When we were small we would walk in between the cold, dying firs,
past the fissures in the sides of the grain silo without saying a single word.
The slide came into view first and we tested our speed, flannel jackets
dropping onto the frosted grass as we tore up the dirt in our contest.
But soon, when we had had enough of the slide and our butts too cold to
be pressed against the metal for any longer, we wobbled our way
to the garden where the calabash hung from their vines and
gyrated with the wind. We would feast on their flesh, hum loudly in our
false delight as if the fruit was a lozenge to our parched esophaguses.
You told me that, in Calabasas, they don’t have calabashes. The sun shines
every day and palm trees are your only clouds. Slides are too hot to slide down,
you pipped brightly, and cracks in public infrastructure are filled up
within a week. It is brighter, greener, so you do not want to come back.
There is no life here.
Last week, I walked to the garden and found that my feet know my weight too well.
My legs did not threaten to buckle. The calabash coated my tongue with umami.
From the jury: This wonderful poem written in a prose style but with a poetic sensibility, captures a distinct moment in childhood, a landscape with “dying firs” and “fissures” in a silo, and then draws a contrast between the actors, the elements of the poem’s “we” in that landscape of their youth. At first it seems elegiac, but in the second stanza the narrator addresses a “you” in a “brighter, greener,” less imperfect locale (Calabasa) where “cracks… are filled up”—a “you” who told the narrator s/he was not coming back. In the third stanza the narrator, now older (“my feet know my weight too well”), seems to have chosen the imperfect place and still relishes the taste of its fruit (calabash). The poem illustrates that where we live has to feed our soul. The images and language support the realization of the universality of childhood and how it stands side-by-side with intense difference in experience.
Max Zhang was born in Burnaby, Canada, but spent most of his childhood living in Beijing, China. His poetry often regards his own experiences, and he drinks more coffee than he probably should while writing it. This fall, Max will attend the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a BS in Economics at the Wharton School.
LEAGUE OF CANADIAN POETS: What inspired you to write “Calabash”?
Max Zhang: “Calabash” is a tribute to my own experience moving from China, where I had spent my childhood. When you move away from your family to a new country, there’s the creeping fear that you’ll forget your roots when you are so immersed in an entirely different culture. My older brother moved to California for school, and I clearly remember this strange sense of worry which I had never really felt before. I didn’t want to be forgotten. The funny thing is, a few years later, it would be me who would be moving away for high school, and I found myself on the other side of this relationship. This poem is written from the former perspective, where the narrator feels left behind in life.
LCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
MZ: I started writing poetry this year, with my Creative Writing class in school.
LCP: How do you see writing and poetry being a part of your life over the next several years?
MZ: A recent obsession of mine has been spoken word poetry, and participating in slam poetry festivals has, without exaggeration, changed my worldview. Entering university next year as a prospective Finance major, I really hope to keep my creative side alive and well. I hope to continue to explore a greater variety of formats in writing.
LCP: If you could give other students one piece of advice about writing, what would it be?
MZ: I feel like I am hardly in any position to be giving others advice, but something that has helped me greatly in writing pretty much anything has been thinking about how I want the reader to feel as they are reading. Structuring a poem with this in mind and treating it more as an experience for the reader has really been helpful.
LCP: What is your favourite thing about poetry?
MZ: Each poem, no matter how short, presents a little world of its own.
Find 2019’s other winning Jessamy Stursberg poems here.