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Tattered, worn, and showing clear signs of being read too much is my copy of “A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein. It sits, nestled between writings of Elizabeth Bishop and Li-Young Lee. The funny rhymes and silly ideas once drew me in, and I carried around my journals, paper cut and stapled together. I no longer know where those relics are, but I do know that I haven’t really ever stopped writing. Yet it didn’t really begin with writing, but rather reading. And, before there was reading, there was the learning of plain (and, for me, not so simple) English.
In kindergarten during recess, I would yearn to be with my friends on the playground playing tag or baseball. Instead, I had to take an English as a Second Language (ESL) class during this time. Despite the fact that my parents spoke English fluently, they insisted I keep my mother tongue; and just as importantly, my grandparents, who knew only Mandarin, visited frequently from China. I can still remember my frustration and anger when my parents told me they didn’t understand me whenever English tumbled out of my mouth. Every day, I would practice my pronunciation to distinguish the hard t from the softer d, complete exercises on how to sound out words, and memorize new vocabulary.
With English, doors to worlds were opened in the most predictable manner: books. While I still had trouble pronouncing words, I was able to understand and acutely grasp what I was reading. When devouring books, I stumbled across “A Light in the Attic,” and I tore through it as I did with other books. However, after closing the book, I reopened it to reread, an occurrence that rarely happened. Afterwards, I read all of Shel Silverstein’s books and truly delved into poetry. It was through this medium that I felt that I was truly an active participant in the writing. Sometime soon after reading “A Light in the Attic,” I started writing poems myself.
Poetry, uniquely, is able to convey a vessel of emotion. There is careful precision in each syllable, each word weighted delicately, every perspective considered—an idea translatable into life itself. Even after years of writing poetry and prose, I cannot forget the struggles I had, and sometimes still do have, with English. I fear reading aloud and tripping over foreign vocabulary, or revealing my inability to say “specific” properly with the hard c, or mispronouncing other words. Through writing, I am able to convey myself eloquently without speaking.
At the same time, my experiences bleed through in my writing because they shape who I am. A combination of ESL classes, Silverstein’s influence, and my love of words lend themselves to the following poem. In retrospect: I am grateful for my fluent Mandarin, you probably couldn’t guess which words I could stumble upon, and English is a language I do not take for granted.
Regardless of Translation
Puckering lips to unpluck the sound of
your native tongue. Thick as blood.
Detained at the border. Discarded in storm sewers.
Discovering this touch of tip to teeth.
Hardening from looping vowels, untranslated
promises, a chamber of echoes vibrates
between your uvula. It’s a riddle, hanging,
so sophisticated, thought to be useless,
constant evolution of need and want.
Wanting to constantly mature, change,
ecdysis—approximately every decade
for cicadas. Exoskeletons crisply caving
into chest. Ribs do not splinter. An image
haunting. I wonder if their hearts squeeze.
Scientists cannot replicate frequency, wavelength
amplitude. To you, neither can I. This present
should not have been mine for the taking.
Take the way cicadas scrieve wings
slicing morning haze. The way they mark home,
sound shivering through tymbal, muscle,
organ. The way I clench syllables too tight.
The way my face contours upon hearing
remnants of your voice. The way my heart
wrings—I throw away the knowing why.
—Ellen Zhang ’19, an inactive Crimson News Editor, is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Quincy House.
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