Coal chutes, rusting grinders, broken spades,
ore bins, and iron rails: the remains of a coal
mine and the shed where the "coolies" lived,
empty now, but see—by the back door
five slender shafts, rhubarb stalks pushing
through a bank of coal dust. Green leaves,
ruddy veins, stalks thick as candle stems,
root stock from Fujian or Guangdong,
carried by stealth to Canada. Da Huang—
Chinese rhubarb for bowels loose or knotted,
for ill stomachs, over-heated blood, and ailing lungs.
The mine is long played out, the men
who breathed that black air, who answered to
Boy! Chinaman! Chink! Chop-chop!
buried in the soil their choices made.
Their lives played out, but the rhubarb
grows: memory's synonym, regret's
thorn, emerald fans from a hillock of coal dust.
Good tourists, we take pictures: the corroded
remnant, the broken coal, the sun-struck
glitter of coal dust, and five red torches,
rhubarb stalks lighting all that we can see.
In her first garden after we moved North,
my mother dug up the rhubarb, pie-plant, Turkish
celery—Takes too much sugar, never did
like it—and planted winter onion: small bulbs
and long green leaves like opera gloves,
the dress-up gloves she wore in the sixties,
smiling beneath a flowered hat, ankles crossed
and lady-like (Jackie Kennedy in the Lincoln
bedroom). Winter onions beside the garage
of a colored family. Green-fingered sheaths
that she chopped and skillet-seared in bacon grease,
adding a pinch of soda and generosities of salt.
She planted her childhood, her mother's voice,
an oilcloth where everyone gathered for supper,
turnip greens, roastin' ears, okra, snapbeans,
and tomatoes—reminders that we were travelers.
In the morning, having a taste for un-yun,
she yanked the knobs from black sod, yellow
roots still clinging to muddied clots, knocked
the onions free of dirt, lifting their small fists
as you might lift a map closer to your eye.
In the colored family's garden, onions reached
sunward and, heavy-headed, toppled down to root
and "walk" an inch ahead, the way Socrates
said the soul travels, onion-layered, another
inside another, translucent, restless.