and the strong legs
of the slim man
in shorts who pulled it,
cigarette dangling between thick lips,
the stench of shit all about him
and a strange allure
that can not be explained.

"What does he do daddy?"
You tried to explain.
"Remember the chamber pots
from last night?
Your mother and grandmother
emptied them at the public toilet.
The man empties the toilet."

Later, crossing the bridge,
we saw the barges in the river
coming from the cities downstream,
carrying night soil
inland to the farms
farther west and north
where it would be used
to fertilize the land.

The scent of the cargo
wafted in through open windows
overpowering all of us.
We rolled up the windows
on the company car,
and asked the driver
to go faster.



East Meets West


my son stands in two worlds
his legs span oceans
his arms wrap the globe

Kipling was wrong.
children are the point
where east and west meet.



America The Beautiful

(for Chinatowns everywhere)


before the song
there was May Guo,
the beautiful land

it still had
its purple mountains'

(though some looked
golden from afar)

and brotherhood
was spoken
if not always lived
from sea to shining sea


the farmer's dream
became the coolie's reality
family and community
became railroads,
gambling houses
and red light districts
filled with aging bachelors

that gave way
to Chinatowns
full of restaurants
novelty stores
electronic shops
designer clothes
and new generations
of immigrants
seeking the Golden Mountain

it is still America
the beautiful land

where Asian teens
eat rice and pork
or fries and burgers
buy rap cds
from a corner stall

and laugh at the old women
with small feet
steadying themselves
with one hand on the wall
as they walk

and at old men in
sleeveless undershirts
playing mahjong.

before climbing
into shiny cars
and driving home
to the suburbs.



Variations of some of these poems have appeared previously in Axe Factory, Echoes, Symbiotic Oatmeal and Ygdrasil.

Joseph Farley edited the Axe Factory Review for 23 years. His books include Suckers, For The Birds and The True Color of You.



Read other Poems by Joseph Farley in the July / August 31, 2009 Sketchbook









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