National Poetry Month: ‘Art Wong is Alive and Ill and Struggling in Oakland California’ by Marilyn Chin

April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each Wednesday we will be taking a deep dive into both ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For this second weak of National Poetry Month, we present Marilyn Chin’s poem “Art Wong is Alive and Ill and Struggling in Oakland California” from ZYZZYVA No. 9, Spring 1987. You can order selected back issues of ZYZZYVA here:

Art Wong is Alive and IllI.
Chi Pai Shih was born
in the Year of the Boar.
And a bore he was;
his footprints dirtied the snow.

Thirty, I painted landscapes;
forty, insects and flowers;
fifty, I turned lazy as mud,
never ventured beyond
West Borrowed Hill.

II.
Oh, nonsense! Art
is a balding painter, humpbacked
as the dwarfed acacia
dying in his father’s chopsuey joint.

His palette is muddy; his thoughts are mud.
He sits crosslegged,
one eye open, the other shut,
a drunken Buddha.

I laugh at the sun; I take in air;
I whistle in sleep, let cicadas within
murmur their filial rapture.
My father’s dream is my dream:
fast cars and California gold.
The singles bar is my watering hole.

III.
And I…I am in love with him.
Never ask why, for youth
always begs the question.
As long as boughs are green,
so is my love green and pure
in this asphalt loneliness.

I let down my long hair;
my hair falls over his shoulders:
thus, we become one. Oh, Willow,
Cousin Willow, don’t weep for me now.
Sanctify this marriage between
the diaspora and the yearning sea.

Marilyn Chin is a prominent Chinese American poet and writer, an activist and feminist, an editor and Professor of English. Her most recent work, Hard Love Province, was a Poetry finalist for the California Book Award. In January 2018, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. You can find her poems in several ZYZZYVA back issues, including No. 9, 15, and 22.

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