Finalist - Angie Chuang
TET LION DANCE
Lunar New Year in Phu Lam, Vietnam
We swept the village courtyard this morning,
But now the tumbling dancers' white shirts
Bear earthen prints. Dirt restoring
Its rightful place on this day of rebirth.
Years of low, determined sun have faded
Our pagoda's saffron columns, but not
The ecstatic cherry and gold lions-sated
Only by their own extravagance, caught
In the form of a child's cartoon. Giant,
Gaping puppet head. Silken body trails,
And two sets of human legs act
A melodrama under a playful veil.
From each child, laughter explodes.
Unburden memory's graying load.
Unburden memory's graying. Load
The shrines with frail columns of incense.
The dancers kneel, await a blessing bestowed
By village ancestors. All is reverence,
All is reference-to our past.
War is not a cloud. It is not meant
To pass over us. Ringing of cannon blasts,
Corpses clogging the river: ever-present,
Embedded into the dirt's memory.
The dancers stand, their gold and red
Lion legs lightened by a dusting of history.
This earth spoken for, by the dead.
Joss sticks burn down, smoke ribbons become
Our ancestors' sigh. Finally, the drums.
Our ancestors sigh: Finally, the drums
Begin to sound, each strike against cowhide
Ripples the still afternoon air. Sound rides
A collective heartbeat. All thoughts succumb
To rhythm, all purpose surrenders to the sum
Of a child's abandon. Hands on either side
Of his face, he swings his head in wide
Arcs, like the lions. Beneath noise, joy hums.
Now, the lions move for the bait:
Red envelope tethered to a flagpole
Flying Ho Chi Minh's yellow star.
We don't look at this obligatory scar.
Instead, cheers as the puppet mouth pulls
The reward. The dance is complete.
The reward after the dance: Complete
Abundance at the table, plates brim
With sunny pearls of jackfruit, thin
And creamy-fleshed slices of sacred meat.
For Tet, all must be new and sweet.
(Just this morning, she had been a plump hen.)
Crisp, unworn clothes skim
A surface over poverty. Today, we eat.
Thirty-five years ago, we heard no warning.
That day began with our world on fire.
Cycles hence, each year we renew
Our faith with velvet incense, a new
Prayer cleansing the past's mire.
We swept the village courtyard this morning.
This poem was a finalist in the 2004 War Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers. Copyright is reserved to the author.