PoetryIssue 02 | December 2008

Three Poems by Tim Hawkins

The Price of Cabbage

When I first lived in Taiwan, many years ago,
I wrote Chinese characters by candlelight
deep into the night, following the rules
of top before bottom, left before right,
in column after column of a child’s notebook,
each stroke coaxing to life a syllable of perfect pitch
floating, seemingly, above the fray
of mortal communication.

Later, as I tried to read myself to sleep,
my eyes fought a battle they could not win
with my native English, arrayed in
hideous formation, words and letters
marching in lockstep across the page
like columns of soldiers, or like ants
intent on deflowering the trees
of their plum blossoms
and devouring the very pages from the book.

Sometimes I would write in the morning
accompanied by tea and the
relentless chattering of the neighborhood wives
drifting in from the street.
At first I strained to grasp a word or two, and then
one day understood that the price of cabbage had risen.
And the day after that it had risen again.

Like anywhere, it took some time
to absorb the rules of ritual exchange,
then one brave soul began to greet me,
looking me directly in the eye
while asking if I had eaten, and
coming over to share pleasantries
under the guise of learning English.

She called me out of the blue
exactly three years ago this month,
at first sounding nervous
and excited, as if she had something
of great import to tell me,
and then crying softly before
she hung up, because I seemed
to have suffered brain damage
in the long years of my absence.                   

The two of us had once shared a
bounty, more than our tongues and lips
could hold, but after all those years

I was choking on mouthfuls of the stuff
that inhabits the gulf between feeling,
memory, and words;

I could barely remember how to ask for the price of cabbage.

And now I can’t even begin to make out
a letter I once wrote, and had hoped to send.

I wonder where all the words have gone,
whether they have been threatened
into exile by jealous husbands,
or killed by the rabble of barbarian English,
which no longer causes me pain.
Perhaps they are just off in a corner
hiding from the foreign devils in my mind.

As for the memories, to save face
they practice an old Chinese custom.
Before leaving home, they kiss something
that may turn out in the end to be nothing
more than a sliver of raw bacon
hanging from a hook by the door,
to sustain the illusion
with greasy smiles,
to both neighbor and kin
in these times of famine,
that these lips have supped on meat.

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About the author

Tim Hawkins has lived and traveled widely throughout North America, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, where he has worked as a journalist, technical writer, communications manager and teacher in international schools. His career has also taken some interesting detours into such posts as fish cannery slime table worker, stevedore, nose-hair clipper model and cram school teacher. After spending much of the ‘90’s and ‘00’s abroad, he currently lives in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, most recently in Blueline, Eclectica, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Midwest Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, Shit Creek Review and The Smoking Poet. He was nominated by the journal Four and Twenty for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. His first collection, Wanderings at Deadline, was published by Aldrich Press in 2012. It is available at Amazon.com and through the publisher’s website. Find out more about Tim and his writing at timhawkinspoetry.com.

Read our current issue:

Poetry

Two poems by Anne Babson
Vignette, Townhouse, 9 a.m. by Troy Cunio
Night Becomes Day Over the West by Megan Foley
Yukon River Aurora by D. B. Goman
Two Poems by David Havird
Cretan Love Letter by Emily Linstrom
Holland by Rick Mullin
Fear in Kenya by Kristina Pfleegor
The Lounge Lizard by Ed Shacklee
Two Poems by Sarah J. Sloat
Night Flight by Vicki Stannard
Koinonia Farms by Alina Stefanescu
Thessaloniki, Four a.m. by Anastasia Vassos
Imaginary Oceans by Jason Warren
Two Poems by F. J. Williams

Postcard prose

It’s Salty by Kelly Hill

Travel notes

Anchorage in the Great Land by Karen Benning
The Value of Small Money by Megan Hallinan
Screensaver by Sandra Larson
Thirty Cents by Tommy McAree
Gokarna by Kate McCahill
Going Places by Rachel Miller-Howard
Susanville CA: Notes From The Road by Susan Volchok