Muriel Leung

Please Forgive the Burning Tree

It has happened again. 3,500 miles across the Pacific, half an ocean between us, he wrote to me: “This is what I know: I do not love you the way you love me.”

At the time, I was busy resisting the urge to fall into the familiar—the “burning boy” of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca” fame—refusing to disembark a burning ship, still reciting a useless rhyme while the tiny world torched around him. At my worst, I was that “obstinate boy” who, through preoccupations with poetry and certain doom, held fast to a burning and a sinking.

Because poetry deals so often with abstractions, I believe in the absolutisms of feeling. Though I knew he would one day leave me, I gathered myself each week and unspooled before him. Even my exit was charged with feeling—clutching my pillow and toothbrush left behind at his home, I delivered a speech meant for him but also everyone who had spurned me. When I was finally extinguished, justice no longer felt poetic. This is to say that feeling has always governed me, fanning the flames of circumstance already quickening towards ash.

But feeling is true. I know this because each year, my family sweeps the tombs of grandparents and parents past, setting fire to paper shaped like luxury cars and gold watches to deliver them into the afterlife where our lost loves could live fat and rich. We do it not because either one of us can confirm that these paper spoils materialize into anything after being charred, but because there is something real in our hands holding all our grief and that makes everything true.

At what point poetry became synonymous with love and love became interchangeable with pain is uncertain, though I have a theory that much like my family’s yearly visits to cemeteries, it was done once and then ritualized into a more certain knowledge.

But how to negotiate this certainty in a time of scarcity? According to the Law of Scarcity, our desire for an object grows with the threat of its loss. The threat is so palpable sometimes that we forget what we have to begin with. Suddenly, our certainty of feeling is no longer sufficient and we are left wanting.

My first lesson in love was also a lesson in scarcity. One day, my mother took my brother and I throughout Chinatown and she let us buy everything we could put our sticky fingers on. By night, I was carrying an armful of pinwheels, rainbow lollipops the size of my face, skewers of barbecued meat, and bags of milk chews in pink purses. When we arrived at our car, she opened her wallet to show a single remaining dollar bill and said, “That’s all the money we have left. You and your brother spent all of mommy’s money and now we can’t get home.” A cruel joke but for the car ride home, I believed it. I believed I was a greedy girl who impoverished our family with such cheap wants. I remembered that nothing she gifted me that day tasted as good as I thought it would afterwards.

In high school, I tried to apply the Law of Scarcity to love and poetry. I wrote poems about war and genocide. I dated a boy who wrote poems about sex and what he wanted my body to be. Together, we raced across Coney Island Beach at dawn while writing poetry in the sand, argued loudly on buses about the significance of line breaks, and danced barefoot in Central Park during thunderstorms. I told myself I was furiously in love though he often forgot to listen—like the time he pulled me out into the middle of the ocean despite the fact that I could not swim and nursed a fierce phobia of drowning. When he was bored of striking terror inside me, he passed me along to his sympathetic friends who carried me like a weeping infant back and forth among each other in the water before he finally relented and brought me back to shore.

When I grew tired of his abuse more than a year later, my father was dying of pancreatic cancer. A week after I exited the relationship, my father came home from the hospital with a walker and crumpled to the floor soon after taking a few steps towards his room. Not knowing what to do, I called my ex-boyfriend in tears only to have him reply coldly that I had dug my own grave. By that point, I had lost the majority of my friends to this all-consuming love and realized I had no one left to carry me through the night while my father’s half-body struggled to breathe in the next room.

The Law of Scarcity rests on this imprecision. It means not only are we uncertain about our capacity to love one another, but we can never be sure what constitutes enough love.

At a stoplight one day, my mother told me she had just learned that someone we loved was raped. “Protect yourself,” she said, and I did not know how to tell her it was too late. Suddenly, there was not enough love in the world.

Years later, at a crisis hotline training, the workshop facilitator began: “There is no such thing as mutual battering.” She said that in some cases, two partners would accuse the other of violence and while that may be true, an abusive relationship implies one has more power over the other. When there is an imbalance of power, there is a clear abuser and survivor. Whatever the survivors do to protect themselves from their abusers, they do so because a certain power is leveraged over them.

I know the many ways love can be leveraged in the terrible aches of a violent romance. That is the magnificent talent of abusers—to tilt the economy of affections this way and topple it when it no longer benefits them. But even outside the confines of direct social services, this distortion of feeling manifests in quieter ways. It is the way I know, for example, that while the boy who hurt me is no longer part of my life, I have a burning memory of lighter tricks and how to put out a flaming wick with two wet fingers. I apply this knowledge to future romances. I flirt, play coy, and slide the lighter across the table as if to say, “Do your very worst” and they often do.

Once, the man who would one day break my heart first with distance and then with words fell into conversation with a writer friend at a bar. They were talking about my writing, and as my friend descended further into glossy-eyed, whiskey-filled platitudes, he looked at me curiously as if seeing me for the very first time.

“I can’t believe you’ve never read any of her work!” said my friend.

“She’s never shown it to me,” he said, slightly abashed.

I retorted, “You’ve never asked!”

“You’ve never offered.”

We went back and forth like that for a while. We woke up the next day in forgetfulness and then before I knew it, he was already in another country.

I wrote to him: “I love you with absolute certainty.”

He wrote me back: “I have no words.”

What has poetry taught me except to play with fire and exercise a brazenness that would send a body through flames? Language made me bold and deliberate in managing feeling despite the unfair economy of love.

I watched my abuser grow as a poet and work in communities with disabled children. Years after our relationship ended, he came to one of my readings in New York and presumed the poems I read that night were about him. He sent me an angry text message that I quickly deleted, and afterwards, I could not look at my phone for a whole week. He would say my failure was that I never resisted. I would argue that every moment guilt and shame preside over me.

How do we alter a history of feeling? After five years of trying, another former partner would declare, “I believe you never loved me anyway.” Waiting on my porch for a date that would never arrive, he finally sent an abbreviated text message: “I don’t see you as someone long term.” I told my overseas man, curled in his arms and heavy-hearted, that I would settle for a promise. He did not have to reply for me to know that he had turned ghost in the night.

A friend tells me, “There is nothing glamorous about painful experiences.”

One summer at Crystal Beach in Texas, two friends coaxed me into the water, each one gripping one of my hands. Together, we moved deeper into the water until it swept our chests. I told them how I was taught to be afraid in moments like this; how I didn’t believe some fears could ever be rectified. When the first tide rushed towards us, we counted down together and leapt at one, the number ringing in quiet unison among us. We laughed and shouted and we were filled with a thunderous glee. We did it again and again until I was no longer frightened and rushed to greet the tides.

Octavio Paz says in “Coda” that we can learn about love through mythology. Winning the favor of the gods through their generosity without expectation of return, an elderly couple wished in their final moments that they would never leave each other’s side. Thus, they were gifted with transformation after death, one becoming an oak and the other flourishing into a linden tree, the rest of their days spent with limbs entwined.

What is the shape kindness in the eye of a wild fire? Sometimes the fire is clear as glass and we learn to cut with it. But in my best days, I am trying with eagerness and all the water I can muster, saying, I love you. I love you. I love you. Please forgive this unsinkable heart. When the fire clears, I see a forest of trees before me, burned ash-pure by the flames. Someone brushes against the leaves. It can easily be mistaken for the sound of someone speaking. Was it you? Was it me? Does it matter so long as we are?

Muriel Leung is from Queens, NY. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter|rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to The Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a poetry reader for Apogee Journal. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. Her first book Bone Confetti is forthcoming from Noemi Press in October 2016.