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Tag: @poetjanewong

The Long Labors

My grandmother said it was going to be long — as long as you can hold your lineage

— depending on how long you can hold your tongue — as long as your tongue can wrap

around the pit — of some stolen stone fruit —as long as you can hide your pitter-patter face

— glued in sun-split splinters – lengthening shadows as long as your face — longing

to be mirrored back — back to your daughter your mother your grandmother — freckle by

freckle — furnished forever across — the long loaming haul — Collapsed

in a pool of spit — my mouth over papers — raccoon doctorate — luxurious loser with thin

branch fingers — no meat in the palm — no muscle in the bending — the farmer in me is

atrophying — the cook the factory seamstress the clerk the mother in me is pooling out —

all that I come from — all that I owe to them — what is left of me — what is — me:

professorial rat — book leavened and maddened in meetings — chewing at my desk on a

frozen anything — microwave spun and splattered on lessons — wondering who packaged

this — who spooned this glacial sauce into this plastic hull — whose hands whose daughter

does she look like me does she like dancing in the gloaming — funneled into my greedy

mouth — I: daughter of long labors — I: knock-off half-price guilt — I: impossible

imposter big words big words — trying to prove what — and to whom — I wait to be

seated at a restaurant — a white person enters and orders from me — “I want sweet and

sour chicken but without bell peppers and brown rice” — and I almost take it down —

In the twelfth hour of nightshift overtime — my mother gob-

bles the air of the facility — mouth opening a cavern or a bowhead whale or a sinkhole —

gobbling up its oxygen its nitrogen its argon its skin its hair dust its swirling smog — collect ing time collecting benefits — her eyes so baggy they carry a leaking pack of chicken breasts

— she had planned to cook tonight for us — but look at the break room clock she is out of

time and now — they will surely go bad — what a waste at $1.50 a pound — she returns to

her station rubs tiger balm and lavender oil along her wrists and hands — chews dried

ginger to keep awake — the root of herself sharpening salivating — reapplies pink lipstick

swivels the tube upwards — rituals of resilience — feeds letters to machines churning

intestinal noise — electricity bills and love letters and baby photos and magazines ladies

who lunch will take to the salon and credit card limited time offers and reminders from the

dentist and supermarket weeklies and postcards from Oahu “you wouldn’t believe how

blue the water how restful how peaceful bring the whole family next time” — ginger chew

ginger chew — Who made this for you — do you know the song that

reminds them of home — do you know to play the radio as loud as you can and roll down

the windows and smack your cheeks ten times in order to stay awake for the drive — do you

know who sewed on this button — do you know the murmuring leg ache from standing all

day a tree for whom — do you know who processed the letter you received today — fed it

into a machine with paper cuts as wide as a river you could float in — do you know how

long you can hold your urine until your 15-minute break — the roiling pressure in the


abdomen the tick-tap of the feet the hands — how much to tip the gas attendant in Jersey

how the smell sticks behind both earlobes — the temperature when flipping a wok the

oil burns the white-papered hat measuring salt at the brim — how your impatient face

resembles a slowly rotting peach — worms in the snarl — do you know the name of your

fishmonger the name of my uncle the times he has snuck in a call to say he will be late

picking up his daughter fish scales glittered to his elbows like opera gloves — do you know

cuticles peeling white like flecks of cod after washing dishes — do you know the smell of

nail polish remover stinging bees in your nostrils — do you know the back — how the back

curls how the back bridges how the back puckers and crunches — like packed snow no one

else but you will shovel out —

I look up how labor is used in a sentence — “the obvious labor” — “immigrants

provided a source of cheap labor” — “negotiations between labor and management” —

“wants the vote of labor in the elections” — “the flood destroyed the labor of years” —

“industry needs labor for production” — anthropocene capitalism gentrification – what

do these words mean – and to whom — helping my mother over the sink — I snip the ends

of long beans 豆角 with kitchen shears – the ends rolling away — little green lizard tails – I

cut away each word like a long bean — gentrificat — gentrif — gen — ge — g — glugging

the g — down the drain — If only lying on a beach — limbs

loosened like an old garden hose — if only watching the movements of our stomachs —

rising and falling like baby jellyfish — our thighs waxing and waning — in bristle-rough

sand if only — reading a book the pages — wrinkled and curled like a snail shell — from

falling asleep against our faces — if only devouring a cloud — full of no rain no metallic

muscle if — only softness if only we —went off in the softness — into the downy relaxing

abyss — what is this word — vacation — my grandmother asks me chili oil hitting the wok

like delicious dying stars — My grandmother said it was going to be long —

going out the door always late for work — shirt inside out — said go on and bounce a

howling baby (my mother/me/et al) – while skimming oxtail broth — the fat sheen of look

how well we eat in this country —lest you forget it was worth it — lest you forget — the

dilation of the cervix going the contractions going the grip the placenta the shit the vernix

the garbled life going the soft flashlight eyes the milk the teeth the nails the hand on heart

the soup coagulating on the stove — you must go — for what gleams in the dark turns to

look at you — remember this — the work and the afterwork and the work of being

perceived as not doing enough work though you are working well over enough — will this

ever be enough — when is enough enough — the chorus now: not until the knots of fat

— melt in this wok — not until you have nothing left but this suet — this smear of high

heat lineage — gleaming in the gloaming — and it is yours and it is mine and it is your

dream daughter’s and it will last longer than you will ever believe — believe us —

from How to Not Be Afraid of EverythingFind more by Jane Wong at the library

Copyright © 2021 Jane Wong
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Alice James Books.


Above: my neighbor’s feet, fussing from room to room,

velvet hooves tendering my head. Was the fruitcake

curdling? Would the mail make it there on time (it must

make it there on time)? Below: I try to light

the stove. Little clicks of the tongue, heat and water, my altar.

Underground: my grandfather breathes through a silk jacket,

a dandelion mane resting between his lips. Here: every living

thing is an altar. Sweet worms kiss his knuckles to sleep,

loose doorknobs I open: story after story. My family:

a spiral staircase, a fish spine picked clean, the snail’s

miasmic song. 1982: sun gasping through splintering snow,

a lemon slice folded in my mother’s cup, a generous

bulb, a lighthouse across oceans she can not see. 1985: we slept in

a split-level attic, squirrels running across

the beams. 1964: my grandfather offers my mother one egg.

Her brother looks on, fists full of ash. 1967: to make

the body dance with sticks and stones to break alone. Within:

prison, rose finch feathers float through bars, what he can not

talk about. My grandfather sings to me in a ladybug-speckled coffin,

the color of good teeth. Above: my grandmother keeps

heaps upon heaps of oil containers, poured and repurposed

in hunched Fanta plastic. This living can be so quiet sometimes,

you can hear the lights humming. Moss slinks into my walls

and is painted over, white to mint. I touch

the wall, these porous lives, this dense understory. Today: I cut

a telescope in two to see everything inside, out:


from How to Not Be Afraid of EverythingFind more by Jane Wong at the library

Copyright © 2021 Jane Wong
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Alice James Books.


I am the type to go to bed with my feet dirty

A man calling from a balcony is not to be trusted

In 1988, the nation sings a song I can’t understand but I sing it because everyone looks at

me like a thief and no one likes a thief

Algae gathers in plastic cups along the Jersey Shore

The dull prongs of a fork still count as a weapon

I gather plastic cups along the shore and shake them out to use for tea, juice, a home for

my toothbrush

The Pledge of Allegiance is a building ledge, an alleged crime, a leg crossed over another

leg, a plea gone askew, a glance shared in a room with someone else who looks like you

Hundreds of toxic wild boars are roaming across northern Japan and it would be a mistake

to identify with them

In 1960, my grandmother holds no knife in no tall wheat

When washing her feet, my grandmother tells me she spent decades without shoes,

wonders if the mud misses her

I am a good daughter and I can repeat this indefinitely without taking a breath

Often, I call out to myself just to hear an echo, to hear something moving in the walls like a

healthy family of rats

My mother has been told, repeatedly: “You can’t walk here”

Here is a white stone, a white fence, a white sea gull, a white jug of milk, a white candle, a

white duvet, a white patio, a white bar of soap to wash your mouth out

Sometimes I dream in Cantonese and I have no idea what is being said

You grow to love what you create, pouring out of your mouth

In 1988, my father sees his reflection in the rearview mirror and identifies with the blood

moon lighting his way to Atlantic City

From a balcony, a man yells at me: “You need some white dick” and I turn into a boar


My father disappears for weeks and my mother keeps weeding the garden, pulling

cigarettes from the splintering tomatoes I will devour

I study asymptotes for months and dream in curves—almost but never touching

My mother writes in her English diary for night school: “I hate him I hate him I hate him I

hate him I” and her ESL teacher only gives her a check, so I give her a check plus

To be a good daughter means to carry everything with you at all times, the luggage of the

past lifted to the mouth

When we look at each other, my mother laughs like an overripe tomato on a windowsill

In 1989, I spent months assembling a puzzle map of the United States of America and the

teacher said, “Good job, Jane” and then louder and slower like a drowning sloth:

“Gooooood Jahhhhhhb, Jane” and I did not touch a single piece

Bloody drunk and a blood moon, my father fights with another gambler and jabs at his

arm with a dull fork and they both laugh celestially


During elementary school, I did not say a single word, not even when called on, and thus

the teachers and administrators decided I could not speak English because they looked at


Mao Zedong explains math: “In geometry, I just drew a picture of an egg—that was

enough geometry for me”

My grandfather was jailed by the Red Army sometime between 1966 and 1976 and my

mother says: “I saw him cry when I tried to visit. He wanted to eat the bao I made for him”

Algae gathers, gleaming like a jewel, on the head of my 5th-grade betta fish

Counterrevolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution are likened to “finding a bone

inside an egg”

I was born, healthy, in the year of the rat

The man on the balcony invests in a foldable set of two chairs and one table in egg-

shell-white—mold resistant, perfect for outdoor use


I was ten when I willed a rock to fall off a ledge, just by staring at it long enough

from How to Not Be Afraid of EverythingFind more by Jane Wong at the library

Copyright © 2021 Jane Wong
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Alice James Books.


Jane, deceived by _____ time and again, should not _____ but she _____ and slept with

curled fists.

The rat catching a ride on the turtle wins _____. Ugly and coarse, but _____.

Beware of strangers who _____ and win your _____ and lick the sweat off your nose in

false _____, just to taste their own _____.

Do not trust in owls, in heads that spin. Heads should not spin nor stink, like ammonia in

the armpits, like a habit of _____.

Do not pause to watch insects _____ like dangling lights. Their soft speckled bodies, a

minutia of buzzing dandelion seeds, have already _____ you in the neck. Blood on their

spindle tongues. This is a metaphor for _____.

There are no wolves in this tale. Only handsome _____ with pea-green eyes who will tell

you: “You are as soft as _____.” Then, they will carefully cut _____ and _____.

Seek only the smallest kindness, of shaking out a pebble from a neighbor’s shoe, to do

unto others what you _____. Did you swallow _____?

Jane, called “intense.” Surely, heads spun, owl-struck, stating: “If only she _____.” Called

“feisty,” “talks too _____ or talks too _____.” Often: “Too smart for _____ good,” “I

never thought you’d be _____, looking like _____,” “you have big eyes for a _____,”

“curiously strong” or “_____weak,” or “it’s just _____ and it’s for the best.”

Her hair though, is the best, and is remarkably like kindling and okay for _____ to touch,

light, and ingest in flame, strand by _____. Ignore when she says _____ or _____. This is

_____ of Jane.

Jane rubbed salt all over her body to become a dissolving _____ and thusly, rightfully so,

_____ right out of this _____ world.

from How to Not Be Afraid of EverythingFind more by Jane Wong at the library

Copyright © 2021 Jane Wong
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Alice James Books.

I Put On My Fur Coat

And leave a bit of ankle to show.

I take off my shoes and make myself

comfortable. I defrost a chicken

and chew on the bone. In public,

I smile as wide as I can and everyone

shields their eyes from my light.

At night, I knock down nests off

telephone poles and feel no regret.

I greet spiders rising from underneath

the floorboards, one by one. Hello,

hello. Outside, the garden roars

with ice. I want to shine as bright

as a miner’s cap in the dirt dark,

to glimmer as if washed in fish scales.

Instead, I become a balm and salve

my daughter, my son, the cold mice

in the garage. Instead, I take the garbage

out at midnight. I move furniture away

from the wall to find what we hide.

I stand in the center of every room

and ask: Am I the only animal here?

from How to Not Be Afraid of EverythingFind more by Jane Wong at the library

Copyright © 2021 Jane Wong
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Alice James Books.

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a State-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this (publication, website, exhibit, etc.) do not necessarily represent those of the Idaho Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.