Visiting Poets

Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su

Born and raised in Atlanta, Adrienne Su studied at Harvard and the University of Virginia. Her debut collection Middle Kingdom (1997) draws from her experiences as a Chinese-American woman, and has been heralded for its ability to negotiate the “slippery, hard-to-read territory between languages, cultures, identities” by Mark Doty.

A poet who, in her own words, makes “the mundane into the stuff of poetry, rather than trying to reach for something ethereal when writing”, she has been praised by Bob Holman for her ability to “[evoke] a new land, stretching from China to suburban Virginia, across class and race divides.”

The recipient of a Pushcart Prize and the first Ralph Samuel Poetry Fellow at Dartmouth College, she has held residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her poems appear in The New American Poets, Poetry Daily, Poetry 30, Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation, and other anthologies.  

Select Poems

There are many ways of saying Chinese
in American.  One means restaurant.
Others mean comprador, coolie, green army.

I’ve been practicing
how to walk and talk,
how to dress, what to do in a silk shop.

How to talk. America: Meiguo,
second tone and third.
The beautiful country.

In second grade we watched films
on King in Atlanta.
How our nation was mistaken:

They said we had hidden the Japanese
in California.
Everyone apologized to me.

But I am from Eldorado Drive
in the suburbs. Sara Lee’s
pound cake thaws in the heart

of the home, the parakeet bobs on a dowel,
night doesn’t move.  The slumber party
teems in its spot in the dark

summer; the swimming pool gleams.
Somewhere an inherited teapot is smashed
by a baseball.  There may be spaces

in the wrong parts of the face,
but America bursts with things it was never meant
to have: the intent to outlast

the centerless acres,
the wedding cake tiered to heaven.
Every season a new crop of names,

like mine.   It’s different
because it fits on a typewriter,
because it’s first in its line,

because it is Adrienne.
It’s French.
It means artful.

Bluish and thirsty, packed tight as oranges,
they come from the coast in the iced trunk
of the blue Buick our aunt drives.  She’s sunk
in thought of dinner and not the tinges

of dread that will stain her African violets
as she tends a back pain.p She does not think
of their mother, who’ll die this fall under pink
bedclothes without a goodnight; the eyelets

of her gown will spell the Chinese words
for loneliness, lovelessness, white birds.

When our aunt and her passengers get to town,
my brother and I crouch by the crate,
poke slow ones with sticks. Two escape;
our parents chase them with tongs around

the garden, then dump all seventy-four
in the laundry-room sink. They scuttle and flip
like fat gymnasts; they amaze us kids.
We salt them, singing When it rains it pours.

They spit back curses: You’ll ache; you’ll smother;
you’ll never be able to talk to each other.

My aunt has brought me a spiny, off-yellow
shell, big as my hand. It sits
on the dryer, where I forget about it
to watch the steamer, where waving hello

and goodbye, the first mute batch reddens
and still.  I think of my shell and go back.
out of it, welt-ridden legs grasp
no sand.  He’s ugly, a hermit, threatening.

I peer in his house and read the prophecy:
You’ll find joy, but you must leave the family.

From MIDDLE KINGDOM (Alice James Books, 1997)

There are those you wish for and never get, for various reasons.
There are those you don’t want but accept, because they are persuasive.
And there are those you wish for and get,

Close in their unfamiliarity, unpredictable.
Whatever he says, whatever he orders in a restaurant,
You never know how a man is going to kiss,

And it is often worth finding out.  But half the time you end up angry
Or the object of his humiliated rage,
And you’re sorry it all happened,

Sorry for everything
Except the death-defying moment
When you broke through the wall of not-touching

and you instantly knew
Not just the sort of lover he would be
But every person he ever was:

The lean adolescent, trying new boots.
The young man, snagging a shimmering bluefish.
The living man, this minute, feeling his way through the black universe.

From MIDDLE KINGDOM (Alice James Books, 1997)

Poetry Center Reading

Spring 1999