Chè Bắp

By Jenna Le

Poem

In the backyard, Father grew
ears of sweet corn,
green-swaddled blimps
of ocher bluster.

When the wind gusted over,
the stalks bowed so low
their rigid plumes
would graze the cakey dirt.

On the designated day,
Father would gather the ears
and heap them, firewood-like,
in the house;

then Mother, with her
preternaturally clean hands, nearly
too pale to be Vietnamese,
would husk them,

exposing their firmly pebbled
yellow nudity
to her black eyes’ scrutiny.
With the only knife in the drawer

precise enough to suit her,
she sliced the cobs
into cylinders
of uniform size—lop! lop!—

then, unclosing her palms,
dropped them to their fate
at the bubbly base
of her simmering black pot.

The corn pudding thus made was called
chè bắp. This was served
in tiny fingerbowls
of swan-white porcelain

that never saw daylight
on any occasion but this.
On the side of each bowl
was tattooed in red

a Chinese motif, meaning “joy.”
Five times did I have the pleasure
of tasting chè bắp,
of using my spoon to scrape the delicate

skin off the top. Then a scourge of squirrels
wiped out Father’s crop.
He and Mother shrugged.
Never again.

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JENNA LE, a second-generation Vietnamese-American born and raised just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, holds a B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University and an M.D. from Columbia University. She has worked as a physician in Queens and the Bronx, New York. She is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Poetry Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (forthcoming from Anchor & Plume Press on February 29, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, book criticism, and poetry translations from the French appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Asian American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, Measure, Mezzo Cammin, PANK, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. She has been a guest poetry editor for Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, an editorial assistant for the New York Quarterly, and an editorial board member of the Pharos. When not busy reading, writing, or doctoring, she enjoys drawing, savoring a hot cup of tea (no milk or sugar, please!), and playing Boggle with friends and/or strangers on the internet.

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