Sunday Poem

My Father-in-law at Twenty

when mother-in-law is in China
father-in-law will take off his shirt
unwire the ancestral wok from the ancestral nail
mix salt and steam and cigarette ash into the fried rice
he learned to make in London.

in London when he was twenty
standing by a snowy statue in Trafalgar Square
someone taking black and white woman
in an expensive white hat.

he handsome in a dark suit
speaking dishwater English yet
the way he held his cigarette
the way he leaned towards her
dismissed the camera the cold
the woman must have understood.

I have seen those pictures
my wife knows where they are hid
and he once told me when others were in bed
how on the ship from Hong Kong to London
there was more than one fistfight with gweilo
except when the ship stopped in Egypt
a ceasefire to see the Sphinx

he has lost the photos, he says,
checking his heart,
blowing smoke away from me,
too long ago.

for my father-in-law at twenty
the sands of Egypt spicy under his feet
fists bloodied against condensation
stacks of unwashed dishes awaiting his arrival in London
and a mysterious white woman
smiling at him from under an expensive white hat
the riddles of the Sphinx must once have seemed
no more difficult than striking a match on ice.

by Timothy Kaiser
from Yuan Yang, Vol.1