I crack earth open with a shovel,
a rain-sunk mound crusted over and over,
slow hard-baking in ovened summer;
the taste of rain dangles in the wind,
sky turns over, distending its grey belly
wide touching the ragged tips of mountains.
I hear the sharp outpour of metal slicing
bend down and upturn my scoopful:
as if the soil is frosting up eggs,
the ground bubbles with rocks,
a few fist-heavy, numerous smaller
all sprout up greeting air.
I stop for a moment, realizing how hard
it will be to make my mother a garden.
She spends forever leaving home
she needs this narrow piece of earth,
to know one armful of land is for her.
She witnesses Burma change from white-gloved
British hands meticulously picking rubies from the land,
to clouded Japanese faces drooping with hunger and war
to the confused, brutal fists of her countrymen,
all rebel-hungry and wanting
and that land is squeezed starving by men
who cling to guns with one hand and cover
their eyes with the other so they won’t see what
their army boots and trigger fingers are doing.
The country is shut off.
Her hands too are soaked in blood
she, my father, and the exhausted people
the government thought they’d beaten
down rust-coloured mud fight back,
but nothing changes, smallness raised
against enormity is ground down.
She escapes to Thailand and mimes a life;
she comes to Canada and does the same.
Kneeling on the loosened earth,
my hands enter coolness,
I shift one handful of dirt
to another, sifting stones.
Rocks pant as they rub each other
the damp smell of shaded trees
wind breathing round branches
the old years of being here.
It’s been a long time
since I’ve touched earth.
Six years old, I dig just for digging,
not with sharp metal but with sticks
and with fingernails, hard and tanned,
I discover the colours of the land:
Chiang Mai in my backyard,
the ground is dust and a yellow that doesn’t shine
and hands are powdered in an instant
and yellow turns molten gold in hot palms.
Deeper, earth becomes wetter and cooler,
clay, redder and denser than chili paste
my skin is finger-painted fire
I taste it to see if it would burn
but my mouth grows sudden cool and
I’m in a cave, smelling wet, rain, rock.
I rub my lips with red and become nature-beautiful
for that instant ready to be woman-new even though
I’m still a girl I’ll hold to my chest bleeding rubies
my mother had bursting from her lips and fingertips.
Next layer is like death
dark brown, almost black
cold of cut bones.
I dig and dig and it never ends
my stick is frozen
I am afraid to touch it
I stare at the small hole
yellow, red, then black.
Blackness pushes under my fingernails
dampness floods beneath my skin
I push open more soil, heavy persuasion:
more stones like baby potatoes burst up,
coated with coarse and moist darkness.
The smell of slowness covers everything,
penetrates my palms and fingers into rivers.
All things natural must smell like this,
of soil, bark, rotten fruit, rain and even clouds,
of night with its heart-rounding scent of closeness,
long faded stars which loiter still clinging to their bodies,
the vague stinging salt of the sea patting cheeks red
exuding from coupled-skins in close-clasping darkness.
This odor of permanence, of always being.
Wispy-thin roots delicately tangle in earth,
sprouts like winding roads gleam pure white,
nuggets of red cedar nestle, some spliced lined and rotting,
some whittled down in dirt-muscle to a whirling top,
some spare and dry as ocean driftwood bleached pale,
some mimicking a scrap of human spine.
Armored insects no bigger than a point on a page
swiftly scramble between hollows of soil, up
spider-legged moss, hairy wet and molded yellow
while one thin red worm coils itself into a knot
while another stretches out bloated and heavy,
mottled purple squirms up S-shapes as I shovel
all this up and lay it over new, level ground.
I am expecting waist-deep snow so cold it burns
that’s what I was hoping for but this is vancouver
and it happens to be august and the streets are grey
not white and hard with sun and the concrete rasps.
We live in a three-part beige apartment complex
in mount pleasant and I don’t talk to anybody
because I’m afraid and I can’t speak english or
smile in english but I learn and little girls ask me
why my lips are so huge my nose so flat why
so beady eyes and all the while I’m expecting snow.
Mom works all day first at mcdonald’s then as a maid
she’s no longer a school teacher instead she
cleans people’s toilets and mops floors
wet rags in her hands, knees touching tile.
We only touch processed grey and pass by grass
growing in rectangles along sidewalks and they rise
in brittle yellow points and threaten holes in our feet;
sometimes we see hand-stretching roses or dahlias
which are always mysteriously bright pink.
I like dandelions which grow free and spontaneous
in places people don’t want them to, and they beam
like shaken suns, globe-change quickly and I help them
blow away by vigorously kicking them airborne and
watch seeds like parachuting snowflakes
search for a bit of land to make a home on,
to ground down roots that will stick no matter
how many people try to pull them out.
Earth remembers hands that touch it,
that stroke its curves and curl against its body,
that caress its fine hair of roots and petal-lips,
that gently part open its ankles, knees and thighs,
cleaving soft fluffy soil with two palms pressed
and bury a snowflake which quickly disappears
down past rocks, worms, and bone-shaped wood.
It recalls the abrupt depressions of flesh,
of nameless bodies collapsing in reddened mud
of them who vanish suddenly from homes
who spend their last few seconds cradled by this soil.
Of them who remain behind to remember.
Her voice low and slow, breathing in music,
she tells me of Shan State, how it wore chill by day,
not the sun-flamed robes of the sweltering south,
how raw mist would ride over the valley and lag
leaving skin glistening like it’d been dipped in stars.
Of certain leaves which taste bitter against your teeth
but soon a sweetness lingers softly round the tongue,
so you only recall the mouth-filling sugar of longing.
How the cold-tinged air hangs slow and ripe with jasmine,
white blossoms as large as her father’s hands,
so many she can hardly see green within;
mornings her fingers gently pick the flowers,
pulling them until they release themselves
into her clay bowl, so large and earth-heavy
she has to stretch wide her small embrace,
hugging smells to her skin with her thin arms.
Between her words, the roll and tumble of them,
the way they come out singing the same song,
her memories drop like rice before my feet
Shan tea mountain breath in my ear
from her hair the odor of rust, of earth
the scent of blood she’d held in her hands
the tongue hidden beneath the soil
the dream the darkness in her eyes
an amazon of leaves gleaming blackness,
her body the moist naked ground.
Roots gather at the touch of her words.
I dream mango trees are growing in my backyard
drooping heavy with fruit stubbornly sour-hard
tall banana trees sprout up crunchy and green,
their arms glossing light and flapping like flags;
at earth-level, round mushrooms like black pebbles
murmur beneath tree-shade, nesting in silky soil;
I eat them again, dropping them raw into my mouth,
each mushroom-marble pops between my teeth
and I’m eating firecrackers and earth, in my cheeks
stones drop into a well of water in moonlight,
echo off my teeth and plunge down my throat.
I dream of so many things.
heavy and solid enter my hot fist
the stones drag cool my blood
air weaves through fingers
swirls in palms even as
hand grips stones tight
I hold a forest iced by night,
the breath of northern seas
stroking beyond the horizon,
steady moon-shadows gliding
across light-brindled Inle Lake.
I wait for my fist to warm the stones.
They stay cool long after
Skies stoop low, the air sweats,
oceans roll in clouds as grey trembles;
rain falls as I step under a nearby tree.
The pile of stones shiver as a push of wind
runs through the branches, shaking from its leaves
fluttering raindrops that flicker like jewels.
Pebbles bathe and glaze with wet colour,
soil breathes water and steams,
the pungent sharpness of bruised roots rises,
grass deepens green and high above me,
young cherries shine red and taut.
I hear water drumming the leaves,
rattling stones, gently sucked down
earth by low, thirsty spider-web roots.
I put aside the shovel
and inhale slowness.
I can smell the mint and jasmine that will grow here,
rust musk of sandalwood dwelling with cedar;
the scent rubs on my fingers,
The dirt, pebbles, trees tell me to take my time,
as rain shivers and drops as if suspended in air,
as roots follow the low-curved cadence of waiting
and the soaked air brims clouds to a falling fullness;
as long as I’m touching earth I’m planting home
seeding memories, even those that are not my own.
Portions of "Moving Earth" was first published in Grain (2001). The entire poem was published in the anthology 4 Poets by Mother Tongue Publishing (2009).