Study Guide

For a Citizen of These United States

by Li-Young Lee

For a Citizen of These United States eText - eText

Text of the Poem

Forgive me for thinking I saw
the irregular postage stamp of death;
a black moth the size of my left
thumbnail is all I’ve trapped in the damask.

There is no need for alarm. And     5
there is no need for sadness, if
the rain at the window now reminds you
of nothing; not even of that
parlor, long like a nave, where cloud-shadow,
wing-shadow, where father-shadow     10
continually confused the light. In flight,
leaf-throng and, later, soldiers and
flags deepened those windows to submarine.

But you don’t remember, I know,
so I won’t mention that house where Chung hid,     15
Lin wizened, you languished, and Ming—
Ming hush-hushed us with small song. And since you
don’t recall the missionary
bells chiming the hour, or those words whose sounds
alone exhaust the heart—garden,     20
heaven, amen—I’ll mention none of it.

After all, it was just our life,
merely years in a book of years. It was
1960, and we stood with
the other families on a crowded     25
railroad platform. The trains came, then
the rains, and then we got separated.

And in the interval between
familiar faces, events occurred, which
one of us faithfully pencilled     30
in a day-book bound by a rubber band.

But birds, as you say, fly forward.
So I won’t show you letters and the shawl
I’ve so meaninglessly preserved.
And I won’t hum along, if you don’t, when     35
our mothers sing Nights in Shanghai.
I won’t, each Spring, each time I smell lilac,
recall my mother, patiently
stitching money inside my coat lining,
if you don’t remember your mother     40
preparing for your own escape.

After all, it was only our
life, our life and its forgetting.