Tag Archives: identity

Fast Gas

When I was about 14, I worked for a gas station doing their accounting! It’s clear looking back, that it was work they definitely didn’t want to do and it’s doubtful I was any good at it. I have had work that is traditionally defined as women’s work and jobs traditionally defined as men’s work. Both are freeing in their own ways.

On a different thread, I have also responded unusually to a situation, but have never expressed that as exquisitely as this poem does.

Fast Gas                                                                                 Dorianne Laux

 for Richard

Before the days of self service,

when you never had to pump your own gas,

I was the one who did it for you, the girl

who stepped out at the sound of a bell

with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back

in a straight, unlovely ponytail.

This was before automatic shut-offs

and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,

I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas

backed up, came arcing out of the hole

in a bright gold wave and soaked me — face, breasts,

belly and legs. And I had to hurry

back to the booth, the small employee bathroom

with the broken lock, to change my uniform,

peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin

and wash myself in the sink.

Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt

pure and amazed — the way the amber gas

glazed my flesh, the searing,

subterranean pain of it, how my skin

shimmered and ached, glowed

like rainbowed oil on the pavement.

I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,

for the first time, in love, that man waiting

patiently in my future like a red leaf

on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty

that asks to be noticed. How was I to know

it would begin this way: every cell of my body

burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me

a nimbus of light that would carry me

through the days, how when he found me,

weeks later, he would find me like that,

an ordinary woman who could rise

in flame, all he would have to do

is come close and touch me.


Please Call me by my True Names

This is a well known poem, particularly as the plight of the young girl who is raped is based on a very real truth. The author, Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that he could be either a saint or a devil, he is both. Can any of us say otherwise?

Please Call me by my True Names                                                  Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.


Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.


I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.


I am a mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.


I am a frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.


I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.


I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.


I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his ‘debt of blood’ to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.


Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up

and the door of my heart

could be left open,

the door of compassion.


From Thich Nhat Hanh: After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, “Yes.”

Mother Lets Off a Little Steam

This poem is a wild ride well worth a car trip. The life that is embedded in the story through the images and dialogue is wonderful. The mother and daughters are very familiar as well as the conflicts inherit to family and writing dilemmas. Enjoy!

Mother Lets Off a Little Steam                                              J. Allyn Rosser

I don’t know how I’m expected to get anything done

with these two constantly at odds, cranky sisters

in the backseat on a long ride to the wrong place.

Muse wants the Tunnel of Love on a roller coaster,

and to be spirited there on something more elegant

than a carpet. She’d better marry rich, is all I can say.

Truth wants a deserted rest area with a flat rock to sit on.

I’m not kidding. This is what she’d like the most.

A view of flat rock from a seat of flat rock.

There’s a scuffle. “Do I have to stop this car or what?”

But I’m going seventy, we’re late, it’s rush hour,

there’s no berm to stop on and they both know it.

Muse pops up in the rearview, rhinestone ruby shades

bouncing painful darts of light into the corner of my eye.

“I have to go again,” she hiccups. It’s a ruse.

She wants, as always, a new gewgaw, a rainbow slurpee,

or one of those impossible-to-lick seriously huge lollipops.

Her candy breath reaches and nearly sickens me.

Whereas Truth is so stolid, so smugly abstemious,

it makes you want to shake her hard, knock the wiser-than-

you-know gaze askew, disturb the pristine implacability

of those conspicuously ringless hands folded in her lap.

Placid as a cow in the shade on a hot day.

Oh I love them, you know, but on days like this—

Sit down,” Truth says, levelly. “Try and make me!”

In terms of strength you wouldn’t want to put your money

on Muse. Truth has always been a good eater,

fond of climbing outdoors. Built like a moose.

Her sister craves exotic sauces and chocolate,

and some weird combinations of tart and savory,

but try getting her to eat one pea. One grain of plain rice.

She’s slight in form but tricky, reckless, unpredictable,

and in certain situations this defeats Truth,

who simply has to be right about everything.

So in spite of her years and her methodical,

relentless scrutiny, she often misses the point.

Meanwhile her sister will just up and blurt something

that at first makes no sense, but then it turns out

to be astonishingly right, the more you think about it.

That’s what really ticks off Truth, when we say

“the more you think about it.” Her eyes narrow

and her face just sort of shuts down. You pity her then.

She likes her facts neatly stacked on the table.

Muse shrugs a lot, changes sides like a fish,

isn’t fazed by paradox. I think she thrives on it.

“Sit,” Truth says again, “DOWN.” “Why should I,

you’re jealous because I’m taller than you.”

“You are not,” “Am too.” “Are not.” “My head

almost touches when I stand but you have to stoop,

so I’m taller.” “No way,” “My eyes are higher. See?”

There is a muffled thump. “Don’t make me stop this car,”

I say stupidly, but else can I do? Muse snickers,

Truth snorts softly. I can’t help it, I keep going,

“I’m never taking the two of you with me anywhere

ever again!” “Okay,” says Truth. “Fine with me,”

Muse sings out. Now they’re in league I can’t win.

They know perfectly well that without Muse there is no vehicle

without Truth no road.

The Secret life of Barbie and Mr. Potato Head

It’s hard to believe Barbie and Mr. Potato Head would get it on, but it’s not impossible!

The Secret life of Barbie and Mr. Potato Head                  Nin Andrews


It began the year Jane received her first Barbie, and Dick was given

Mr. Potato Head for Christmas. Jane loved Barbie. She especially loved

undressing Barbie. So did Mr. Potato Head. Soon Barbie and Mr. Potato

Head were slipping off alone to dark corners. The first time it happened

Jane’s mother was fixing a salad for supper: cottage cheese nestled on

a crisp bed of lettuce with canned pears on top. Barbie was nervously

popping her heard off and on. Jane, her mother called, would you please set

the table? That’s when Jane told her mother that Barbie was engaged to

marry Mr. Potato Head.


Of course even Jane knew Mr. Potato head was the perfect match

for Barbie. She was afraid her Barbie might be jealous of all the other

Barbies in her neighborhood who had acquired handsome Kens for

their husbands. But she soon realized her mother was right. Her mother

always said looks aren’t everything. Besides, Mr. Potato Head could make

Barbie laugh. And he could do a lot more things with his detachable nose

and pipe and ears when her mother wasn’t looking. He, unlike Ken, was

the kind of man who could change himself for a woman like Barbie.

No problem, Mr. Potato Head would say whenever Barbie requested yet

another body part.

Let America Be America Again

Langston Hughes  !1902-1967) is an important poet who was well known in his time and his words resonate in today’s world as well. This poem offers up a great open dialogue in a unique form which points to the different Americas we still live in racially and economically.

Let America Be America Again                                                                               Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.


(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.


(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.


(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)



This poem was well received in my classes. The story and the meaning is strong and clear. Appropriation is something we all think about whether we use that word or not for how we build identity. Enjoy and remember who your ancestors were and what they had to do to survive.

Cajun                                                                                     Sheryl St. Germain


I want to take the word back into my body, back

from the northern restaurants with their neon signs

announcing it like a whore. I want it to be private again,

I want to sink back into the swamps that are nothing

like these clean restaurants, the swamps

with their mud and jaws and eyes that float

below the surface, the mud and jaws and eyes

of food or death. I want to see my father’s father’s

hands again, scarred with a life of netting and trapping,

thick gunk of bayou under his fingernails,

staining his cuticles, I want to remember the pride he took

gutting and cleaning what he caught; his were nothing

like the soft hands and clipped fingernails that serve us

in these restaurants cemented in land, the restaurants nothing

like the house we lived and died in, anchored in water,

trembling with every wind and flood.


And what my father’s mother knew:

how to make alligator tail sweet, how to cut up

muscled squirrel or rabbit, or wild duck,

cook it till it was tender, spice it and mix it all up

with rice that soaked up the spice and game so that

it all filled your mouth, thick and sticky, tasting

like blood and cayenne. And when I see the signs

on the restaurants, Cajun food served here,

it’s like a fish knife ripping my belly, and when I see

them all eating the white meat of fat chickens

and market cuts of steak or fish someone else

has caught cooked cajun stye, I feel it

again, the word’s been stolen, like me,


That Half is Almost Gone

This is a great poem for looking at and thinking about assimilation, expectation, and identity.  I began to understand the poem when I explored and found out that peaches originally come from China. Not Georgia or Alabama!

I also wanted a poem that used the page differently.  Here is what the poet says about it:

Marilyn Chin: I like using the page as a “compositional field,” where I could set up a poem as either an internal argument or an argument with the other.

I couldn’t get the right look for the poem on the wordpress page. Here’s a link to how the poem should look:  http://archivio.el-ghibli.org/index.php%3Fid=1&issue=08_33&section=3&index_pos=1&inlingua=t.html

That Half is Almost Gone                            Marilyn Chin

That half is almost gone,

the Chinese half,

the fair side of a peach,

darkened by the knife of time,

fades like a cruel sun.

In my thirtieth year

I wrote a letter to my mother.

I had forgotten the character

for “love.” I remember vaguely

the radical “heart.”

The ancestors won’t fail to remind you

the vital and vestigial organs

where the emotions come from.

But the rest is fading.

                                 A slash dissects in midair,


more of a cry than a sigh

(and no help from the phoneticist).

You are a Chinese!

My mother was adamant.

You are a Chinese?

My mother less convinced.

Are you not Chinese?

My mother now accepting.

As a cataract clouds her vision,

and her third daughter marries

a Protestant West Virginian

who is “very handsome and very kind.”

The mystery is still unsolved –

the landscape looms

over man. And the gaffer-hatted fishmonger –

sings to his cormorant.

And the maiden behind the curtain

is somebody’s courtesan.

Or, merely Rose Wong’s aging daughter

pondering the blue void.

You are a Chinese – said my mother

who once walked the fields of her dead –

Today, on the 36th anniversary of my birth,

I have problems now

even with the salutation.

I Go Back to May 1937

This must be one of my favorite poems, it always make me happy to think of it.  It is rather somber so maybe that’s strange. Primarily, I remember the line about wanting to live.  That thought and the miserable marriage my parents would make resonates.  If I could have, would I have stopped my parents from joining their lives together?  I don’t know, but Sharon Olds makes me feel less alone.  And, if she wrote this poem after looking at a photograph I suggest  all of us writers spend some time doing that!

I Go Back to May 1937                            Sharon Olds

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips back in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it – she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to die. I want to go
up to them there in the at May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like male and female
paper dolls and bang then together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Mustang Sally Pays Her Debt to Wilson Pickett

This is a poem that evoked different conversations in each of my writing classes.  I chose it for the third stanza where Mustang Sally speaks to Marta the poet.  What do you think? Who are the different voices in the poem?

Does the song evoke anything from your life per the artists:  Aretha Franklin, Sir Mack Rice, or Wilson Pickett?  What about appropriation?  Are you sensitive to it?  From which view?

Or just enjoy the poem, it’s wonderful. Don’t miss a word of it.

Mustang Sally Pays Her Debt to Wilson Pickett                                           Marta Boswell

Aretha Franklin named me.

She heard Sir Mack Rice stir into

a Blue Rock records track he called

Mustang Mama until she told him

Sally sounded better when he wailed.


Mom says the winter I was born,

well, before that, I kicked

every time it hit the radio.

Says that’s how she knew my name.

Not that the birth certificate says

Mustang, but all the same, that’s me.


Yeah, I know. Little white girl

With a name like mine, somebody’s

gonna bitch about appropriation,

that hitch, one bunch of us

snitching something from another,

busting it to fit an awkward hole

in what we’ve got. That’s anyway,

what Marta thought last time we talked.


What I’m thinking’s mostly

that I ought to say thank you

and give credit where it’s due.

Sir Mack Rice? Pickett’s mentor.

Recorded it in sixty-four.


See, even Wilson got it secondhand

from somebody who knew better.


Imagine sitting with a group of women and talking about numbers!  Many of us do not like them.  They have a language of their own that can be loved, feared, hated, etc.   I handle numbers in a plodding manner, checking and rechecking for accuracy.  My husband on the other hand is always calculating – he can do amazing things with numbers, not needing paper or calculator.  I constantly have to ask him not to quantify things for me!  (When exactly  I’ll arrive when driving long distance, how much taxes we owe way before April, how many years we’ve been married, etc.)  Not that he can stop, it is how he applies meaning to life.  I like how Mary Cornish humanizes them, creating delightful images.

Numbers                                                                    Mary Cornish

I like the generosity of numbers.

The way, for example,

they are willing to count

anything or anyone:

two pickles, one door to the room,

eight dancers dressed as swans.


I like the domesticity of addition–

add two cups of milk and stir–

the sense of plenty: six plums

on the ground, three more

falling from the tree.


And multiplication’s school

of fish times fish,

whose silver bodies breed

beneath the shadow

of a boat.


Even subtraction is never loss,

just addition somewhere else:

five sparrows take away two,

the two in someone else’s

garden now.


There’s an amplitude to long division,

as it opens Chinese take-out

box by paper box,

inside every folded cookie

a new fortune.


And I never fail to be surprised

by the gift of an odd remainder,

footloose at the end:

forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,

with three remaining.


Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,

two Italians off to the sea,

one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.