The Rules of the Kitchen

Vol XXXVIII, Truth is Black Rubber


Truth is Black Rubber


Smell of carbon black,
built under immense heat
and pressure.

Boys play with 
the rubber doughnut
of the earth
through which the sky
is visible and green
mountains and valleys.

Tire rolls down a hill.
A boy watches
its descent.

His friend sits on
the other tire, legs
on either side and waits,

both fixated on the rolling
as if all reality is in this moment
of a spinning rubber circle.


Inspired by H'mong kids of North Vietnam



Agent Orange

It’s difficult to be alone, without
a mother’s touch, in a crib like a
baby except one is not.

A son taught to live with a thirst
for a mother who loves her child though
one of his legs is too short, the other too long.

He sits, arms bent and limp, but do not
avoid him; he wants to interact. His swollen eyes
and misshapen head leans back. In a dream
Mother holds him close, as if by her embrace alone,
she will somehow right the wrong.

The chemical traveled through her placenta,
to the womb where small limbs that needed
to form couldn’t, where the tiny body,
the size of a fist, no longer knew what to do.

It was named for the orange band
around each fifty-five gallon drum.

Orange as a sunrise that permeates one’s soul, 
how its rays cover the sky
and the earth with a deep orange, 

rising each day to bathe the world 
for nearly half a century as those bodies
that long to belong to this world also rise. 



Song of Massacre

“I would say that most people in our company didn't consider the Vietnamese human.”
—Dennis Bunning, a U.S. Army soldier during the My Lai Massacre


On March 16, 1968

The day etched into
my birth certificate
eight years later,
at the end of the war,
though not my real birthday.

500 deaths of unarmed
civilians: women and children,
raped, implosion of unwanted flesh
like unwavering knives and bullets.
Babies thrown to the ground.

Red stains the flag, stains the sky.
Stains the soil soaked
down to roots.

Life’s liquid stains my heart red
on the day after
the Ides of March
and before St. Patrick’s.

Scrunched between an omen
of death and shamrocks

every year to remind me
what it means to be human.




A Priori


The distance between
the joey and the mother
is two feet.
The distance between
the joey and the mother
is forever
after she expels her baby
from the pouch
when chased by a predator.


The mother bird abandons
her nest after a suspected
Birds make cost-deficit calculations -
risk death or leave her young.


A mother rat eats her whole
litter when stressed.
Then, she regains her energy.


A mother sells her child
in the hopes of a better life
or for greed.


A proposal by someone to my mom            
after the Vietnam War: Why don’t
you sell your baby, you don’t have
anything to eat?

The response by my 4-year-old
brother: No, don’t sell my sister!
There are lots of cockroaches for us to eat!

When I returned to the country
18 years later, I saw them –
large, brown shiny tanks on the wall,

evidence of my brother’s love for me.



Water Buffalo

A village in Vietnam.

One story:

Between 1975 to 1984,
my father, in “re-education”
camp, worked the job of a
thousand pound water buffalo,
because he was considered an animal.

He pulled a plough, strapped
around his shoulders, trudging
knee-high through rice fields.
With each step he took,
his foot sank and body became
heavy. The metal teeth of the plough
dug into the wet earth and father pulled
as if he was carrying the entire mountain
of Hoang Lien Son.

This job was devoid of the games and laughter of children.
In the recesses of father's mind was the faint 
whisper of his son and daughter - so distant
however, almost non-existent.

Another story:

When a droplet of sunrise
blends its colors into
the dark sky,
the workday begins.
An older child in the family,
knee deep in water, tends
the water buffalo.
He brings the animal into
the rice fields to plough,
the tedious pull, muscles
in the body tense, softening the dirt
and mud below. Other children and women
bend over to plant rice seeds
into the holes and loosened soil.

In the late afternoon,
the small children
bring their water buffalos
to graze in the grasslands.

While their water buffalos
munch, the children
chase each other,
tell stories and laugh.

Then the children take
their water buffalo to a pond,
its body submerged in water,
its gentle head gaze.
The children, scrubbing and talking,
wash the water buffalos’ bodies
with clean water.

Play mingles with work
and the children stand
on the backs of their
balancing and wobbling.
They yell, so the creature
will move around.

At dusk, the children ride
their water buffalos home
in the receding sunlight, slow and
majestic. Their bare feet dangling
from the animal’s sides, their bodies
tired, sore, and dirty from a day’s
work, their hair wet.

On the children’s mouths and
the water buffalos’ backward
curving horns - 
the nuance of a smile.





Stratus clouds
touching the ground,
an ocean of fog,
air lifted then cooled
to the temperature
of saturation

and equilibrium.

A whole village
is blanketed
in the aerial spray
of chemical genocide.

The soft clouds cover

In a field, a grandmother
carries her grandchild
in a pouch on her back
as she works.
Their heartbeats

People who are connected
to the earth, know its secrets –
medicinal, weather, plants for dyeing.

A woman
concentrates intensely
with a sewing needle,
which becomes
an extension of her body.
Between her fingers,
the point dives into cloth
and emerges, pulling along
colored patterns, stories
and customs into handmade

H’mong is a word
that means “freedom”.
It is difficult to cross
the Mekong River
to a refugee camp
without getting killed.

The earth is hardened
but the cluster of flowers
push through.

How many dead flowers scatter about the lands?






A pearl in my hand.
I was born in this “Paris” of buildings
and monuments, of war remnants,

of flags that stand side by side in the street,
of motorbikes that circle and circle,
drawing rings of light into the dark night,

winding like a sparkler in the hand
of a spinning child. Air thick with exhaust,
a greasy film covers the face.

Black-and-white clouds of ash and polluted
air hang above. City of barefoot children,
of bright, yellow sunlight that makes

a woman’s dress stick to the skin.
City of apartments that look
as if a strong wind could blow them

over into the sandy streets. Sheets
cover openings in walls. People sell
food and knick-knacks on the street under

apartments. Conversations and engines fill
the ears. City of Pho, of few Buddhist temples,
of children who beg with bowl in hands.

This falling, a heart’s tearing, like thousands of miles
from branch to soil, the turning leaf
flutters in the breeze in a slight confusion

of where it should be.

I am drawn to grass,
to fields and forests, mountains, sunsets
and cities, skies that I have seen in dreams,

to twigs from which this city is named,
from which I once fell. 



Wired Swan

For my son -

Born into wire fencing, gazing
at the penned-in sky.

Someone is always watching, tapping, tapped.
And there is a regimen to follow

that consists of standardized testing, of sitting
still from class to class to class.

Encapsulated swan:
Such is this world. There is the

weightlessness of water and reflections.
The stretching of pure white wings
into the lightness of the air.

How they flap and flap and flap
until the entire body presses upon barbs.
My dear swan, white as the clouds

never yet reaching.
Insatiable instinct reigns in feathers, beak
and curving neck, the desire to be.

Someday, you will learn to curve
your neck back towards your body,
catch and pull the wires between your beaks,

snap them with the jagged edges of teeth
and though sore and scarred,
release a hauntingly beautiful song.




Chinese Female Kung-Fu Superheroes


are real. They jump from roof-top
to roof-top, can do a backward flip
down to the concrete floor and land
perfectly on two feet.

The metal of swords clang,
the body moves with the precision
of a praying mantis striking
its prey.

Their dresses are colorful, long
and lacy billow and flair
with each turn and twist.

Jewelry in the hair dangle and sparkle.

Chinese female kung-fu superheroes
are smart, fight bad guys, do good deeds,
and risk their lives.
They appear when least expected.

Chinese female kung-fu superheroes
never give up. They travel often alone
by foot through mountains. They work hard
training to master various martial arts forms.

They do not care about the Barbies in commercials,
those plastic dolls of only one hair color
that just looked pretty in the 80’s. They weren’t
impressed; they do not want a boring life.

Chinese female kung-fu superheroes venture out
and save cities against villains. They steal into the night
in their black ninja-like suits, soundlessly through a house
to recover a magical sword and to release a prisoner,
knowing exactly where to press with their two fingertips
upon the pressure points to freeze
the guards and to accomplish their mission.


Inspired by Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey



A Letter to Grandma

In your physical absence,
the hologram of me
still contains you
like a cut leaf -
you are part of the light
scattered from me so that even
a tiny fragment, an eyelash,
will still contain the whole of you.



Vietnamese Globe

In Vietnamese, the word “to live”
is a circle. A question mark rests
at the top and a comma to the right
of the question. Except, the question
mark has no dot at the bottom,
so the curve is like the curve of a cane
where the hand grips

or a squiggle of hair from the head.
It is a beautiful word like a
painting. Round as a ball
and at the summit of this living,
one wonders and pauses.

The earth is shaped like this word, circling.
Cycling – carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen,
water, sediments.
A bird with a worm wiggling from its
beak will eventually become Origin.

I was once a tree or a tree was once me.
My mouth opens wide and spherical
to sound this Vietnamese globe -