A stranger once told me
a story: In the beginning
was the Word,
and when Word was born,
the first words Word said
formed the first story.
I can find no people who have no creation
myth. Ex nihilo, big bang, chaos,
earth-diver. We are a race bound by wordlust and scattered
by wanderlust. We tarry
in the House of Babel.
Raconteur, remind me again of the tale
in which the spring sun is a cherry chandelier
clinging low on the branch,
touching the understory of morning sky.
If your body were a tree that reached the heavens,
a tree overflowing with crystals and notched,
I would perch at the very top of you
and keep watch. No babble would dare enter
our emptiness. No storm cloud
would muffle our morning psalm.
And Winter would be more
than syllabary and cuneiform,
more that just a squinting,
a scant incision of light.
Who does not have a tale
of hubris…building a tower to the heavens
to find a home among the stars—
their place in that mansion
of many rooms, daring to think
they can circumvent the inevitable
flood-to-come, only to be smacked down
and sent reeling, cast into the sea,
nothing but stars
and a smattering of words to guide them.
The parable that leads out of my small
imprisonment is penned in a book I cannot read,
and the world is a dwelling place
of myths lost. Looking at the winter
constellations, I want to exchange the sky
for a tent, be ever wordless, unrooted.
A tent cannot contain the scope of heaven
any more than Earth can be the consort of God.
The world is filled
with words. We are a seaward-bound people,
chasing a flood
of sorrows our stories cannot explain.
Previously published in Smartish Pace
Until a chemical or electrical charge bridges a gap
between neurons, we are oblivious
of our seventh birthday. Our memory is flooded
with holes, pocked like cotton eyelet. One minute
I’m mumbling “What was her name?” my best friend
who fell into the kiddie pool with a plate full
of strawberry birthday cake. The next, I’m shouting “Beverly!”
One minute I’m in bed, curled next to my husband
as he reads to me. No man is an island entire of itself,
his freckled hand stroking the crest of my hip.
Rise and fall, rise and fall, and I can feel the electricity
flowing in the gap between his skin and mine.
One minute, two clean-cut men in suits
are knocking at my door, pamphlets in hand.
“There is only one mediator
between God and Man,” they say almost in unison,
“the one called Christ.” The next minute, my brain floods
with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, that slight break
between the fingertips of God and Adam.
God sits in a brain-shaped billow of drapes.
God, in our heads. Little people crowd
in the brain. Adam, unlike Jesus, arrives as an adult
and alone. Adam, an outsider looking into the brain-room.
Eve is not in the picture.
One minute, I remember Brad in fourth grade laughing at me,
“you WOman!” he howled over and over, emphasis on the WO,
slapping his thigh with each long O, a storm threatening
the west edge of a Texas summer sky,
the word woman imbued with sex,
with inferior. All of us in the dodge-ball circle knew
woman was an insult. “You slut.”
The next minute, the eighth-grade teacher tells the class
that women are responsible
for the world’s evil, the wo in woman meaning without men,
meaning less than men, meaning meaningless.
“Aww, it’s a joke,” he says. “Women need men
to stay out of trouble. Pandora is why
bad things happen to good people.
Like the story of Eve,” he says.
“One bad apple at the root of it all.”
One minute, I’m taking a pamphlet from the men on my porch,
the next, a synapse in my head snaps shut like a switch:
the difference between the biblical Eve and Adam,
one purposely deceived, the other not.
Stories are a social affair—
one minute someone is telling us who we are
and what to remember. The next, even our memories
are stored as stories. There are gaps
in our memory. Connections are missing.
There are gaps in our stories
and in our history. People are missing.
Under the Influence
Once upon a time—the year I turned
twenty—a man impressed upon me
Jesus is Lord. To help me
remember, he scrawled it across
my inner thigh in red, had me chant
the phrase for days until
the meaning of each word petrified
into a pebble in my mouth, smooth
and righteous. Like a mouth
full of rocks, the words together made
no sense. I spit them out.
Months later, under the influence
of twilight, impressions will make me
halt in the glimmerspace
of a hallway, where, for want of sun-
light I will see the man reappear.
This time without hinges.
This time, in his hand, a lucifer
flame. “To combust or ignite?” he will
query, and I’ll decide
on flight. He’ll remind me, saying
“Your temple is nothing
but a cubby-hole, Alcoholic.
Stay in your corner.” I must
be under the influence of flame.
Because look: How I turn
pale on an axis. Look: I tumble.
Accelerating, see how freely I mix
with the oxygen of air.
Remix. Source Ulysses. James Joyce.
Previously published in Found Poetry Review
“What happened here?” I ask, touching a notch
on the outer bark of a tree’s cross-section.
“A branch was once there,” my husband replies.
Starting in the heartwood, the tree’s rings ripple
around the cleft like waves. Year after year,
the tree remembered the missing, recorded
echoes of the branch that had been destroyed.
Nancy Chen Long is the author of Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), winner of the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, as well as the chapbook Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013). She is the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Her work was selected as the winner of the 2019 Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award and featured in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Indiana Humanities. She works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division. nancychenlong.com