Two Poems

The young mother born / with the wrong name / boards a plane.

April 1984

The young mother born
with the wrong name
boards a plane.
Flanked by
her second and third child,
she squeezes the last
of the honey from the plastic packet
and stirs
her tea
not with the flimsy stick
handed to her by the pink stewardess
but with her own stubborn finger
ignorant of etiquette or the gossip
gathering in the rows behind her.
The young mother does not check
her watch
during any of the 19 hours
her first flight her first time
over the Pacific Ocean—
that blue expanse on the map from
Manila to Milkenhoney, California.
She watches white
cartoon clouds
out of the oval window
practices her English
wiggles in the heat of
her cloth corset to hide her size
and keeps a flat hand
on her belly
as if to say
soon enough soon enough.
In three weeks, her last child,
small-eyed his skin lighter than the others
will be born:
he will hear the clatter of two languages
stories about home from the others and
cry for his mother’s milk.

Across the Pacific Ocean

To stand still
is to sink in sand.
Swim past the buoy where the guard can’t see.
In the photograph that you show me every holiday
we have the same conversation about
eating guavas on the beach, the black sand, and
when when when I will go back.
Painted blue and slate and
white from corner to corner,
the ocean extends past
the canvas edge. I hang
it backwards to see
the art behind the art.
At the ruins of the Sutro Baths.
100 years ago, people met
there and nowhere else.
It was here
where we learned how
to be naked around other bodies.
At dawn, gulls command and will the day.
Then, the machinery of the city—
its beaming commerce burns off all fog.
The ocean brings it back. She cannot sleep.
August 16, 2013:
One kilometer from your
port of call, two ships collide
in the middle of the night.
The hull of the ferry Thomas Aquinas
is now a mouthless whale.
Children slept in her belly.
And there were others…
How do you weigh an ocean?
I have no poems for the Atlantic.
Or New York. Or Europe either.
I look westward:
from home to home.
On the plane, I ate cubed fruit from a plastic cup.
I drank true milk. I looked out the window
learned to pronounce my names
and how to spell them.
The only way to know a song is to sing it.
The only way to know the ocean is to swim it.
I cannot wait any longer for the tides to rise to me.

About the author

Jan-Henry Gray was born in Quezon City, Philippines and moved to California with his family when he was six years old. He grew up in Southern California and lived in San Francisco where he cooked in restaurants for more than twelve years. He received his BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and his MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago. He has received fellowships and awards from the Juniper Writing Summer Institute, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the inaugural Undocupoets Fellowship. His work has been published in Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, Fourteen Hills, Puerto del Sol, Southern Humanities Review, and other journals. His first book, Documents (BOA Editions, Ltd.), won the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in the spring of 2019.