Rumpus Original Poetry: Four Poems by Cameron Quan Louie





from Apology Engine


We  can  apologize directly  to  poems  for so much,  but  they rarely
apologize back  to us.  Some of the poems I love most are horrifying
to  me.  Please  tell me,  for the love of god,  why  is  the peignoir  so
complacent?  I  beg  the  poems  for  closure and tell them how much
they’re  hurting  me.  I  buy  daffodils  and  chocolate  at  the grocery
store,  leave them  at the poem’s  doorstep.  But the gesture  is  never
reciprocated.  While   every  poem  has   the  potential   to  make   an
apology,  like people,  most of them  are actually so busy apologizing
to themselves  that  you’d need  to  practice a rare patience. Choosing
to  forgive  oneself  removes  the distance  between the  ideal self and
the real self.  The  poem’s  ideal  self  eats  mostly quinoa,  alternates
between cardio  and free-weights three days a week. The poem’s real
self looks in the mirror and tries not to see you in the reflection. Who
is going to speak first.


* * * * *


I’m sorry I’ve never been to China. I said this to a man I met after a
lecture. He was a true hyperpolyglot. He said beautiful things to me
in French, then Arabic. English, Spanish, Mandarin. He drank beer
and I took  little sips  of each  description of the places I’d honestly
made no sincere effort to visit. What I assume are the clouds above
the mountains in Canton. The smell of tea leaves roasting in a wok.
I think he took  offense at how little I understood, despite the pains
he’d taken to  learn to  communicate.  I took  offense at the way he
spoke to  himself  through  me,  though I, too,  love to  sing  a little
louder in the shower if I know that someone’s listening in the next
room. And we knew that we would never see each other again, and
it  is  meaningless  to apologize  to all  the people you  never finish
revealing yourself to.


* * * * *


I’m sorry for trying to write a poem about being Chinese. Well, half.
I’m sorry for trying to write a poem as  a half-Chinese  person, or at
the very least,  I’m sorry for trying to write a half-poem about being
a person. It’s  tricky to  apologize  for  certain  things.  Even when I
write a respectable poem, I have the feeling there is nothing Chinese
about it.  The  familiar  schoolyard taunt  gets  at  the heart of things:
Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees.  Muddled, lacking purity. And  how
can you  love  such a thing?  It was  the  same question that came up
when the poem  was  not a poem,  but a spiral of prose: Am I related
to you? Should we hug? And  would it matter to anyone that despite
being an utter snowflake in my dress and attitudes towards food and
approaches  to  poetry,  my middle name illuminates my body like a
heat-stroked  summer  moon?  I  didn’t  even  know  I was a Golden
Horse  until  my  friend  forced  me  to google “zodiac for June.” No
way to be Chinese and not in the same sentence—which  is why I’m
grateful  for  the  line.  If   there’s   anything   that   understands   the
dissonance, it is enjambment.  A muddy pause, to crease, a thankful
split in I. Is it more pleasing, pluralized? Look at these.


* * * * *


Every time  we’re  near  the  water,  I  have  an  unbearable  urge to
apologize to the squid I dissected in elementary school. What did it
teach   me?   Years   after   the    desecration,   I’m   finally   getting
uncomfortable always thinking of myself as lesson.  Education is  a
cruelty  that  never  ends.  She  carried  a cluster  of eggs  like  small
grapes.  I pinched  her  single  ovary and turned a clump to brick-red
paste. I’m sorry I didn’t know, a squid has three kinds of heart. As I
approached  her  sack of ink,  I lovingly nudged  one and  two aside,
left three in place. As I broke the pen  of her spine and slid it around
the  feathery  prism  of  gill-meets-gland-below-mantle,  a split-open
aspic  readied  its voice.  Even today,  there  are  summer camps  for
these barbarics. And there was my prize: enough pigment for one or
two small letters.


Photograph of Cameron Quan Louie by Zoe Rose Lambert.

Cameron Quan Louie lives in Tucson, where he works with poetry nonprofit POG. He received his MFA from the University of Washington. In 2019 he received a grant from the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona for his poetry and photography series, Domestic. His forthcoming chapbook, Apology Engine, was selected by Trace Peterson for Gold Line Press’s 2020 Poetry Chapbook Competition. You can find his poems, prose, and erasures in Hobart, jubilat, Sonora Review, Quarterly West, Best New Poets, and Pacifica Literary Review, among others. See more at and @elemenoq. More from this author →