Chinese Diacritics of War & Peace by Vera Kate Yuen
My grandmother learnt
the best way to muzzle tragedy
was to speak only in her mother tongue.
Rěn nài was a word she liked to use
meaning ‘to wait’ and ‘to receive’
You had to embrace pain, even if it meant satiating hunger with air.
When the world war tore apart what was peace,
she was eight, shopping with her mother.
The sirens never rang—
But when she stared into the aperture
of her mother’s scream,
it was the only sound she heard
Over& Over & Over
sharper than flashing animal teeth,
gunshots and grenade, before her anguish stilled to a portrait.
Qiáng zhuàng was what her mother taught her
to become alveolo-palatal,
petaled: defiant like flower in a drought
even as the Japanese tempested through villages,
leaving only a wake of gasping mouths to feed;
even as flames of fury frothed the skies,
even as coppered bayonets rained down in squalls,
the biblical wrath of an unseen god.
When rén appeared again,
he was a man,
Once, stranger turned husband turned father.
Now, wilting in hospital sheets because
the war never left
but raged silently in his liver instead.
Qiāng means gun, cancer means bullets
emptying a body.
A body can only be entered so many times
before a chuāng opens up
and life escapes, sighing.
Liver in Chinese is always paired with bǎo bèi,
his cold, foreign fingers entwined with hers,
mother tongue forgotten.
I clasp my grandmother’s other hand,
letting the warmth of her touch seep
into my bloodstream
Qiáng zhuàng: Being strong
Rěn nài: Endure