Poetry / Nancy Chen Long
:: In a Dream, My Dead Father Teaches Me How to Hear Gravitational Waves ::
—after Wrecked Archive B9uPgb9n6Nr by Patty Paine
My father and I are sailing along the shore of Lake Superior. My father is above, lowering the boom. I am below, stopping a leak on the leeward side, when, glancing out of a cabin window toward shore, I see a woman who looks like a younger version of my mother. She is sitting on a fallen log. My father wants to swim to the beach, but I am afraid of the barge inching silently along next to us, carrying a cargo of secrets. It’s been following us for miles. We decide to paddle a life raft aground. Once there, we have to crawl over granite boulders in order to get to civilization. Neither one of us is wearing a watch, since all timepieces have stopped ticking. My father stops by a grove of juniper trees, one tree for each man in my mother’s life. He says I need to stop talking. It’s time to tell me everything he thinks I need to know before he dies. This will take some time, he says. I sit on the fallen log where my mother had once been and gaze up at him. The color of his eyes matches the sky. His mouth moves, forming words with no voice. The only sound is a constant wind-rushed whir that ebbs and flows as the space between us expands and collapses, and the occasional chirp of a lone bird sounding out S‑O-S. S‑O-S. S‑O-S. I listen for hours.
:: In a Dream, I Watch a Story That My Dead Father Once Told Me ::
—after Wrecked Archive B9MuWvBHgP6 by Patty Paine
My father and I are sitting in a sycamore grove by a rushing creek he calls Family. His body is the shape of a tree, the black and tired trunk of him buckling under the weight of a lifetime of leaves. Each leaf is the shape of a card or a screen, each a secret that he has trapped in his head. In one, a film is playing. It is graduation day, and he is graduating from a Yale language program for military personnel. There he meets Barbara. My father looks straight at the camera. “Oh Nan, she is the one,” he says. The film flashes through a season of dates and dinners. Two young people falling in love. At the end of the season, she boards a plane for college in Wisconsin. As he watches her fly away, an onion-skin paper in the shape of an airplane floats down from a glass desk in the sky. It’s his work assignment. He is being shipped to Taiwan. My father, frantic, flies to Wisconsin to propose to the love of his life. They decide to marry after he returns. My father looks straight at the camera. “One of my biggest regrets is going to Taiwan,” he says. I look down at my trunk. I am reshaping into the mottled white-gray of a sycamore. My arms morph into branches that stretch all the way to Taiwan, place of my birth, where my hands have become entangled and refuse to free themselves.
:: In a Dream, My Dead Father Lectures Me About Remaining Positive During a Crisis ::
—after Wrecked Archive B‑IHP21Hty5 by Patty Paine
The clown standing on my face demands that I be happy. “Chinny-chin up,” he snaps. “Why so glum, chum?” Daisies and dandelions float behind him, and I think I’m at a funeral. The audience laughs uproariously as a stage curtain descends, but the actors around me are still acting. “All of life is a stage,” the clown waxes Shakespearean. The smell of death fills the auditorium, but the audience continues to smile. They insist on making lemonade. Making a guest appearance in the empty lounge chair next me is my father. He’s carrying a bamboo bowl filled with lemons and cherries. “In the midst of the crisis, why is everyone acting as if everything is coming up daisies?” I ask him as he slips a lemon into each of my palms. “Well, Sweetie, he says, “when you are in the middle of something horrible happening, some folks, like those who are afraid of being afraid, will insist Everything is fine! and they will insist that you insist as well, because the king cannot be clothed unless everyone acts like he is.” The clown spits out a cherry pit that lands by my ear. “Let goooo and let God,” he bellows as he taps his foot on my forehead. But I can’t. A thin thread of lemon juice trickles down my arms onto the popcorn- and cherry-pit-pocked floor. My hands, squeezing and squeezing lemons, refuse to release.
From the writer
:: Account ::
For a couple of years now, I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript that explores perception as a generative act. As a nonvisual person, I’m fascinated by how differently some of us see—what we see as individuals and how that differs, the physiology and psychology of seeing, and so on. Some of the poems in the manuscript are ekphrastic, written in response to art.
Last year, my father passed after a long struggle with Parkinson’s. Before he died, he told me a deathbed secret. I have been wrestling with that story, both logically and emotionally, ever since, primarily through journaling. I wasn’t able to write much in the way of poems, only those journal-like passages. And so, work on the manuscript simply stopped. Once I felt able, I took an online class in hopes of getting back into writing poetry. To my surprise, while working on a poem in response to a particular surreal painting, I found myself writing about my father.
These poems in The Account are written in response to abstract and surreal images from Patty Paine’s wonderful art that she displays on her Instagram account called wrecked-archive. She has been working with vintage negatives as the basis of an experimental photography art project. You can find wrecked-archive here: https://www.instagram.com/wrecked.archive/.
I suspect the approach of meditating on surreal and abstract images and then writing in response to those images as if they were dreams, coupled with writing in a form that I usually don’t use (prose poems), provides my mind with a way to approach my father’s passing and the strangeness of the whole situation.
Nancy Chen Long is the author of Wider Than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020), which was selected for the Diode Editions Book Award, and Light Into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), which won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. Her work has been supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship and a Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award. You’ll find her recent poems in Copper Nickel, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division. nancychenlong.com