Three Poems

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:

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.