Robert H. Winner Memorial Award - 2019
Nancy Chen Long
Until a chemical or electrical charge bridges a gap
between neurons, we are oblivious
of our seventh birthday. Our memory is flooded
with holes, pocked like cotton eyelet. One minute
I'm mumbling "What was her name?" my best friend
who fell into the kiddie pool with a plate full
of strawberry birthday cake. The next, I'm shouting "Beverly!"
One minute I'm in bed, curled next to my husband
as he reads to me. No man is an island entire of itself,
his freckled hand stroking the crest of my hip.
Rise and fall, rise and fall, and I can feel the electricity
flowing in the gap between his skin and mine.
One minute, two clean-cut men in suits
are knocking at my door, pamphlets in hand.
"There is only one mediator
between God and Man," they say almost in unison,
"the one called Christ." The next minute, my brain floods
with Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, that slight break
between the fingertips of God and Adam.
God sits on a brain-shaped billow of drapes.
God, in our heads. Little people crowd
in the brain. Adam, unlike Jesus, arrives as an adult
and alone. Adam, an outsider looking into the brain-room.
Eve is not in the picture.
One minute, I remember Brad in fourth grade laughing
at me,"you WOman!" he howled over and over, emphasis on the WO,
slapping his thigh with each long O, a storm threatening
the west edge of a Texas summer sky,
the word woman imbued with sex,
with inferior. All of us in the dodge-ball circle knew
woman was an insult. "You slut."
The next minute, the eighth-grade teacher tells the class
that women are responsible
for the world's evil, the wo in woman meaning without men,
meaning meaning less than men, meaning meaningless.
"Aww, it's a joke," he says. "Women need men
to stay out of trouble. Pandora is why
bad things happen to good people.
Like the story of Eve," he says.
"One bad apple at the root of it all."
One minute, I'm taking a pamphlet from the men on my porch,
the next, a synapse in my head snaps shut like a switch:
the difference between Eve and Adam,
one purposely deceived, the other not.
Stories are a social affair—
one minute someone is telling us who we are
and what to remember. The next, even our memories
are stored as stories. There are gaps
in our memory. Connections are missing.
There are gaps in our stories and in our history.
People are missing.
Patricia Spears Jones on Nancy Chen Long
Nancy Chen Long is a poet whose work is new to me and I am so pleased to have selected her work for the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award. Her poems explore the scientific, psychological, and pop culture versions of the brain as the site and source for experience and memory. "Little people crowd/in the brain" she notes in the poem "Interstice." Her poems ask how experiences become memory, why does official history work so hard to erase human experience, as in "Reverberation" in which both the Holocaust and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots are discussed. The final poem in her selection showcases her wit and wordplay with a description of a mole to Mole in The Wind in the Willows, then deepens into an exploration of migration, grief, and homesickness as the poet recalls her dead mother's favorite perfume and a sudden remembrance of other smells, sounds that leave "only a feeling,/ slippery, familiar and strange at the same time." This is a poet fully in charge of her art and craft. It was a delight to read and reread these lively and giving poems.