Six Poems from The Mustard Seed

Forty Years Later: What I Know

Let me say this about immigrants who burrow through the earth
to swim in rivers whose names they lisp,
Mississippi, Missouri—so many esses, hisses, misses,
the Grand Canyon they fly over with paper wings.

I love the way they step off a plane or boat into a silky twilight
towing belongings—prayer beads, bamboo flutes, jute bags—
scraps of this and that, passports and photographs,
leaving behind scorched chimneys, banana leaves,
monkeys hanging by their feet from trees.

But here is what they do not say—

We will never be whole again.
We cannot, in truth, uproot.
We will grow fins, wings, scales, tails, water-colored third eyes.
We will use our arms as legs, heels as fists, bellies and backs as floats.
We will fill our mouths with ash.

We will chill our teeth
drink the acrid wine of separation
and sleep through occasions—birth, death, days between—
for this one chance to awaken
grateful, still surprised.


Mustard Seed

for Maria: 1951 – 1956

I see you in kernels of rice,
palisade cells of leaves,
humble mustard seeds and redwood trees,

xylem veins carrying water, not blood,
phloem with sugars and minerals,
stomates like nostrils flaring, respiring,

transpiring, anchoring roots to earth,
branches to heaven. When you shape clouds, flood plains,
rain upon a parched palm,

you are half god, half woman,
yellow as turmeric, fragrant as cloves,
constant as the eventide.



for Zarina

The Tongariro river flows above Lake Taupo, south of Hamilton, and meets the ocean on the west coast of New Zealand.

The river flows around the curve,
Around our hearts, along the reef,
Then swerves and flows into the sea.

You went to live in A-o-te-a-roa,
The land of fleece and long white cloud,
Where the river flows around the curve.

Where rocks are steep, the clay too red
To drain our sorrow well before
It swerves and flows into the sea.

Where silver ferns and panga trees
Belie the anger of the sea.
The river flows around the curve,

Around our days of mud and silt,
Across the earth the river bends,
Then swerves and flows into the sea.


In Space

If I step lightly on water like Christ,
tread waves till I touch the horizon,
lift and soar to outer space
as Saturn’s tenth ring, or
Pluto’s first moon;
if I lie beside the Virgin,
below the Lion’s tail,
one hundred and ninety light years away,
could I escape those cold, blue,
elliptical moons in your eyes?


Specimen Child

for Anjali

“Diatom cells are the most beautiful organisms on earth, the most abundant species in oceans.”  —Miller and Levine

I observe you,
my little diatom

on a slide, 40x magnified,
in a buoyant drop of water,
your intricate, silicate cell walls
etched with fine lines
and brilliant glassy designs.

I watch you swim,
flicking your cilia,
lashing back at me with long flagella,
forward, sideways, diagonally,
deflecting childhood,
propelled inevitably
toward womanhood.


Passive Diffusion

My students knot one end of a dialysis tube,
pour in a teaspoon of a starch and glucose solution,
tie tight the other end,
and immerse the tube in a beaker of water
spiked amber with iodine.

Slowly, the tube turns sea blue and bluer still,
as iodine diffuses into the tube,
turning starch dark as ink,
moving from high to low concentration,

down its gradient,
the way perfume travels from a woman’s wrist
to her lover’s nostrils,
or rosemary sprigs perfume the kitchen sill.

They learn that glucose diffuses out the tube,
sweetens water in the beaker,
moving from high to low concentration,
down its gradient,
the way honey swirls, thick in the center.

But starch, molecules too large,
are trapped within the tube,
the way grief,
blue-black blocks of sorrow
are trapped within our hearts.

I love how molecules move down gradients naturally,
with no input of energy,
the way I want my days to be,
no pumps, drips, computer chips—
just passive diffusion.