Poetry Mixtape 23: Heritage

The older I get, the more I see my mother when I look in the mirror. The same wide smile, the same wide hips. The strong and wrinkling hands, the freckled arms, the coarse hair. My younger brother turns a certain way, and suddenly my grandfather is in the room. My nephew a reincarnation of my older brother as he sits under the Christmas tree.

Our heritage can be passed in physical characteristics, but it is more than that. It can be embedded in the traditions and history of a past we did not witness yet carry all the same. Some of the best poems I have read lately that address the idea of heritage are from Ocean Vuong’s chapbook Burnings from Sibling Rivalry Press. Ocean’s Vietnamese heritage breathes in all of his poems.


My Mother Remembers Her Mother

for Le Thi Lan (1941-2008)

My eyes close into a night
thickened with ash and jasmine,
mortar blasts lighting distance
into shocks of dawn.

In a room lit with light
from another house,
you lie alone
beneath a baby-faced G.I.
What you know as shame is forgotten
in the belly inside your belly.

Hunger neglects pride
the way fire neglects the cries
of what it burns.

Each soldier leaves you steeped
in what they cannot keep: liquor, salt
of lust, the pink dust
of shattered bodies.

There are men who carry dreams
over mountains, the dead
on their backs.
But only mothers
can walk with the weight
of a second beating heart.

Mẹ ơi When they ask me
where I’m from, I tell them
my song sleeps in the toothless mouth
of a war-woman, that a white man
rages in my veins, searching for his name.

I tell them I was born
because someone was starving.

The narrative of the poem, although a somewhat familiar story of this war, gives us a personal entry into the ways we are driven to know our pasts, the ways we do what we need to do to survive.  The abstraction in the middle of the poem (“hunger neglects pride…”) is earned because it sets up the last line, which is a straightforward jab to the gut. There is pride here – and anger – and sadness. But not shame.
If you want to write:
1. Write a poem about one of your grandparents. Tell the truth or tell a lie. No one will ever know. (You may want to find an old photograph or two, if you need a spark…)
2. Choose an aspect of your heritage that you know little about – an ethnic tradition, a distant relative – and learn what you can about it. Then write a poem as if you are an expert.

7 thoughts on “Poetry Mixtape 23: Heritage

  1. Pingback: Grammie | Hoofprints In My Garden

  2. Pingback: TGI Friday Freeforall « Margo Roby: Wordgathering

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