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.