POETRY MONTH: 'I Love a Broad Margin to My Life' Excerpt

POETRY MONTH: 'I Love a Broad Margin to My Life' Excerpt
Welcome to Poetry Month.
 For the next thirty days, we'll send a poem into your inbox each day, and we hope you'll enjoy, comment, share on your Facebook page, and forward the works you love to others who may want to read them.


We begin the month with Maxine Hong Kingston, whose new memoir, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, is written in verse. In this fluid reflection on the experience of aging, Maxine flies backward and forward in time to visit former selves, family members, and even characters from her fiction, expanding on what has happened to them since she created them. She captures the spirit of her journey as writer, peace activist, mother and friend with the line from Walden that she takes as her title; it costs Maxine some effort, in our time, to sit in the quiet sunlight outside her writing studio and consciously widen her view, as Thoreau sat in the doorway of what he called his "dwelling-house" or "Large box" after a swim, listening to the trees and the stillness.

See links below (and each day) for extra goodies—today we offer a downloadable broadside of an excerpt from Kingston's book; new broadsides to come each Monday.

These lines are from the opening of I Love a Broad Margin.
  I am turning 65 years of age.
In 2 weeks I will be 65 years old.
I can accumulate time and lose 
time?  I sit here writing in the dark —
can't see to change these penciled words — 
just like my mother, alone, bent over her writing,
just like my father bent over his writing, alone 
but for me watching.  She got out of bed, 
wrapped herself in a blanket, and wrote down  
the strange sounds Father, who was dead,
was intoning to her.  He was reading aloud 
calligraphy that he'd written — carved with inkbrush — 
on his tombstone.  She wasn't writing in answer.
She wasn't writing a letter.  Who was she writing to?  
Nobody.  
               This well-deep outpouring is not for 
anything.  Yet we need put into exact words
what we are given to see, hear, know.
Mother's eyesight blurred; she saw trash 
as flowers.  "Oh.  How very beautiful."
She was lucky, seeing beauty, living 
in beauty, whether or not it was there.  I am often looking in mirrors, and singling 
out my face in group photographs.
Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?   
Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not.
So much depends upon lighting. 
A camera crew shot pictures of me — one of 
"5 most influential people over 60 
in the East Bay." I am homely; I am old.  
I look like a tortoise in a curly white wig.  
I am stretching head and neck toward 
the light, such effort to lift the head, to open 
the eyes. Black, shiny, lashless eyes.  
Talking mouth.  I must need utter you 
something. My wrists are crossed in my lap;
wrinkles run up the left forearm.  
(It's my right shoulder that hurts — Rollerblading
accident — does the pain show, does my hiding it?)
I should've spoken up, Don't take 
my picture, not in that glare. One side   
of my neck and one cheek are gone in black 
shadow. Nobody looks good in hard focus, 
high contrast — black sweater and skirt, 
white hair, white sofa, white 
curtains.  My colors and my home, but re-arranged.
The crew had pushed the reds and blues and greens aside.  
The photographer, a young woman, said, "Great.  Great."
From within my body, I can't sense that crease
on my left cheek.  I have to get  - win - 
compliments. "You are beautiful."  "So cute."  
"Such a kind face."  "You are simple."  
"You move fast."  "Chocolate Chip."
A student I taught long ago 
called me Chocolate Chip.  And only yesterday 
a lifelong friend told Earll, my husband, 
he's lucky, he's got me — the Chocolate Chip.  
They mean, I think, my round face 
and brown-bead eyes. I keep 
count.  I mind that I be good-looking.  
I don't want to look like Grandmother, 
Ah Po. Her likeness is the mask of tragedy.  
"An ape weeps when another ape weeps."  
She is Ancestress; she is prayed to. She 
sits, the queen, center of the family in China, 
center of the family portrait (my mother in it too, 
with generations of  her in-laws around her) — all 
is black and white but for a dot of jade-green 
at Po's ears, and a curve of jade-green 
at her wrist. Lotus lily feet show 
from the hem of her gown.  She wanted to be
a beauty.  She lived to be 100.  
My mother lived to be 100. "One 
hundred and three," she said. Chinese 
lie about their age, making themselves older. 
Or maybe she was 97 when the lady official 
from Social Security visited her, as the government visits 
everyone who claims a 100th birthday.
MaMa showed off; she pedaled her exercise 
bike, hammer-curled hot pink barbells.
Suddenly stopped — what if So-so Security
won't believe she's a century old?   
Here's a way for calculating age: Subtract 
from her age of death my age now.  
            100 – 65 = 35   
I am 35 years-to-go. 
More on this poem and author:
 Go to the Poem-a-Day website to comment on this poem, share it on Facebook, and peruse other poems.  Learn more about I Love a Broad Margin to My Life  Download the broadside: Hillsides streaming by
 


Excerpt from I LOVE A BROAD MARGIN TO MY LIFE. Copyright © 2011 by Maxine Hong Kingston. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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