Poem of the Day: Poem.com newsletter

Jennifer Perrine

Driving by that yellowed building,
I made only the phonetic
connections to English: the lobes
of honeycomb in my chest, threads

sprouting their moon-fruit on forest
floors, dead trees. Had I looked closer,
I could have seen that even lung
is connected by its rhizome

to light, as in little weight, lift
of a bird’s hollow bones. The gasp
of fung might have felt less toxic
if I’d recalled fewer toadstools,

thought instead of the buttons sliced
atop my pizza, the wood ears
in my mother’s mu shu. I might—
if she’d still been talking to me,

if I’d taken the time to meet
the owners of that whistle-stop
restaurant—have discovered that Fung
is a Cantonese variant

of Feng, meaning phoenix—or more
precisely, fabulous Chinese
bird. How I want to claim that sense
for the myth that was my mother,

her fiery wing, how she burned down
every inch of herself to make
a new life in another place,
far from family, how I still

turn the dust and grit of her ash
upon my tongue. I don’t know, though—
and won’t—what strokes composed the script
with which she wrote her character,

which tone inflected that single
syllable. Now I’m left to guess
whether I’m descended from wind
that imperceptible hand fit

to caress and blast and damage—
or offering, body given
up again and again to make
seven children. Or am I kin

with the more common gallop, pace
at which she raced from her own birth
in the year of the horse, each stride
with her feet in the air, breakneck

and broken? This name she once wore
is no password, will not unlock
my secret questions. I am left
with this identity bestowed

careless as hot breath on my neck,
as the swift lone sylph that rises,
vivid and violet, from the branch
beside my window, where once more

I dash after facts, after truth,
where I dig for answers and come
up with just the same old shovel
busted against the same old root.

from the journal NEW LETTERS 
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After this poem was published in “New Letters,” my mother’s sister, who once shared that surname, Feng, contacted me to let me know how much the poem meant to her. I could not have known when I wrote this poem, which explores the personal and cultural losses I’ve felt due to my estrangement from my mother and our Chinese family, that it would one day bring me closer to them.

Jennifer Perrine on “Upon Researching Lung Fung, the Much Maligned Local Takeout Joint, I Stumble on the Meaning of My Mother’s Maiden Name”

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