April 1: Welcome to Poetry Month

Welcome to Poetry Month. For the next thirty days, we’ll offer a poem each day, and we hope you’ll enjoy, comment, share on your Facebook page, and pass along the works you love to others who may want to read them.

We begin the month with Maxine Hong Kingston, whose new memoir, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, is written in verse. In this fluid reflection on the experience of aging, Maxine flies backward and forward in time to visit former selves, family members, and even characters from her fiction, expanding on what has happened to them since she created them. She captures the spirit of her journey as writer, peace activist, mother and friend with the line from Walden that she takes as her title; it costs Maxine some effort, in our time, to sit in the quiet sunlight outside her writing studio and consciously widen her view, as Thoreau sat in the doorway of what he called his “dwelling-house” or “Large box” after a swim, listening to the trees and the stillness.

See links below (and each day) for extra goodies—today we offer a downloadable broadside of an excerpt from Kingston’s book; new broadsides to come each Monday.

These lines are from the opening of I Love a Broad Margin.

I am turning 65 years of age.
In 2 weeks I will be 65 years old.
I can accumulate time and lose
time?  I sit here writing in the dark —
can’t see to change these penciled words —
just like my mother, alone, bent over her writing,
just like my father bent over his writing, alone
but for me watching.  She got out of bed,
wrapped herself in a blanket, and wrote down 
the strange sounds Father, who was dead,
was intoning to her.  He was reading aloud
calligraphy that he’d written — carved with inkbrush —
on his tombstone.  She wasn’t writing in answer.
She wasn’t writing a letter.  Who was she writing to? 
               This well-deep outpouring is not for
anything.  Yet we need put into exact words
what we are given to see, hear, know.
Mother’s eyesight blurred; she saw trash
as flowers.  “Oh.  How very beautiful.”
She was lucky, seeing beauty, living
in beauty, whether or not it was there. 

I am often looking in mirrors, and singling
out my face in group photographs.
Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?  
Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not.
So much depends upon lighting.
A camera crew shot pictures of me — one of
“5 most influential people over 60
in the East Bay.” I am homely; I am old. 
I look like a tortoise in a curly white wig. 
I am stretching head and neck toward
the light, such effort to lift the head, to open
the eyes. Black, shiny, lashless eyes. 
Talking mouth.  I must need utter you
something. My wrists are crossed in my lap;
wrinkles run up the left forearm. 
(It’s my right shoulder that hurts — Rollerblading
accident — does the pain show, does my hiding it?)
I should’ve spoken up, Don’t take
my picture, not in that glare. One side  
of my neck and one cheek are gone in black
shadow. Nobody looks good in hard focus,
high contrast — black sweater and skirt,
white hair, white sofa, white
curtains.  My colors and my home, but re-arranged.
The crew had pushed the reds and blues and greens aside. 
The photographer, a young woman, said, “Great.  Great.”
From within my body, I can’t sense that crease
on my left cheek.  I have to get  – win –
compliments. “You are beautiful.”  “So cute.” 
“Such a kind face.”  “You are simple.” 
“You move fast.”  “Chocolate Chip.”
A student I taught long ago
called me Chocolate Chip.  And only yesterday
a lifelong friend told Earll, my husband,
he’s lucky, he’s got me — the Chocolate Chip. 
They mean, I think, my round face
and brown-bead eyes. I keep
count.  I mind that I be good-looking. 
I don’t want to look like Grandmother,
Ah Po. Her likeness is the mask of tragedy. 
“An ape weeps when another ape weeps.” 
She is Ancestress; she is prayed to. She
sits, the queen, center of the family in China,
center of the family portrait (my mother in it too,
with generations of  her in-laws around her) — all
is black and white but for a dot of jade-green
at Po’s ears, and a curve of jade-green
at her wrist. Lotus lily feet show
from the hem of her gown.  She wanted to be
a beauty.  She lived to be 100. 
My mother lived to be 100. “One
hundred and three,” she said. Chinese
lie about their age, making themselves older.
Or maybe she was 97 when the lady official
from Social Security visited her, as the government visits
everyone who claims a 100th birthday.
MaMa showed off; she pedaled her exercise
bike, hammer-curled hot pink barbells.
Suddenly stopped — what if So-so Security
won’t believe she’s a century old?  
Here’s a way for calculating age: Subtract
from her age of death my age now. 
            100 – 65 = 35  
I am 35 years-to-go. 

Learn more about I Love a Broad Margin to My Life by Maxine Hong Kinston

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