October 19, 2020

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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