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Poetry by Teresa Mei Chuc

Published on: April 2, 2015

Filed Under: Poet's Corner

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These poems were written in memory of the American War in Vietnam. They also tell my family’s and my own experiences as a consequence of the war. Hopefully, these poems reveal the devastation, still felt today, of the American war in Vietnam and the necessity for peace.

Names

I am tired of having five different names;

Having to change them when I enter

A new country or take on a new life. My

First name is my truest, I suppose, but I

Never use it and nobody calls me by this Vietnamese

Name though it is on my birth certificate –

Tue My Chuc.  It makes the sound of a twang of a

String pulled. My parents tell me my name in Cantonese

is Chuc Mei Wai.  Three soft bird chirps and they call

me Ah Wai.  Shortly after I moved to the U.S., I became

Teresa My Chuc, then Teresa Mei Chuc.  “Teresa” is the sound

Water makes when one is washing one’s hands. After my first

Marriage, my name was Teresa Chuc Prokopiev.  After my second

Marriage, my name was Teresa Chuc Dowell.  Now I am back

To Teresa Mei Chuc, but I want to go way back .  Reclaim that name once

given and lost so quickly in its attempt to become someone that would

fit in.  Who is Tue My Chuc?  I don’t really know.  I was never really her

and her birthday on March 16, I never celebrate because it’s not

my real birthday though it is on my birth certificate.  My birthday is on

January 26, really, but I have to pretend that it’s on March 16 because my

Mother was late registering me after the war.  Or it’s in December, the date

Changing every year according to the lunar calendar – this is the one my

Parents celebrate because it’s my Chinese birthday.

All these names and birthdays make me dizzy.  Sometimes I just don’t feel like a

Teresa anymore; Tue (pronounced Twe) isn’t so embarrassing. A fruit learns to

Love its juice. Anyways, I’d like to be string…resonating. Pulled back tensely like a bow

Then reverberate in the arrow’s release straight for the heart.

~~~~~

Immigration

It is October, when the winds of autumn blow strong in
the Pacific.

There are over two thousand of us, sardines,
barely human and starving. We sleep on the floor and
wash ourselves with seawater. People are sick.

When someone dies from sickness, s/he is wrapped
in a blanket and tossed overboard during a Buddhist
chant.

I was only two years old and can not recollect the dying
next to me, nor can I recollect my constant coughing nor
can I recall seeing my mother’s worried countenance as she
contemplated our future. How my constant crying made
her want to jump overboard.

~~~~~

Cockroaches

A proposal by someone to my mom
after the Vietnam War: Why don’t
you sell your baby, you don’t have
anything to eat?

A response by my four-year-old brother:
No, don’t sell my sister! There are lots
of cockroaches for us to eat!

When I returned to the country
eighteen years later, I saw them –
large, brown shiny tanks on the wall,

evidence of my brother’s love for me.

~~~~~

When I First Saw Daddy

he was like an Egyptian cat;

skinny, foraging, and stern,

just released from a Vietcong prison.

He told us he hated the color red.

Sixteen years later,

he wears a red sweatshirt and smiles.

The pin tip opening in his heart enough

to let in a driblet of red.

~~~~~

Agent Orange

It’s difficult to be alone, without

a mother’s touch, in a crib like a

baby except one is not.

A son taught to live with a thirst

for a mother who loves her child though

one of his legs is too short, the other too long.

He sits, arms bent and limp, but do not

avoid him; he wants to interact. His swollen eyes

and misshapen head leans back. In a dream

Mother holds him close, as if by her embrace alone,

she will somehow right the wrong.

The chemical traveled through her placenta,

to the womb where small limbs that needed

to form couldn’t, where the tiny body,

the size of a fist, no longer knew what to do.

It was named for the orange band

around each fifty-five gallon drum.

Orange as a sunrise that permeates one’s soul,

how its rays cover the sky

and the earth with a deep orange,

rising as those bodies also rise.

~~~~~

the decade the rainforest died*

the deer did not

stop running

leopards

climbed into trees

that could not

hide them

the douc langur

and the white

cheeked gibbon

cursed at the

metal gods

we flew

raining

on them

as they burned

from napalm

elephants

choked on the

smoke of gunpowder

and poison

their steps

a strange

rhythm

as they tried

to fly

the thunder

of bombs echoed the steps

of elephants

tigers exploded

as they stepped

onto landmines

in a forest covered

with leaves

dead from

Agent Orange,

fallen trees and

decomposing

bodies of animals

and people

the earthworms

were washed away

in monsoons

with soil that could

no longer grab onto

roots

the Javan

rhinoceros

and the wild

water buffalos

that were still

alive

wandered

aimlessly

and weary

with M16s

and AK-47s, we

marched quietly

and steadily

not knowing

why we were

killing each other

*For ten years, the U.S. Air Force flew nearly 20,000 herbicide spray missions in order to destroy the forest cover as well as agriculture lands in key areas of southern Viet Nam.

~~~~~

Jumping Jack: The M16 Mines

In standing position

with arms to the side,

jump while

spreading the legs

and lift arms

above the head.

Jump back into

standing position

and up again,

spreading the legs

and lifting the arms

above the head.

Repeat

When a M16 landmine

is triggered, it will

spring into the air

and explode with

a capacity to level

everything in a

150 metre radius.

Deadly shrapnel

spreading

a further 350 metres.

Metal casings

from an unexploded

bomb can fetch

25,000 Vietnamese dong

or $1

for a poor family

in Vietnam.

Men comb

the forests

and beaches

of Quang Tri

looking for the metal

that will feed their family,

risking their lives.

Children working

in the fields think it’s

a toy they’ve found.

Nguyen was hoeing

a small piece of land

his parents gave him

when an unexploded

U.S. military bomb

was triggered

and blew off both

his hands.

~~~~~

The Gambler

The metal rod she holds is her wand

the deck is more than 52 cards

her suits: bombs used on both sides of the war – M14, đạp lôi, mìn muỗi

she walks in the wild fields seeking the invisible

bringing it to the surface in a strange beauty of smoke and explosion

the wager is her life or a limb

the shovel, a tongue that lifts the crumbling earth

to reach an unexploded landmine

she spreads out the dirt beneath her hands like cards

~~~~~

Not Worth a Bullet

A bullet is made of

copper or lead.

Gunpowder is

poured into the case.

The firing pin hits the

primer at the back of

the bullet which starts

the explosion. Altogether,

the bullet and the case are

typically about two inches in length

and weigh a few ounces.

My father said that

the Vietcongs

told him and the other

prisoners while in

“re-education” camp

that they were not worth a bullet.

They would work for the Vietcongs

and then die.

A bamboo tree is smooth, long

with roots that hold the earth

with the strong grip of green

knuckles and fingers.

They are used to build houses,

fences, etc.

A bamboo tree can weigh sixty pounds

or more and be twenty feet tall.

The prisoners were forced to

walk barefoot up the mountains

and carry bamboo back to the camp.

Due to the weight of the bamboo,

they were only able to carry one

at a time.

~~~~~

Vietnam Ghost Stories

Ghost-like beings roam,
carrying the bones of the dead,
their steps heavy with the weight
of fields and fields.

And the dead too –

stories Mother tells
of the ghost with a long tongue
that licks dishes at night.

~~~~~

Photosynthesis

for my son –

How can I convince you
that you do have chlorophyll,
that you can take the sun’s
energy and turn it into sugar?
Produce something sweet inside of you.
Take the waste people breathe out
and make it into something that
will keep you alive, that will keep
those around you alive, create oxygen.

Why do you say that this metaphor
doesn’t work, that you don’t have
the powers of a plant, that nature
didn’t intend you that way?

Look, how you twist and turn
towards the light.

~~~~~

Violin

When my father kicked my violin

against the stove

there was a crash

and the wood carved

so lovingly cracked

with the force

splintered away from

the whole into silence

I was about twelve years old

then

remembering my father, the war

his anger

the broken neck of the violin

the collapsed bridge

severed sound vibrations

the arc of the instrument’s shoulder

I once held in my hand

and the empty curving space

that was the window to the world

I am thinking of the trajectory of circles

bombs

my waist

a wanting and needing to let go

~~~~~

I Took Nothing

and broke it in half.

As if mocking me,

there was an

even greater

nothing and I

felt myself falling.

I took my falling

and broke it

in half. It did

not stop the falling.

I plunge deeper.

I took this depth

and gathered it,

the darkness

with all of its

stars, and

put it in the wings

of a bat.

I watched it

retreat into

the deepest

of caves

where it screams

and listens to

its voice

returning

from stone walls.

~~~~~

Mekong River

Today’s flowers let me inside

into their vase-shaped bodies

Today, I swim this river

with its fish and turtles

and crocodiles

and I know the river

does not need a name

There are no memories

of dead bodies floating

bloated, lonely

or of massacres

Today, I do not feel

the blood of the dead

seep through my skin’s pores

as I swim this sacred

water of my childhood

my hair wet

The sun sparkles

around lush green

rainforests and jungles

unkilled by defoliants

stretching out their

70-million-year-old

arms as they yawn

a douc langur monkey

peers out from behind leaves

its orange hair another sun

Today is bright

and hot and tropical

the palm leaves sway

and people in their boats

with baskets of fruits

and vegetables

and talk float like a leaf

along with the current

A woman sits

at the end of a boat

full of freshly cut bananas

her knees to her chest

wooden paddle in

her hands

she steers and stirs

the river

One Response to Poetry by Teresa Mei Chuc

  1. Doug Rawlings says:

    Your poems are powerful, beautiful, and quite moving. Thank you.

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