Wednesday, August 09, 2006

By-Standing: The Beginning of an American Lifetime

Kelly Tsai sends out a poem a month in her newsletter. She is quite good.

By-Standing: The Beginning of an American Lifetime
by Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

I am no flower child
I do not brag my unshaven hair
or hold illusions about the wisdom of the East

I do not wave my fingers in a V to bid peace upon greetings
nor do I think the revolution alone would be enough to save us

My family would be more likely mistaken for boat people

I do not know how
the texture
of bobby socks
and poodle skirts
for eyes learning to refocus
on the blood of
Viet Nam Kent State
Malcolm X JFK

I’ve only read about these things.

I remember a third grade classmate
talking about the commies
And how blowing them up was a good idea

Crayola tanks Rambo-ing over stick figure carnage
Proud to grow up one day just like his father
A drill sergeant with a habit of hitting his mother

All I knew
was that none of this
seemed like a good idea

7th grade was
the first peace protest
I ever saw

Girls wrote,
“Make love not war”
in bubble letters
on poster board

The conflict
- we were told -
hardly outlasted our demonstration

I tied a yellow ribbon
to a safety pin on my backpack
to remember the soldiers
who went off to war

I didn’t know any soldiers then

In college, I joined the Army ROTC,
Learned to tie knots and assemble semi-automatic rifles,
Eat MRE’s and stop someone’s lips from turning blue

In class, a sergeant savored the memory of the food
And Cuban cigars during the invasion of Panama
And everybody laughed

That was the day I stopped ignoring
That our targets were shaped like humans
The words: chest, head, heart, brain, or life, were never used

Only the crackpots talked about killing openly
It was a grave thing, an unspoken thing

They taught us
Military history
Field exercises

They never taught us how to live with killing a man
How to erase the memory of his blood starburst on his body
Or the gun’s kickback in your hands

I was braiding my hair
In a hotel room in Lower Manhattan

When two planes exploded into the sides of two skyscrapers

We didn’t know what was happening

We called downtown and they told us to still be there by 10:00

We didn’t know what was happening

We slid through subway doors and
The metro lady said that there were fires
in the White House and the Pentagon

We didn’t know what was happening

The train stopped below downtown
And smoke started seeping in

We didn’t know what was happening

Every jerk forward and backward
Was hope and terror at the same time

We didn’t know what was happening

When the train pulled up to the platform,
We didn’t know what was happening

Walking up the staircase --
I had never been so happy to see sunshine in my life

In the sunshine…
We thought a bomb had dropped
Everything covered in ash
The masks over workers’ faces

Go north, they said

Keep walking

Go north

Keep walking

We didn’t know what was happening

I am annoyed at Americans all of the time
White activists begging us to come together
who forget why we are so often apart,
Starbucks addicts,
People who like khaki and sensible haircuts
Shorties who keep enlisting to earn discipline or money,
Political cowboys riding out anger and entitlement
People who think it’s hip to be radical
and don’t strategize, vote or do shit beyond talk,
My friends, my family, my lovers, myself
We who slip back into what our lives were like before
Making our convictions seem trendy

Yesterday, I went to go study “happy” people at Navy Pier
They don’t go to rallies or conferences
They don’t talk about war
They wait for a sunny day and go to Navy Pier
They smile beneath their sunglasses
They hold each other close
They eat ice cream that they paid too much money for
They take advantage of the opportunity to love
They are lucky and everyone in this world should be as lucky

Never, nowhere, anywhere: this is why no war.
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