Bryan Tso Jones recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in Literature at California State University, Chico. In the Summer of 2005, he attended the Napa Valley Writer's Conference and will be attending the 2006 Squaw Valley Community of Writers this coming July. His work has been published in the Crab Orchard Review, Peralta Press, and Watershed.
Peeling away this skin of garlic
in this way taught to me
reveals the clove’s smooth roundness.
My knife flashes up and down
like the tapping of a wand before this
is set aside and the brown arms
and legs of ginger are chopped,
smashed into a pulp
with the fat side of a cleaver.
The silence in the afternoon breathes
when I open the cupboard with its jars of secrets.
How grandmother gathered the ingredients
as if it were a day at the market,
digging into spices heaped like graves
because Mao was coming.
Brittle jars rattled
or clinked in their place
as others were set on the counter:
hot bean paste and hoisin,
the fire of one plum-sweetened by the other;
soy sauce to mellow
the jingle of jade she rolled into silk
packed next to grandfather’s brushes.
The little space in two suitcases was lonely
as a bamboo flute playing in an tavern
of tea cups, half-eaten dishes,
its southern melody swallowed by night;
not enough for an entire house and its rooms.
The sun slants low across the counter,
follows the red and green curves of peppers
as the wok is set heavy to the stove.
Peanut oil wells, a sea along fire-black bottom.
Sliced pork sizzles
as it is stirred, my spoon held
as she did her daughter
half-dragged and half-running
towards the spinning flash
against blood purple sky,
the plane that would lift them across
to Kai-Chek’s last hold.
Peppers splash, meld with fire plum stir-fry,
their aroma brings a hotness
boiling up to my tongue and cheek—
spicy, and sweet and bitter.
Now the day lengthens,
the grass curls green
over the uncut graves
of my lawn, the bushy
countenance of Shen Nung,
grandfather wild man who bit into roots
to taste their panacea.
This blade starts
with a chug, churns insistent,
gaggles into a whirl
that cuts his hair,
levels its unkempt appearance.
And where are you, Walt Whitman,
your beard springing up
in tufts from the moundy earth,
these eagerly sought graves
of my mind?
Back and forth the red bull
drives and snorts, sputters
when it has tasted too much of grass,
of moldy leaves dumped
into the rotting can.
Their green and brown mash
smells like Ginsberg pissing
off the sidewalk in Greenwich Village
before he heads in hungry fatigue
to the supermarket in search of you.
Here, under this spinning blade,
the pungent snap of fresh-cut lawn,
you and he and Shen Nung are sharing a joke,
your beards by the lengthening days
grow wild as vines and ginseng;
dashing together naked in the sun except the tufts
that stretch down to fondle nimble ankles.
Watching this boy curse and mutter,
struggle with the eyebrows of bushy men rooted deep.
The art of cooking was planted by wise women,
when my mother and grandmother ushered me
into the noise beneath bright canopies.
My first open-air market, the art bared her rawness.
Between fanned leaf greens,
she was pungent in the baskets of five-spice.
The women coddled eggplant in their hands
narrow, long as a baton,
conversing in the secret language mother and daughter know.
In the kitchen, I watched the knife
and its older sister, the cleaver.
I witnessed the crisp explosion of wetness
scatter like rain onto wood.
With my own fingers learned
how to press into garlic, its essence stinging my nose
as it burrowed under my fingertips.
This is how I studied the masters:
when women’s hands revealed
how to slice vegetables against the grain.
Gathered by the tongues of generations,
I listened as their mouths named things.
I come to realize in my own time,
this body grows as it feeds on its own dishes.