“On the 101” by Jan Beatty

Jan Beatty

ON THE 101

An atlas on the underside of my dream
—Jennifer Elise Foerster

On the cab ride from the San Francisco airport,
the driver a guy named Thom from Southeast Asia.
Are you in town for convention? he says,
No, I say, I’m a poet, I’m here to write.
His face changes in the rearview,
he gets that look in his eye,
that flash/then retreat I’ve seen so often.
Are you a writer? I say.
Oh, no, no, he says, I work on English.
You seem like a writer to me, I say.
He smiles, I study. In my country, is hard to get education.
I have done middle school.
He grabs three books from the passenger seat, lifts them up:
This is what I do. I read these books.
I talk to people, way to learn.

The cab fills with moving air, my face waking cool
to the cirrus sky.
Wow, I say, That’s great,
it seems like a really good way to do it—
can I see those books?
His face opens, his brown eyes alive, and he
passes them back to me.
They’re written in a language I’ve never seen.
This Burmese, he says, my language.
These books I read to learn.
I’ve never seen books like these, I say.
Yes, he says,
these are my books.
Great, I say,
as I hand them back to him.

We’re driving by the San Francisco Bay,
I feel opened to the air and the great expanse.
Can I find my way to my birthfather,
poems of where I came from?
Thom hands me one of the books and says,
Gift for you.
Surprised, I say,
Oh, my—
and look at the slim green book:
the cover a waterfall with rose-colored flowers.
The cover and inside written in Burmese.
It is Buddhist book.
I am Buddhist, he says.
This is very kind of you, I say,
and Thom nods.

I don’t think I should keep this, I say,
I don’t know how to read it,
and this is one of your books.
Maybe one day you learn, he says, smiling.
I’m nodding,
yes, he’s right,
Yes, you’re right, I say,
I can learn like you’re learning.
Thank you, thanks so much.
I knew I wouldn’t learn the language, but
I’d read it, I’d feel the voices moving through me
as I held the book.
Thom is very happy and saying,
My gift to you,
and I thank him again.

The bay still there, blue with its endless stories and upheavals.
I say, When we get there, I want to give you one of my books.
Thom’s face tightens,
No, no, not that. I give you MY book. My gift.
I see I’ve upset him and say,
I know, I appreciate your gift.
But I want to give you one of my books too as a gift.
He looks at me in the rearview, his eyes serious,
as if he’s checking me for truth.
Okay. Okay, he says.
Thank you, I say.
I open the green book.
It’s all written in Burmese, with the exception
of about 10 numbered sentences in English.
I open to the first English sentence:

1. You will be given a body.

from Rattle #69, Fall 2020
Tribute to Service Workers


Jan Beatty: “I think everything goes back to being adopted, really; that’s the core of things for me. If I’m brought up not knowing my name, not knowing where I come from, being raised with lies, and then when I meet my birth parents, they’re telling me lies, or they won’t tell me the truth, it becomes really important to me. Because it’s a search for the truth. If I’m going to write poetry, I’ve always wanted a sense of the authentic.” (web)

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