[Sketch & Words] Birthday Locomotive

(Back of envelope, no reference, 5 minutes.) Today’s my father’s birthday and I drew him a train on the back of his envelope. 


You can stop there and laugh at the terrible lack of regard for perspective or how locomotives work, but you can also read the  longer story of why I love trains, of the most beautiful painting in the world, and of the time my father spent all day with just little old me. 

The earliest birthday I can recall is my 5th. It was my first birthday in America and my mother had flogged six balloons from a person who worked in the same food court she did, and worked late so we could afford to buy me a cake. My father spent the entire day with me and stayed home to wait with me for my mom to get off work. He even paid attention to me for the whole day. I remember being satisfied that the cheapest option for candles was still the most colorful option: a detachable train set, complete with a caboose! I wasn’t as much of a fan of locomotives as I am now, but I chose them because they were colorful and we were poor and I wanted so much to feel special. What makes a kid feel more special than so many colors?

I recall privately figuring you could reuse the trains, which were little plastic candleholders and didn’t actually move, and had selected them hoping I would get a cake in future years, too. It seemed an impossible and luxurious dream at the time. Who gets cake every year?! 

But what I remember most of all, was my very busy father sitting down, still, painting a beautiful card for me on printer paper. It was my colorful set of trains carrying a birthday message for me. I’d never known there could be so much beauty in his harried soul. To this day, after seeing so much sublime art, it’s still the most beautiful painting in my heart.

Poem: Mourning Kevin

For KS

I like to watch
the little motions
of people
the memory in a land so
like forgetting you lost your heart yesterday
and kept reaching to grind
chapped hands against another rasp of grief,
against everything
a boy echoing
from deep underneath
building momentum until
he crashes against
the inexorable drove
of life
like a broken clef
dead of the turn of
an asphalt road in a vacant zip code.

I always thought I’d be the first to go.
I hadn’t
told them the secret importance of life yet,
my children,

I dream in moments.
I dream in lives.
I’m still here.

–JZ Gong, 2015

Poem: Competitive Real Estate

There are no houses left.

In the blind striving I can see
stuttering behind your wide eyes
mistaking a tide of numbers
for enthusiasm.

All I wanted
was a place to be left
to be left alone in.
You didn’t need to guess how much I would want
a yard to look out to
from my workroom spire.

I’d rather you think
of your children
and not perform
the magical transmutation of responsibility
for nurturing that I watched my parents do from afar.

Shining. Fearful. Feral with civility.

–JZ Gong, 2015

I Found It by Fadwa Tuqan

I found it on a radiant day
after a long drifting.
It was green and blossoming
as the sun over palm trees
scattered golden bouquets;
April was generous that season
with loving and sun.

I found it
after a long wandering.
It was a tender evergreen bough
where birds took shelter,
a bough bending gently under storms
which later was straight again,
rich with sap,
never snapping in the wind’s hand.
It stayed supple
as if there were no bad weather,
echoing the brightness of stars,
the gentle breeze,
the dew and the clouds.

I found it
on a vivid summer day
after a long straying,
a tedious search.
It was a quiet lake
where thirsty human wolves
and swirling winds could only briefly
disturb the waters.
Then they would clear again like crystal
to be the moon’s mirror,
swimming place of light and blue,
bathing pool foe the guardian stars.

I found it!
And now when the storms wail
and the face of the sun is masked in clouds,
when my shining fate revolves to dark,
my light will never be extinguished!
Everything that shadowed my life
wrapping it with night after night
has disappeared, lain down
in memory’s grave,
since the day
my soul found
my soul.

–Fadwa Tuqan
(trans. Patricia Alanah Byrne, Salma Jayyusi, and Naomi Shihab Nye)

Poetry: Oranges

Yonder stands the orange-tree

Showing odd its fruits to me,

Gleaming teardrops lovers shed

Stained by passion’s heartbreak red. 
Balls of agate carmine-bright

Hung on boughs of chrysolite,

Sent a-spinning from the trees

By the mallet of the breeze. 
Now I kiss them, now inhale;

Thus my senses I regale

With their cheeks’ so tender bloom

And the sweets of their perfume. 
–Ibn Sarah

(trans. A.J. Arberry)

A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
by John Donne

Brass Compass and Pencil, by Bob Orsillo

Brass Compass and Pencil, by Bob Orsillo

As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Happy fourth wedding anniversary, my love.