Debra Kang Dean was born in
Honolulu, Hawai'i. A third-generation American, she is of Korean and Okinawan
ancestry. After graduating from high school, she spent one semester at
the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, then enlisted in the Air Force. She
received both a BA and an MA from Eastern Washington University on the
GI Bill, and in 1989 received an MFA from the University of Montana. She
lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two cats.
Debra's first book, News of Home, is published by BOA Editions Limited (1998). Her poems have been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 1999, The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology, Intersecting Circles: The Voices of Hapa Women, and Urban Nature: Poems About Wildlife in the City. She has new poems appearing or forthcoming in Tar River Poetry, Luna and The North Dakota Quarterly; and has recently completed a new book-length manuscript called Precipitates.
Samples of the poet's work:
Stooping to pull up a weed,
I think of my father
who made of weeding an art.
After work, he’d take a bucket
and his weeder from the toolshed
and clear an area of a yard he knew
would never look manicured,
whose quality would, at best,
be like something homemade.
He’d set the bucket upside down
and sit on it. Plotting a route
he’d shift the bucket, a move
so deft you might think he was just
leaning out to extend his reach.
He knew exactly where and what angle
to drive the weeder down,
north and south of the weed,
without severing its taproot.
When my father worked like this,
making small mounds he’d later
gather up in his bucket,
the dog would sniff at his bare feet
then lie down in the shade his body made.
Grounded there, he was most himself,
his hunger for perfection and control
giving way, finally, to the work itself.
It was easy to love him then.
Inside My House
I remember wishing
that drumming on the table
would stop. I followed
the arm up the elbow,
the shoulder, in search
of a face, so I could tell
whoever it was to stop.
Having reached the shoulder,
I could see no farther.
I stared at the hand
as it drummed on the table.
I thought hard, “Stop!”
It relaxed, then started again.
That hand was my—her hand.
No one believes I’ve slipped out
of her body. I dreamt it, though,
and told the doctor who readied
the spinal. I feared it. In recovery,
I woke to find it was so—
they told her it’s all in my head.
I don’t know how
we could live without mirrors
now. The inside of my house
is all mirrors and windowpanes.
After I’ve watched her eat her breakfast,
I can turn from the mirrored walls
and, through the nearest window,
count cars and people as they pass.
When I tire of that, I turn
back to the mirror where
out of its glass, she stares back.
If I should turn from the mirror
for even the briefest second
as she begins to stand,
she’d slump to the floor.
In mirrors I watch her walk
up the stairs and through
the hallway—left foot, right.
I concentrate so hard on her feet
I can’t see what she’s looking at.
She plops down at the foot of the bed
and her slippers drop, left then right.
It’s all right now to free her,
now as she lies on the bed
and stares at the ceiling.
Does she wonder, I wonder,
what that steady knocking is?
If I could, I’d tell her it’s me
sounding the walls of her body
in search of a way back in.
At twenty months my nephew,
having already mastered the sound
of sense, held my attention
as I sliced an apple crosswise
to show him the stars.
After he'd strung three pieces
on his finger then tossed them
on the floor, he shrieked
and kicked and pointed
an insistent finger
elsewhere. Like the dunce
who searched for fire
with a lighted lantern, Tell me,
I pleaded, tell me
you little Neanderthal.
The skeleton found at Kebara
made me rethink Neanderthal.
Among the remains a hyoid—
shaped like a wishbone almost
the length of my thumb. Bone?
I press thumb and index finger
against my throat in search
of my own hyoid bone.
The 60,000 years between us contract:
He could speak. And I—
there was a time I couldn't speak.
Some days, loving the lump in my throat
I think of the impulse to name
as Adam's curse, our apple.
Not the ash, but the bones
are the reason we cremate;
picking through what remains
with chopsticks, we're after
this one, in particular,
Arimoto insists, pointing
at his Adam's apple—
we burn off the flesh,
he says, and fire the bones
just till they break
under their own weight—
nodobotoke, we call it
Buddha in the throat.
I was eleven the first time I saw it,
the November afternoon gone
heavy and gray. I’d begun
to doze when something—
not palm fronds rustling
nor monkey pods rattling,
but more like spoons against glass
or small bells—something began
clinking against the second story’s
blue palings and rails, lightly at first,
bringing all of us, even the teacher,
to our feet and out the door.
three years before, when the staticky
Standard Oil broadcast had been
interrupted by news that brought to tears
even Miss Engard (who didn’t tax
our imaginations too hard playing
the part of witch at Halloween)
had there been so much commotion.
Seeing our teachers openly weeping
had frightened us even more than a word
concrete. Under our feet, concrete.
And all of us stretching our hands
beyond the blue rails to catch,
as they fell, clear pieces of sky
that burned a second,
melting in our hands.
for Betty Adcock
“Taproot” and “Inside My House” appear in News
of Home (BOA Editions Limited,
“Adam's Apple” and “Hail” appear in Precipitates and were published in Kestrel.
Read “Articulations” on the website can we have our ball back?
Read excerpts from “Meditations on a Rock Garden” on The East Village (Boston 1999 Volume)
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