“Learning the Love Song…”: Poetry by Jennifer Su

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“Learning the Love Song…”

A girl leaves behind her beloved island, to seek the cure, riding a poem over the Pacific, like a lifeboat full of mermaids.
With heavy debt to T.S. Eliot.

I. Taiwan

There’s Death Rattle.
What word for final ardor?
The Dinner Guest checks his reflection in steak knife,
swallows girl. Arrange limbs
on gold-rimmed plate. No word to date.
Second wind?
Drag aluminum chair
outside Southern Taiwan storefront.
Envision Long Life Mountain on horizon,
blocked by concrete-block high rise.
The neighborhood’s alive.
Tent-restaurant serves up Hot Pot.
Glass bottles clink, formaldehyde-laced
Taiwan beer. Shouts of, “Dry cup! Drink up!”
Corner bowling alley,
balls slide buffed lanes. Barber shop,
euphemism for Whore House.
Next-door, Goat Proprietor hawks goat soup,
stewed-goat on rice and goat-fried noodles.
My neighbors, intimate acquaintances.
Sound, smell, base desires, strange faces.
‘The women come and go, talking of
Michelangelo,’ to passing mopeds,
taxis, dark sedans
steered by ‘lonely men’ in black suits
‘leaning out of’ tinted ‘windows.’
‘Pinned and wriggling’
across that cross-section of capitalism,
Kaohsiung City. “Were you once pretty?”
I’ll learn a poem tonight,
‘I am no Prince Hamlet.’
My paltry life depends on this heroic effort.
Night sweats arrive punctual.
I am ‘The Wasteland.’ Twenty-one pounds
gone in a month. Tropical night,
thick with forfeited
flesh. I suck air.
The man begs, “Darling come inside.”
Wave him away, and wanting to want to eat,
devour ‘Prufrock.’
Autumn, Dr. David Ho, made in
Taiwan, my Cover Girl.
I peruse his cocktails in
Time, furtively,
check whether strangers
notice my pulse quicken
with hope. Home,
floss my teeth,
first time in years. We talk
Aaron Diamond, on First Avenue
in New York. I’ll fly there,
throw myself on the mercy of
a cold city. Was I once pretty?
I stay up with Taiwan the night
before my flight, long after the
night markets kill the lights,
muttering ‘Prufrock’ over and over,
disturbing goat patrons,
ranting ‘from a farther room,’
hacking cough.
‘So how should I presume?’
‘Human voices wake us,’ in lung fluid,
‘we drown.’ Good-bye, Taiwan,
my Love, won’t be seeing you again.
I’m on a blacklist of undesirables,
won’t slip back in.

II. New York

‘April is the cruelest month.’
Only it’s February in merciful New York.
Come alone to hospital.
Blind beggar in temple,
wash my ‘feet’ in snow and ‘soda water.’
Visit clinic,
sleek Indian Doctor, with
Oxford accent—might I be
that woman ‘talking of Michelangelo’ in his well-appointed
rooms—such rooms I’ll never know.
In snow, he hails my taxi to Saint Vincent’s.
Driver covers mouth,
takes my fare with tissue,
like he’s seen his head,
‘brought in upon a platter.’
And let me say, in ER, one scared girl ‘is no great matter.’
Wheel me to gurney-lined room.
Patients scrape Wasteland, near in proximity,
no anonymity. Proselytizer gives me
Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet, on slipping past
Saint Peter’s Gate. “You need this more than I,”
she says. “No, no. I am ‘Lazarus come back from
the dead, come back to tell you all.’”
In the hall, Chinese girl explains
her assault, in Mandarin.
“We need a translator.” I rise like
Lazarus from my mantle, tell them her characters—
radicals and all—they push me down the hall, roll my gurney
towards some ‘overwhelming question…
O, do not ask what is it,
Let us go and make our visit.’
To quarantine.
May be contagious with tuberculosis
(part of April’s cruelty is coming alive again,
the lilacs rising from the ‘dead land,
a little life with dried tubers’).
They poke skin for tubers of TB,
extract oceans of lung fluid to test for
PCP. Lucky quarantine. Most indigents
don’t board alone
to vomit night away,
until two Columbia medical students arrive,
punctual, probe for capillary blood.
Think I’m an addict,
inured to needles, but I’d
‘seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
and in short
I was afraid.’
My Dinner Guest etched poetry
in hysterical memory, with his steak knife,
dignity in bas relief.
They think I’m crazy.
Black med student, my Lady,
convinces her cohort to quit.
Indigent should let him play with her capillaries.
They keep me seven days
on Great City’s tab.
I eat well, watch T.V.,
guard capillaries.
Strangers come and go.
I recite ‘Prufrock.’
No one tries to make small
talk with a lunatic like me.

III. Coda

Medical-men release me,
with clean bill,
two weeks of cocktail.
Don’t know why,
I defy
gravity,
rewind the decline,
when Thirty Million and Rising fall behind.
How many still without medicine?
I take my refund in pill box.
Disguised in silk scarf, as normal girl,
I pass, tuning ears to mermaids,
though ‘they do not sing for me.’
Under water
under breath
chanting to that god,
Dr. David Ho,
whose island
the crowd, the crush
floated me life just long enough.


Jennifer Su feels like a girl, even though middle age has snuck up on her. When she looks in the mirror she gets giddy because there was a time before 1997 that she didn’t think she’d live this long. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. Jennifer’s husband is a sculptor. He’s put a life-sized statue of Jennifer in the front yard. The statue’s breasts are much larger than the real Jennifer’s. Cars slow down when they pass the Su house. Jennifer’s husband says the statue’s breasts are better than speed bumps and they make the neighborhood a safer place for kids. Jennifer’s nine-year-old son is so handsome that he dazzles her eyes, and such an unexpected gift that he makes her heart swell to her throat. Jennifer works at an uninspiring job in government, but on Fridays the girls in the cubicles roll their chairs into the aisle and regale each other with silly stories. When they run out of stories, they lean forward and compare each other’s cleavage. Jennifer never wins this contest. Jennifer writes poetry and fiction. There was a time she didn’t dare to dream of anything at all. Now she dares to dream of being a writer one day.

First appeared in the February 2008 issue.