Jennifer S. Cheng, House A

 

Excerpts from Jennifer S. Cheng’s poetry manuscript, House A, a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize.

 

FROM LETTERS TO MAO

Dear Mao,
I want to describe for you the feeling of sleep, as described by neuropsychologist Giulio Tononi, who uses words like oscillations and waves, while his patient is noted to gather the phrase the sea moving a boat. Elsewhere are words like sleepwalking and daydreaming, so I can only conclude that sleep is a boundary whose line is slowly eroding. Sleep, like childhood, is more of a sense than an experience we can articulate from beginning to end. As a child in Texas bathed in sun, I often fell asleep in the car, even in daytime, and my father would carry me into the house with my head pressed against his shoulder. If my mother, who is much smaller, was the driver, she would crack open a window on warm afternoons, and I would later wake to the pleasure of utter silence and aloneness, the sun across my face. I want to emphasize to you that both responses were acts of love, and if by chance an airplane overhead excavated an echo in the sky, then I knew that I was cradled in its sound. Inside our home of secret languages, my mother boiled up a pot of salty rice porridge and my father watched our neighbors like a devout mockingbird: straw doormats, pine wreaths in the winter. So I want you to know that if sleep is an ocean, then it is because we are migrants inwardly sighing along to its many oscillations, unintimidated by factual distances but awash in the knowledge of three: body, bodying, embodied. And if water is a metaphor, then it is because water fills up a room, slow-moving, blurry, immersive but obscured. Strangely enough, it was not my father but my mother who gave us history lessons steeped in a pale, languorous liquid: we sleep where our home is, and we build a home where we sleep.

Dear Mao,
I want to describe for you the migration pattern of birds, which has nothing to do with sleep but which I nonetheless find beautiful. When insects sleep, they are wakened only by poetic forces, like the heat of the sun or the darkness of night. The most beautiful of flying insects huddle together in sleep, but little is known about the slumbering habits of migratory birds. Birds, as far as I know, do not fear being shot down from the sky, though fear is a common warning sign for flight. Some birds, feeling their bones weighed down by air, migrate not by sky but by swimming, their wings waving down the sea as if buoyed by its girth. Other birds are wanderers, their migratory curvatures charted like flowering seeds across the globe. Here on the earth where bones are buried, the question remains: if the birds of history alight by a ritual of body and landscape, do they make the return out of longing, out of heartache? For it is the anthropologist who traces the longing for home between personal biography and the biography of the collective, a map that ends beyond locatable distances into mythical terrains, imaginary homelands. We do this: listen to the body, gauge its violence, take flight.

Dear Mao,
I am thinking of what it would mean for you to know the span of the coastline here on the Western edge, where I have migrated after thunderstorms and tree blossoms of varying terrains: winters of New England lawns, fields of Midwestern estrangement, Southwestern skies that never end. Some nights I dream of subtropical trees and their serpentine branches, but more and more my days are filled with escarpment and carapace scattered across the beach. The shells are emptied, abandoned; they are waiting for history to declare them whole. If ever my childhood were to belong to water, it would have been the years on a little island in the southern seas of your underbelly, where sleepy hillsides were always drenched in rain, and the childhood of my father was always bending around the next curve. Landscape of embodied history, and I am left wondering about the hidden roots of a banyan tree.

Dear Mao,
To say your name plainly, as if you were a man of History I knew so well. My uncle as a twenty-year-old in prison, whispering, only it wasn’t a whisper but a drunken fury, They’re trading children, do you understand? Everyone is starving. I have no way of knowing if what he said is true, so why should history be so unreliable was what I asked myself. You in your stone peasant house by the wet fields. You attending primary school with the other village children. You running away at age eleven, believing the next town over was only footsteps away. You were dust in my house. A shadow underneath the floorboards.

[I want to describe for you the feeling of sleep and I want to describe for you the migration pattern appeared in Web Conjunctions.]

 

HOW TO BUILD AN AMERICAN HOME

JSCheng_HowtoBuild1
To prevent an invasion of overhead winds, I placed my child heart near the
skin of the floor and wafted in a condensation of history. I drew up neat
boundaries of here and there, we and they, and held my arms open to the walls.
A lungful of door hinge, thumbprint of the window seam. A house is steeped
in spoonfuls of patterns, ghosts, leaves. Children of immigrants gather bits
of wire, thread, a safety pin; they arrange them like a blueprint, not knowing
why or how they know the shape.

 

HOW TO BUILD AN AMERICAN HOME

JSCheng_HowtoBuild2
The father kept documents, ledgers, photographs. Newspaper clippings, cutout
and creased, of either alphabet letters or intimate print.

                                                                                              On his first day in a new country,
he walked from water to water, as if to test the boundaries. As if the daylight
could be enough to gather oneself against such paper-thin sky.

 

HOW TO BUILD AN AMERICAN HOME

JSCheng_HowtoBuild3
For there was a night where I slept
deeply, and had heavy nightmares:

                                                   a dark house that I must lock
                                    from the back,
                                                                      a house I must leave
                                    before forgotten shapes return.

 

HOW TO BUILD AN AMERICAN HOME

JSCheng_HowtoBuild4

              A grid is something that grows with the terrain. We mine for the
textures we can. Cut this ocean in half, a cross-section of water; watch this
shadow alight from this angle in the dark. To bind this house with wounded
thread. To cast it into the hearth of a sky.

 


JSCheng_AuthorABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer S. Cheng holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa and an MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She is the author of a hybrid chapbook, Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), and her lyric essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Tin House, AGNI, The Volta, Sonora Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a Kundiman Fellowship, and an Academy of American Poets Award, she lives in San Francisco, where she is a founding editor of Drop Leaf Press. Read more at jenniferscheng.com

 

AUTHOR STATEMENT

House A is an examination of immigrant home-building that explores how the body is inscribed with a cosmology of home and vice versa. It is written in three parts: 1) Letters to Mao, a series of epistolary prose poems invoking water/sleep in order to render the immersive/obscured experience of an immigrant home and its entanglement of histories—personal history, family history, and History; 2) House A; Geometry B, a long poem that enters into an atmosphere of “dream-geometry” as a way of mapping the poetics of home; and 3) How to Build an American Home, a series of image-text poems that investigate American-as-hybrid. More excerpts can be found in Web Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, Ninth Letter, and forthcoming in DIAGRAM.