Poem: Lessons on Lessening

Jane Wong’s poem grapples with the making of a self that’s dependent on childhood, history, comparison and societal expectations. Growing up can be overwhelming as we figure out where we came from, who we are and where we are going (all at once!). Wong writes, “I was taught that everything and everyone is self-made,” but the speaker is realizing that life will come with its own surprises, regardless of our intent, or anyone else’s. Selected by Victoria Chang

Credit…Illustration by R.O. Blechman

Lessons on Lessening

By Jane Wong

I wake to the sound of my neighbors upstairs as if they are bowling.

And maybe they are, all pins and love fallen over.
I lie against my floor, if only to feel that kind of affection.

What I’ve learned, time and again —
get up. You cannot have what they have.

And the eyes of a dead rat can’t say anything.

In Jersey, the sink breaks and my mother keeps a bucket
underneath to save water for laundry.

A trickle of water is no joke. I’ve learned that.
Neither is my father, wielding a knife in starlight.

I was taught that everything and everyone is self-made.

That you can make a window out of anything if you want.
This is why I froze insects. To see if they will come back to life.

How I began to see each day: the sluice of wings.
Get up. The ants pouring out of the sink, onto my arms in dish heavy water.

My arms: branches. A swarm I didn’t ask for.

No one told me I’d have to learn to be polite.
To let myself be consumed for what I cannot control.

I must return to my younger self. To wearing my life
like heavy wool, weaved in my own weight.

To pretend not to know when the debtors come to collect.

Victoria Chang’s fifth book of poems, “Obit” (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Timwwe Must-Read. Her book of nonfiction, “Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief,” was published by Milkweed Editions in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in Antioch University’s M.F.A. Program. Jane Wong is the author, most recently, of “How to Not Be Afraid of Everything” (Alice James Books, 2021). She is an associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University.

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