Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Poetry of the Pacific, Day 4

San Francisco is known as much for its neighborhoods and characters as it is for its sights, so I decided to feature one of them: Chinatown. It's supposed to be the oldest one in the Western Hemisphere, having been founded around 1848 for immigrants working on the gold rush and the transcontinental railroads. Due to the determination of its residents, it survived the destruction of the 1906 earthquake and plans to expand the Financial District into the area. Now it stands in the heart of a bustling, gritty urban center. More than just a collection of Chinese restaurants, Chinatown supports Asian-American art, culture, and activism.

Chinatown's Famous Red Lanterns (1)
Red lanterns in San Francisco's Chinatown
Today's poem was written by San Francisco native, poet, playwright, and performer Genevieve "Genny" Lim (1946- ). It is the title selection from her book, Winter Place (1989). Whereas her more recent pieces have tackled more expansive or universal themes, her older work like "Winter Place looks at the world from my alley window." She is particularly known for Paper Angels, a play about Chinese immigrants incarcerated at Angel Island. Borrowed from Jaime Wright's website.

Winter Place

I live in this foghorn moon of a fishhole alley
Every night there's a derelict dog, mangy with a cataract stare
Lickin' the wounds of old North Beach
Leftovers, fish'n chips, upchucked cheesesteak, antipasti
Blasted against the antiseptic glare of trendy resaurants,
glossy Gelatos
Where MTV couples glide frozenly by
Catching in the corners of their ray-banned eyes
Their store-bought reflections 

It ain't so bad
Sundry hookers straining their fleshbait
out of windows, doorways
Orifices of the Europa glistening like fish
It ain't so bad
The winos and the refugees, bag can ladies and panhandlers
Eye-talians, Chinamen, tourists, punks, junkies
Boat people and runaways
Converging on this teeming waterhole
where the corporate buffalo roamed 

The city reeks of crab shells, fishheads, cabbages
Soiled pampers, cappuchino and Kotex
in shocking orange-and-pink
Day-glo shopping bags ripped and spewing out the
Guts of Chinatown 

They all come
The natives like homing pigeons
Midwesterners like homesteaders
Southerners like shipwrecked sailors
Eastcoasters like fugitives
Through the fog-laden cable cars plummeting
over Russian Hill backyards and
narrow chopstick alleyways
where camera-toting tourists
eat cheap chop-suey and
snap moon-faced babies wide-eyed on their mothers' backs
out of curiosity 

It ain't so bad
the Indians once said
They traded their land for horses 

It ain't so bad
the Coolies reasoned
as they jumped ship only to
Sweat in baskets
with pickaxes and dynamite
Twenty-thousand feet in the Sierras
like wet human laundry

copyright 2001, Genny Lim

p.s.--You should absolutely click here to watch Genny Lim perform a version of this poem.

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