Poems- by Carl Boon

VIETNAM

NHA TRANG, 1975

My brother’s cries—

                            

higher than bombscream,

higher than birdcall—

pierced my blanket.

We had to leave Nha Trang,

flee the lowlands

where my fathers rinsed

their feet in mud-colored water

every spring.

If sound were color, the cries

of my brother were pearl

and orange.

No time for photographs

or clothes. The balsam plane

my uncle made for me

would have to stay;

my mother’s slippers

remained on her feet

as she kissed my head and waved.

 

My sisters came naked

to the doorway. I’d be forced to rebuild

their unusual smiles,

their nursery songs

and demands.

THE ARTIST IN MASSACHUSETTS

There’d been no time for breakfast,

the kiss of hands, last thoughts,

so the need to remember,

the need to remember Nha Trang

grew the art inside me:

unremarkable boats, shorelines

of broken trees, faces:

schoolchildren, aunts slumped

exhausted, the city’s squat

fortresses of rock

with countenances they called gods,

what the gunners couldn’t break.

They admired what I did remember,

forgave my lapses, the way

I wore my hair at fourteen.

I was an American,

no matter the accent,

no matter my concealed cravings

for bánh cuốn and bánh xèo,

the folds of my mother’s skirt.

The girls whose fathers

worked in Boston were beautiful,

and I drew them in secret.

Their startled eyes

made me suspicious of my own.

 

THE NHAT TAN BRIDGE

i.

Because the faces drew against me,

I stand atop the Nhat Tan Bridge, Hanoi,

new in old skin.

Stacked photographs of war

remind us how the land

drew against itself, so we can’t imagine

beams of silver, stone,

trucks filled with kitchens, gowns,

girls stepping into them

in American-style bedrooms.

ii.

I take my daughters for lunch

at Nha Hang Ngon. The man

flips spring rolls and smiles,

sensing I’m a foreigner, a lost boy.

My mother’s were not better,

but she was forced to be another

by war, and I recall the salt on her wrists,

her eyes remembering the girl

she’d been. I dare not tell my daughters

this. American with the given

of prom gowns, they might laugh at me.

iii.

We eat. I watch Tai’s wrists

move sullenly, Lian’s eyes scan the street

for fallen things: funeral flags, silk,

the tear and flash of my mother’s eyes—

and always the distant bridge.

This is not what I meant

when I told them I’d remember,

Tai and Lian pausing now,

sensing this is still a battered

and dangerous land.

 

HANG QUAT STREET

They call Hanoi

a paradise of rats and gamblers,

men in uniforms

waiting for buses,

the clouds

that move from Hang Quat Street—

where before the war

men sold feathers and gems

that made ladies tremble.

They said the theaters

were mystical in 1952.

I had a vision of being there

the night my brother’s shrimp boat

burned in Galveston Bay.

Ten years an American,

I considered the land

in crescendos,

women who looked away

or didn’t look at all. Still,

I drew them

in the language I’d forgotten.

I drew them standing in the rain

on Hang Quat Street

in the posture of my mother.

I drew their hands

falling away

like the hands of my ancestors.

THE HIGHWAY TO SAIGON

We grew used to Hanoi’s glow—

even the buildings

from the hotel window

bore surfaces stenciled

blue and gold. I rose to shave

as my daughters lay dreaming

not of New York, but these streets

they never had the chance to know,

these men in hats drawing xich lo

down Hang Bac, the parlors

filled with portraits of the dead.

But now the ghosts of poverty

claim their penance. The highway’s

riven with seed, widows

bearing disease in their breasts,

old men who cannot reconcile

war with now. They’ve no synonyms.

They’ve no way to know

what was lost and gained.

I’m an American in a space

that was never mine. I’m New York

and Boston, which are points

on maps in village kitchens.

We stop near Quang Ngai. A woman

comes with a platter of fruit.

Her husband, shouldering a scythe,

asks us why we’ve come at all,

for the North took his babies

and the rain while I was away.

Too windy and late to argue,

I drink my tea and look out past

his field. There are cylinders

of something I can’t remember.

LIAN

Hanoi’s smog lifts to reveal

cobalt lines of factories,

Lian’s distant cousins

disappearing on motorbikes.

She traces her thumb

on the long window

of Terminal 3. She’s happy

to be going back to Nyack

and high school, The Next Step.

She told me on this trip

she wants to be a dancer—

I remember the way

her legs moved that morning

in Trung Hoa among the sellers

of catfish and herbs.

I rediscovered home,

re-drew what I’d forgotten,

but home’s initials

are evanescent and broad,

and Lian carries nothing

of borders and war

in her skin. Perhaps one day

she’ll bring her own family

here to retrace my ways,

how I wept in secret

on Linh Nam where the boys

sell newspapers. I wept

for the ink on their hands,

the hair we shared.

They are calling no more.

Lian holds her boarding pass

the way a bride holds

her husband’s hand

as they go out from the church

into the disconcerting sun

of a Saturday afternoon.

 

Boon photo

***Carl Boon lives and works in Izmir, Turkey. His poems appear in dozens of magazines, most recently Two Thirds North, Jet Fuel Review, Blast Furnace, and Sunset Liminal.***

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