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Poems from Jennifer Lee Tsai on loss

Self-Portrait at Four Years Old

I am the smallest one in class / the only Oriental at a primary school in Birkenhead / At four years old, I learn to read better than a child twice my age / My first school uniform / grey cardigan knitted by an aunt / grey skirt, grey like an English sky / yellow and brown tie / shiny Clarks shoes bought by my grandfather / with money made by washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen / In the playground, I hear something I don’t understand / an occasional refrain / Chinese, Japanese, don’t forget to wash your knees / First school photo / mother reminds me to smile for the camera / I don’t tell her that I never feel like smiling at school / I am learning to be silent / I am learning how to keep secrets / I am learning how to be alone / At home, I read fairy tales with my mother / Goldilocks and the Three Bears / Rapunzel / Cinderella / Sleeping Beauty / Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs / Only Snow White has black hair / Her eyes are brown, like mine / but her skin is white / What colour is my skin, mama? / I listen to nursery rhyme records on my father’s turntable / Baa-baa black sheep, have you any wool? / Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full / Humpty-Dumpty sat on the wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall / Back from the casino, father laments my love of books / my pleas to buy them every week / because in Cantonese the word for a book sounds like the verb to lose / I put on my best smile for the camera


Between Two Worlds

It was on Bridge Road in Mossley Hill,
where you can hear the rush of trains
passing by the backs of houses.
It was April and there were no lilies
in the room – not yet. There might have been tulips,
your favourite flower.
You were in your solitary, black leather armchair.
I think there was a bamboo plant
on the white desk, your little ornaments:
turtles for good luck, a tiny Buddha.

Outside, the sunlight was slowly dimming.
The street lights flickered on – a lurid, amber glow.
You were slipping in and out of consciousness,
no longer wild-eyed from morphine.
When your breathing changed,
my sister phoned the nurse.
Then we helped you to your bed,
my sister and I on either side.

The Tibetans say that at the time of death,
the blood in the centre of the heart forms three drops,
the external breath ceases and, engulfed by blackness,
we become unconscious.
We swoon into blissfulness.
Awareness dissolves into inner radiance
at the centre of the heart
like the meeting of mother and child.

Outside your window
we could hear the extractor fan
whirring relentlessly,
the banging of an iron wok,
customers placing their orders;
the TV blaring in the background,
the sound of laughter,
my mother and brother carrying on the family business.


A Prayer for My Grandmother

Mother, let us enfold our griefs in lotus leaves,
cast them in the vagaries of the river,
let its alchemy bloom the most enchanting flower
in the murkiest of waters.

Let us admit how ghosts
can resurrect themselves,
become our holy guardians
who watch over us as we sleep.

Mother, let us remember how our women
were once warriors, unbeholden to any man,
how the world was not made by a god
but a goddess who created the earth from mud.

She held up the sky with the legs of a giant tortoise
allowing every star to shine its light,
the sun to burst forth, the lovely moon to come out at night.
Let us remember that grandmother’s name means spring beauty. 

About the poet

Jennifer Lee Tsai is a Liverpool-based poet, critic and editor. She is a fellow of The Complete Works and a Ledbury Poetry Critic. Her poems are published in the anthologies Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe: 2017), Islands Are But Mountains: New Poetry from the UK (Platypus Press, 2019) and in numerous magazines and journals including Ambit, Magma, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto, Smoke, Soundings and Wild Court. She is a Contributing Editor to Ambit. Her debut poetry pamphlet is Kismet (ignitionpress, 2019).

Note: These poems were originally published in Magma 75: The Loss Issue, edited by Adam Lowe and Yvonne Reddick.

Listen to poets reading their work at the Magma website.

Photo by Saffu.

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