I have relived this moment many times: there are two towering stone lions in front of my home in Taiwan. I am staring at the lions whose eyes are two open ovens, mouths agape with sharp teeth as if ready to devour me and yet I am not afraid. Stone lions, often placed in front of Chinese homes, stand as sentries to protect and safeguard. I am patting the animals' chiseled manes as if they are soft fur. I am speaking to the lions in my small infant utterances, in a mixture of English and my native Chinese, and here is where my love of words begins.
I was sent to live in Taiwan at the age of two after the sudden death of my father. Uncles and aunts rushed through the rooms to feed me, bathe me, teach me. I was both confused and curious about words as they bounced in the delicate bowl of my mouth, meaning rising. This recollection of language is at the core of who I am, why I work, why I write. I write in order to capture what is no longer there: sweet ghost of minutes, mist covering the thatched roofs, vendors calling out their wares to the windows, typhoon rattling the red door of my childhood home in summer.
Many years later, I am a poet trying to recreate, again, sound, image, place, mood, the fine texture of things. I am driven to grasp the unnamable or to get to a sensual site that has vanished. The Taiwan of my past no longer exists. Taipei, the capital, is now a bustling district, city of smog, avenues clogged with progress and industry.
When I began writing poems, I was struck by how much a poem looked like the physical structure of a house. Each word seemed like a window, each comma a blade of grass, each line was a slow locomotive passing through a quiet town. So, in my imagination, I constructed a permanent place where I could live even if the moments were fleeting.
The poet Jack Gilbert gestures toward the possibilities and impossibilities of naming in his poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”:
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can.
What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
Moving between America and Asia, I was too young to know where I belonged but old enough to know there was shelter in language. Miniature nomad that I was, I sought a place to settle in the country of the intangible. I feel, always, that girl stepping off a plane, heavy air on my skin, ecstatic about the next minute and what it might bring, and how I would journey to name it.