January Poetry: "The Long Circuit" by Inez Tan

January 10, 2019

Image Credit: L'Oriol via Flickr

Inez Tan’s poem is a road trip through the psyche, mapping out memory and family history onto a rich California landscape. Here, what is clarified by a line holds equal weight to the silence of the white space, pulling us along the journey like synapses sparking with memory fragments until we come full circle.

—Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Poetry Editor

The Long Circuit

California was a place in books and movies—
            paper, film, and self-mythology.

A woman riding a motorcycle in a story I read when I was seventeen
                        gets hit by a car. She relates,

            In the hospital, after injections,
I knew there was pain in the room—
                        I just didn’t know whose pain it was.

I was living there when one of my relatives died.
           Then another. And another.

           It was happening in my twenties,
                                    right on schedule.

The knowledge of grief
is nothing like grief.

           From sunset-swaddled California,
I slept through all the funerals.



When I don’t understand something
                        I turn to books. One I’m reading now argues
that searching directly for who you really are
                        is pointless. Instead,
what is most valuable, real, and
                        substantial about you will surface when
you recognize those around you
                        and how you can serve their needs.

            Or survive them,
I think. Consider what produces
           a hooked beak, a fan-shaped seed, a protective coat

of needles.



                      Talking to my parents I hear a sound
                                                                                                   like a broken filament
                                            jingling against glass.

                                                Something always hangs
unfinished between us.

Only what we do says
                                                yes, this is inside me—
                            or see, you have made me
                                                        frugal, overprotective, quarrelsome, hungry.

Let there be no sad immigrant stories

           though my grandfather came to Singapore as a child
ate nothing from the time he walked away from his village in China
                      had to wait at the docks all night until his father
could borrow enough money to redeem his passage,

           though eighteen lived
                                 in one apartment, three generations kept from sleep
by the gambling debts, the winged roaches,
                      the rats bloodying one another in the garbage,

like everyone in those days, the older generations say dismissively
                                                               though of course that isn’t true,

but the older generations don’t talk much about those days
for their own reasons,

and I don’t ask much
for my own reasons.



I relate to this relatable character.
I am related to my relations:

circuitous propositions,

on their own,

enclosing nothing.



           For months I didn’t go to the beach
because I didn’t want sand in my car. I knew
            I’d never get rid of it.

In late acceptance finally I drove with the windows down
           and walked along the indecisive edge of the ocean, I thought of arguing

every Sunday with my parents about why
                        they were making me crawl inside their car
            to pick up anything the vacuum had missed, crouch
            by the tires to scrub each blackened groove
                                            that spun along the burning road, the song
in my head
                      I’ll never be like you, never never be like you,

                                    like I had a choice in that matter,

as the waves wiped out what my feet were trying to remember.



Yet this is

                        dancing to the YMCA song with my cousins
            kneeling by a basin filling water balloons
                        fanning the barbecue pit with newspapers
            riding the peeling carousel at the mall
                        fighting over glazed strawberries
            scoping out every vending machine in the hospital
                        drawing on one another with lipstick
            feeding our bread to the neighbor’s dogs
                        whispering in the columbarium
            lying about mosquitoes as we slapped one another’s faces  
                        melting chocolate on the stove
            hitting one last shuttlecock onto the roof
                        cramming the Christmas tree back into the box
                                                                                                            inside me

the hook in my heart of
knowing like that.

A hook on a living line.


My friend Jason calls it
            a wire through the generations,
                                                            trauma. I want to believe

                                    joy is inherited too, he says—
                                                            wouldn’t they want us to have this, as well?

                        What if you told him you enjoy thinking
                        that you were born
lacking the instinct for family? That you have felt that
            empathy is incorrect, and something
                                    else is required?

Just as the sun dips below the earth's midriff
           there is an otherworldly green dot
                                    that hovers on the horizon for about four or five seconds
           only in southern California.

We watch it disappear as the planet turns away,
                                 as people with our blood
                                 on the other side of the world
                                 spend their time in the sun.  



I don’t like talking.
                      I think I get that from my family.

I turn over their photos of the memorial services,
           photos without captions.

Maybe funerals feel so strange
           because they’re like private holidays,
holy days,

you go to work in your usual clothes and say nothing, and no one
           has any idea, you’re not
even sure what you’re feeling.

            Your own culture, and you don’t know how to speak of it.

The immensity that makes you feel

The long circuit of all the ones who lived so you could live.


Inez Tan

Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories (Epigram Books), which was a national bestseller in Singapore. Her writing has won the Academy of American Poets Prize and has been featured in Rattle, The Collagist, Foothill, Fairy Tale Review, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. A Kundiman Fellow, she holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. Find her online at ineztan.com.