(nom.) a story that circulated among a people by word of mouth,
sometimes transmitted from parents to their children,
often considered false or based on superstition.
in every version of this story,
my people have a bad memory.
my people exchange memories like languages,
worthless until cut. better the language
than our teeth, or our throat, or our stomachs.
I never saw my grandmother’s language,
but every night his teeth float in a small cup
on the sink, pretending to be bone.
before 1899, millions of oracle bones
were crushed to dust and swallowed
as medicine. then we learned how
they once said the future, and so
we stopped eating our ghosts.
ii. MODERN RETELLING
my Chinese teacher keeps asking me if I remember.
if I remember that word which means story or poem,
the hour or a room. pay attention to the way you hold your tongue,
or time collapses in the space between four walls,
or you hear a poem once and it becomes your ancestor.
the moral of this story: my grandmother’s teeth
will survive him, but languages are less bloodless.
example: a white man with a doctorate in Asian studies
keep asking where I’m from so he can tell me the name
of all the Chinese cities he has been to. Those men
always have perfect memories, and so he says:
I once spent three weeks in Shanghai. twice,
I spent two days in Wuhan. i bet i was
in more Chinese cities than you, girl
with a Chinese name, a Chinese face.
but these are not the only things that I inherited
of my people: my people have a bad memory.
my father, who likes to start all his stories with
I remember, who never knew how to remember
no lie –– his favorite story is the one
where he meets my mother for the first time: in wuhan,
when they were five years old. in Shanghai. Beijing. wuhan again,
but this time there were seven and it was still summer.
iii. THE TRUTH
chang jiang meets the eastern sea just outside
my mother’s childhood home in shanghai,
and in the west it floods xishui every summer,
The dirt floor of Yeye’s old house is getting wet
under my father’s feet, the ground quite soft
to keep the memory of his body for a minute.
the truth is that my father learned to swim without drowning,
and that’s how he really met my mother,
and what is memory if not a second chance?
some branches of my family tree do not end with anything.
and you can have perfect memory
but chang jiang means long river
and the water never forgets anything it touches.
in one version of this story,
I was born without a language.
my mom gives it for a pound of white rice and a green card.
in another, you whitewash my tongue, then ask me to do your tongue
beautiful. and so i cut it myself. ask me again, where I come from.
I will tell you that I am a shapeshifter. poet-liar. storyteller of truth.
Living legendary folk tale that weaves myths.
& what is a folk tale if not an oracle bone that survived the fire
by splitting into the shape of the future?
& what is a poet if not the last witness to the fire?