Hilary Tham


excerpts from COUNTING: A LONG POEM

At thirteen, I wanted
.................................to believe I was adopted,
to believe I could disown my family,
their voices and their needs.
I dreamed of a room of my own.One night I stood in the dark and
thought about leaving home.
I stared until I was dizzy, gazing at stars.
I was nothing to them, not even a flicker
of a shadow on a leaf.
Somewhere a dog barked. And fell silent.
Only a frog in the weeds refused silence,
plaintively calling for a mate. A second frog
answered. And another. Soon the weeds were filled
with the multitudinous presence of frogs.My mother had a story about the creation of frogs:
how a poor couple was buried alive in a mud slide.
A passing god heard their muffled calling--
"On," "Long": "Husband," "Wife,"
even as mud filled their ears, their mouths.
He gifted them with amphibian life,
changed them into frogs.I listened to the frogs, their voices
telling a sad tale of mud, calling
to be heard, wanting to know someone
they loved was still there to love them.
Then I went in to my family.


How long do Zen masters
...........................................live, I asked.
"The oldest was Master Pang," Mother said.
"He lived past nine hundred, but his mother
was pregnant with him for sixty years.
He was a graybeard when he was born."
Mother had many stories about Zen Master Pang.
When he was hungry, fish jumped
into his hand. Fish in his pan flipped over
to fry their uncooked sides for him.

How do you become a Zen master, I asked.
Mother said, "Zen is only a hair's separation
from madness. Leave it alone."


When I am happy with you, I forget Zen
I take sunlight and safety for granted
I remember Venice, riding the train south
to Brindisi to board a boat to Greece,
but Memory has discarded most of that journey.
It gives me only the garrulous Neapolitan
salesman who insisted on showing you
the nude painted on the back of his silk tie.
I recall two things in Athens--moonlight
on the Acropolis, hot sun and dusty stones, ruins.
How could it be moonlight if there was hot sun?
I ask. Memory says, Oops, it must have been
sunlight. I remember the walk down the hill,
the blinding white of cobbled stone, the smell
of honeysuckle and bees droning
about the vine-draped walls. Did we talk
of ancient Greeks?

I like to think we talked of love, ours and
ancient lovers: Psyche wanting to know the true
face of Eros, Daphne running, changing
into a tree to escape unwanted love.
But Memory answers with a Zen nothingness.


The world is a hard place
it began with stone
pillars on a turtle's back
and ends in stone
chiseled with our names;
Between the making
and the unmaking, flesh
and blood, bone and hair,
and then we, they are not there.
We look at our empty hands
and feel shadows and shade,
skin drying where water has been,
and are left with wind, know them
only by their absence. Water. Wind.


I have seen how a potter uses all
the things that are in the earth, seen
how she begins with clay, shapes it,
fires it to bisque jar. She paints it with copper,
cobalt, silver glazes and fires it again.
At temperatures when liquids vaporize
and metals melt, clay holds
and hardens, purified.
I've seen a raku potter
transfer the fiery jar
to a lidded metal drum. She said
that as leaves, pine needles, newspapers
in the drum blaze into fire-storm,
oxygen rises to the glaze's surface,
drawn by the fire's hunger, and is consumed.
This is the way she gets metallic sheens,
memory of flame, on the jar.
This is the way soul must feel, oxygen
drawn to fire, wanting light.



You told me her name was Leah.
Leah who scoffed at old-fashioned
marriage vows, whispered her room number, how
she slept naked, waiting for a real man.
You paced your hotel room, the hot
Indonesian night pulling wetness from your skin,
counting the steps to her unlocked door.
But you did not go to her, you said, rocking me
in your arms, expecting praise.

The left side of our bed is tilting,
the sheets slide from under us and drop
over the edge. I watch the inner coils
push at the mattress binding, silent upheavels
behind the light and dark of your hip and thigh.

In the street, parked cars climb onto curbs
into bushes. Trees pull away,
drift skyward. A bridge takes its iron
roots out of gravity, rises
and rocks slowly in the air. People
caught in the ordinary act of crossing
catch at the rails. They stare as the river
leaves its bed, water splaying, thinning
into nothing without the containment
of earth and embankments.



I'm down in the basement
sorting Barbie's shoes:
sequin pumps, satin courts,
western boots, Reebok sneakers,
glass slippers, ice-skates, thongs.
all will fit the dainty, forever arched
feet of any one Barbie: Sweet Spring
Glitter-eyed, Peaches and Cream,
a Brazilian, Russian, Swiss, Hong Kong
Hispanic or a Mexican, Nigerian
or Black Barbie. All are cast
in the same mold, same rubbery,
impossible embodiment of male fantasy
with carefully measured
doses of melanin to make
........a Caucasian Barbie,
..................Polynesian Barbie,
............................African-American Barbie
Everyone knows that she is the same
Barbie and worthy of the American Dream
House, the pink Corvette, opera gloves, a
hundred pairs of shoes to step into. If only
the differently colored men and women we know
could be like Barbie, always smiling, eyes
wide with admiration, even when we yank
off an arm with a hard to take off dress.
Barbie's shoes, so easily lost, mismatched,
useless: they end up, like our prejudices,
in the basement, forgotten as spiders
sticking webs in our deepest corners,
we are amazed we have them still.


Hilary Tham, of Arlington, Virginia, is an artist and the author of six books of poetry, including Counting (The Word Works), MEN & Other Strange Myths (Three Continents Press), and a memoir, Lane With No Name: Memoirs and Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood (Lynne Reiner Publishers). She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a winner in the Virginia Poetry Prizes. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of Malaya, Malaysia. Winner of ten Artist-in-Education grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, she teaches creative writing in schools and for the Writer's Center. Since 1994, she has been editor-in-chief for The Word Works, Inc. and poetry editor for the Potomac Review.

Published in Volume 2, Number 1, Winter 2001.


Read more by this author:
Hilary Tham: The Whitman Issue
Hilary Tham's Intro to Vol. 3, No. 4 (Fall 2002)
Hilary Tham: DC Places Issue
Hilary Tham: Audio Issue
Hilary Tham: Tenth Anniversary Issue