Feature Friday - Alice Liang
What is your full name and where are you from?
I was born in China, spent some of my young life in Singapore, and grew up mostly in Michigan. My full name is Alice Yujing Liang, though different pieces of that name saw me through different parts of those homes.
In your own creative definition or description, please share who you are :::
I am an Asian American woman living in Brooklyn, in many ways I see myself as the process of becoming who I will be. I have only recently begun to call myself a poet; in a past life I was a portrait photographer. I am still seeking to see the world through many mediums, exploring lenses like music and data and dance, and looking for ways we can build a better world for each other.
The ghost of great-grandfather helps me up,
untwines my body from a deep-rooted branch,
picks an earthworm, taking its first flight,
sucking in fresh midrange air, off my face.
It’s so hard to die these days, better buy
your spot on this hillside while you can!
one uncle remarks from farther up the path.
He cuts against the thickness of the brush,
giant gestures of a delicate dance. The ghost
of great-grandfather chuckles, winking at me,
It is getting a bit crowded under the leaves,
and the old branches are quite in the way.
A grunt comes back in obedience. I study
the muddied contours swollen on his face.
I’ve seen you in a photo before, above
our bowl where flies feed on dragonfruit.
But this time no response returns, the swollen
April air abuzz with any language but mine.
The ghost of great-grandfather clears his own plot
in silence. The leaves of last fall decompose
right into his hands. Two other uncles wrestle
with the rake and the vine. They awaken the dust,
bloated with slumber but puffed with duty.
Seeing this, I walk my own claw into the ring.
The ghost of great-grandfather makes a home
out of concrete. One uncle bows his head,
another shepherds the beetles into procession.
Gods, each one after the other, we are.
A last uncle shakes his head at his brothers,
lost to the west, and kneels to burn paper.
A rich hive of smoke and incense seize
the midrange air. In this noumena, the ghost
of great-grandfather spits clear into the dust
to make a paste on his finger. Wordlessly,
and brotherless, I see my own birthright
name, twenty-five resurrected strokes
in dirt, etched at the end of the family
tombstone. Death tastes not unfamiliar:
forgoing one language for the other.
The ghost of great-grandfather retreats
the waters gulfing together afterlife
and a lowly worm’s forgiving ground.
The earth dries up once more.
It was good to meet you, zeng sun nü.
Don’t forget to come home some day.
With one last sweep, the uncles leave
the dead in their place. Sun-yellow
blooms stand entrusted to take guard.
The ghost of great-grandfather releases
my name back to the living.
Please describe a meaningful experience in nature from your childhood :::
I desperately want to tell you something awe-striking, like the mythic West Lake I was born by, but this is more legend than memory. I want to tell you about the sand dunes on Michigan’s lakes, the shrouds of jagged rock and cloud formations lining Huangshan, but I was older by the time all of this happened.
Instead, it’s mostly the mundane that comes to mind: the winding trees in the backseat windows on an unlit suburban street at night. A tree I climbed and fell from outside our apartment complex. A midwestern summer storm taking over the day. Making “perfume” of dirt and flowers. The shock my bare hands first felt at snow when we first moved from Singapore to Michigan.
This last one, though I was only six at the time, I remember distinctly. December in Detroit was not like any day in our old home on the equator. From there, I also recall walking home each day from kindergarten in humid heat. It would rain there, as I stood from our balcony, for a few minutes each day, cleaning the earth and starting the afternoon anew. When we found a new home in the cold, I bundled up in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, the warmest clothes I had. I felt the snow without apprehension, without fear or knowledge of frostbite. Its touch was sharp, and yet not bitter. It fell through my hands with a mind of its own. A neighbor popped out of the connecting townhouse to offer gloves, a hand-me-down, she said, from her own children. I don’t know what mix of pity and kindness drove her to do so. What made me feel welcome in something so new, what covered that unmarked plain of fresh snow behind our row of houses in a field of possibility.
What role, significance or theme does the natural world hold for your life today?
Friends close to me know I’m “not a nature person”. My memories of nature and childhood are tinted with familiarity and yet a tinge of distrust. After leaving my early childhood home in a rural village, I’ve only spent my time between suburbs and cities. And so in adulthood, though I have been privileged to see much more of its beauty, somehow that relationship has only grown more contentious.
Which is to say, once in awhile I’m reluctantly on a hike and am always entirely out of breath. Not the right kind of “nature takes my breath away”. I literally break out in a rash on my hands and feet annually on the first day I get a lot sun that year. I itch and blister and don’t let anyone hold my hand for weeks. I like being by most bodies of water, and I love hearing about other people’s favorite bodies of water, but I can’t really swim. And when the water is still, I battle mosquitoes the whole time and wonder what it is that makes my blood so sweet. I get uncomfortable, I get hot, I get cold, I get tired: I am in a fight with nature. I feel defenseless, I am reminded of my own animal self.
Despite all I said, call it fear, call it weakness, I still want to embrace those big questions we are to glean from nature. To be a good steward of it. To acknowledge my place in the dirt. To ground myself in the solace and wonder poets like Aracelis Girmay and Mary Oliver find in the earth. I sense that there’s a deep freedom in it.
Just a few months ago, I found myself passing New Year’s Eve in the otherworldly night of Joshua Tree National Park. Its darkness revealed a wild night sky, a sky that bore a nebula by Orion’s belt that I saw through a telescope in its previous waking the night before. This night, I watched the joshua trees stretch out unabashadley against those constellations. This called me to pray — no, rather, something more divine and wordless than what I have normally called prayer — at its sight. The rocks I climbed earlier in the day turned cold, unshivering, its shedding still nested in the cracks of my hands. I watched the stars pass into the next year. And for a while, I got it.
Still, I returned to the din of my New York City life. My mind tries to out-honk the sounds from the street. Unlike many, probably most of the explorations here in WTQL, I don’t usually yearn for nature. I feel steadied in the noise and the busyness, perhaps because I feel more in control. But the natural world is out there, neither waiting for nor rushing me to return. Some days, it wakes me with new colors of dawn, paces me with curbsides puddles, and calls to me from a summer storm: I am nature, you are animal, and we belong.
Memory From Biting Into A Kumquat
We grew up chasing the groves in our backyards, my first love & I.
Before the highway construction cemented over our lands,
the yard was acres of rice patties and lush greenhouses and
heads of cabbage. There were these trees at just our height,
ripe for picking like young love.
Old aunties would joke at my maturity:
he was six, I was five, and we climbed up the ladder to any roof
we could climb, peeled our findings in the shape of flowers,
presented them as the most beautiful of gifts. In that sweetness,
we taught each other to count with the stars just setting over
a bend in the sky, back when there were no lighttime nights
lining the highways, on which apart we would one day ride.
Sideways rays gleamed on burrowed bodies
Subdued with a blanket of sunlit sleep
With city bustle silenced, dreams drifted with
Salted fragrance of sea in the August breeze
Afar a scene of lovers' play in forgiving waves
We sat contented in the last of summer's days
Soon I will no longer be allergic to the sun
The scars will dissolve seeds into my skin
Soon the seven red mounds mosquitoes
slapped on the back of my hand will too fade
Soon even the scent of Wai Po's well water
will dissipate from the clothes hand-washed
Soil and sickness beat over a stone basin
The thick of cloth dried in the Taizhou sun
Soon all will give way to softener in spin cycle
Spinning and memory will too come to end
I need to replace that old travel toothbrush
and stop living in a long state of emergency
Will I forget then what it is like to be held
How she cradled the fresh eggs for breakfast
These mornings I awake not to quiet snoring
but patter of basketballs on the courts below
The tree in the backyard surprising this spring
with the same soft flowers as the kind blooms
Lining the fields of the low valleys I once knew
Perhaps they are other blossoms, all the same
Casting a pink onto a wall sacred with sunrise
Taking heed of that wretched sailor's warning
Will the careful love I finally collected weep
through Wai Po’s bamboo weaved baskets
What will remain when this fortnight is awash
with new hope but still soaked in old traumas
Will I sail past sleepless nights again or do I
Let the tide swim me back to my birthland then
Follow Alice on Instagram @alissey