open sky


There are a few things I know — believe — to be true.

My father’s name was Tran Long Nghi. 
Some of his documents transpose his first name 
with his last, or his first with his middle. 

My mother’s name is either Tran Thi Marie or 
Tran Thi Maria, depending on whether you trust 
her passport or her other documents. 

She herself uses both names. 
On my baptismal certificate, Juyeng is written in the space 
where my mother’s name was to be recorded. 

This is neither a Vietnamese nor
a French name, nor 
is it a phonetic spelling of one. 

Some of my mother’s documents list her birthdate as 
March 1st,, some March 13 th. 
My mother’s real birthdate is unknown. 

The passport she used when she emigrated 
was issued by a country that no longer exists, 
South Vietnam. 

It lists no month or day, only a year. 
It is not the same year 
that is listed on her American passport.

I have six, at least, brothers and sisters. 
            There may be half siblings. 
                        There were whisperings. 

                        My six brothers and sisters were born in 
                        four different countries. 
            I was born in a fifth. 

       At the times and places where my siblings were born, 
       record-keeping was more casual than it probably is
       where you are reading this right now. 

              There were no ID bracelets for newborns. 
                         One of my brothers may not be 
                         biologically related to us. 

                                                   He is different from the others. 
                                                   My mother says not to mention it. 

                                      All seven of us siblings have two or three 
                                      names that we go by. 
                          It is unclear how some of them originated.

                I do not have a Vietnamese given name.
                My birth certificate lists my given name as Barbara. 
                Not a single blood relative calls me this.

Inside the family albums are many loose photographs.
On the back of one is a child’s hesitant handwriting.
In Vietnamese: This is the living room.

     The furniture here is found in no other photograph.
      It is distinctly Western. And hip for its time, the early
      to mid-Sixties. Such furniture could have been
     for months’ worth of groceries.

A man’s hat rests on a mid-century modern,
compartmented coffee table, along with what appears to
be a can of beer.

                   A tripod stretches across a sofa.
                   The sofa faces two armchairs.
                   A third chair faces a narrow French door.

It is of a style that could be found in Việt Nam.
There are no people to indicate whether this is my father’s
living room in the United States or my mother’s in Việt

      The modern armchairs look prohibitively expensive
      for a woman raising four children on her own.

They are also too extravagant for a man
new to the United States, sole guardian to two
adolescent daughters.

              The furniture and the setting appear to be
              from opposite sides of the world.
                          I don’t know where I am.

                        My father arrived in the United States in

He was serving as an attaché
to the Vietnamese Ambassador
to the United Nations.

     This is one account.

Another is that he was the private
secretary to the Foreign Minister.


                                      is that he was an accountant.

Whatever the case, he arrived in New York City
with his two eldest daughters.
They were twelve and thirteen. They arrived

           in New York City in the midst
           of the Sexual Revolution. They were perfect
           dolls. They posed with their dolls,

all four in similar dresses and hats.
In the early photos, my sisters smile genuinely.
They do so even when posed

            on the beach with women who are not their mother.
            Their expressions change along with their hair, falling
            longer, blunter. By the time their mother arrives

in New York City, two years later, the eldest
has a mod haircut, and the other
has grown her hair

             down her back, the way
             she would have worn it
             in Việt Nam.

My memory is an album.

            The photos are not in chronological order. 

Some are out of focus.
             Some are bent.
                          Some may have been placed

                          in the wrong envelope at the photo- processing unit.

In a photo taken in his first apartment in New York City,
my father poses.

                                                                          He stares directly into the lens.
                                                My father        was a proud man.

                                                             It is a   beach chair
                                                he         lies on 
                                                                                                 in his living room. 

The day he died the sky was as clear as a good gemstone.

His inhalations grew shorter and shallower.
He was choking on his own breath.

I measured the morphine with care.
I appreciated that someone thought to dye it
a tranquil blue.

I administered. I watched. I waited.

What comforted was the schedule, the notebook
that proffered recordings of time and dosage,
the dropper with its precise markings,
the aqua blue liquid.

These instruments were my familiars.
I clung to them.

            in the form of awakening and
                                      pierced any sleep.

Before and after he passed,
             I scavenged through the house,
                         collected his photos, spread them out

on my glass desk, first on the west
            end of Toronto, north
                        of Bloor, now on the east, south of the


                      I have been writing and rewriting this story, re-membering
                                       and furnishing photos of empty rooms, connecting
                                                    and homes like dots, constructing a history.

There are few            photos of my mother, even fewer
            of her smiling.She is             rarely
without one  of her six

children. Frequently,          she is overrun. Not infrequently,
she is   doing something for one  of them: slicing
birthday                     cake, squeezing

a shoulder to get.    a child 
to stand.         upright. Sitting                 is rare.
In a few photos, she is trapped 

in polite          conversation
with friends of her    husband’s.      Quickly,
she falls           out of the frame,

the focus remaining on the guests, the       children,
the house, the            city at large.
Her husband, the      lens,
             points elsewhere.

In a Christmas photo, the youngest at the time wears stiff
denim jeans that make it difficult to squat.
He gets smacked for squatting.

His father tells him to act civilized.
They are poor, but they have chairs.
He needs to use a fork.

The three brothers wear the same
style sweatshirt in different colors.
It is cheaper this way,

and in this way, they are marked,
if they were not already,
with their flat faces and roughly chopped hair.

The boys smile with the rifles they received for Christmas.
They pretend to take prisoners.
They enjoy giving orders.

They enjoy finding their targets, identifying
where they will take their charges, considering
how they might hurt or frighten them.

When their sister arrives on the scene,
the only sister who was left behind
in Việt Nam with them, they lay down

their guns.
Pretend games do not frighten her.
Plastic guns mean nothing.

She commands them to get her a Chip-a-Roo from the cupboard.
She directs them to chop the carrots their mother
instructed her to prepare for dinner.

She orders them to keep their mouths shut.
She pinches, twists, strikes, and glares.
She does so without hesitation,

without having to consider
how violence looks.
She knows.

Even in their best pretend games,
the boys can never approach
her unrehearsed acts.

He says he must take the job.
He will be paid handsomely.
They need the money.
It’s an important mission.
He leaves. Leaves
my mother, who barely speaks English, leaves
her with seven children, who speak little English, who are always   hungry.
them after they boarded that monstrous machine to be with him again, 
let go their contact with the earth and water, turned
away from family, friends, foes to come to this land. Leaves.

Photos arrive in the mail:
him posed in front of new cars,
beside palm trees, in hats

                                        with brims so large
                                          they cast shadows
                                     that obscure his face.

These brims imply
the kind of sunshine
they once knew, the kind

                           they’d prefer to be in now
                         rather than in the shadows
                                              of the tall tower

in which they now live.
Their mother warns them.
There are occupancy laws

in their new home. Their very existence
                                puts them in violation.
                     She tells her children to hide.

There are no photos where Lady Liberty’s face and my
sisters’ are visible within the same frame. My sisters are
posed only
at Lady Liberty’s back. They smile in her shadow.

For my father’s own portrait, he stands below a sign with a
single word that runs the entire width of the store:


            It is snowing.
            The photo is out of focus.
            Night is falling.
            He will soon be obliterated.

There is a series of photos of me as an infant, learning to
sit up,

propped         in a line of dolls.       Screaming.
The time between   this       and when I am walking

is undocumented,       is        replaced
by photos       of my father   standing
            before a         backdrop           of cacti, squinting

against the     sun and dust. He is well.       dressed
but always                  alone. There are         houses
and     vehicles but no           people.

It is as if he has alighted       in a land
that has been             abandoned by man.

Who takes       the photo?
                          Who eats      dinner with him?
               Does he        call home?

In the photos at the point in time when I can walk comfortably,
I sport red cowboy boots.

I wear them in the snow.
I wear them with dresses.
I wear them with my hair pulled back in pigtails.

These are snapshots.
By virtue of their nature, at times
they distort the truth,

slicing open a moment,
snaring a facial expression
on its way to something else.

The framing is sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental.

Here, an untied shoe. There,
the whole family, in size order.

A stranger appears at the back of this shot.
My brothers are pushed to the borders in this one.

This much I know:
This is the living room.

But whose?

Only one           green corner
             of a label remains, sticking teasingly
to the cover of the     slim address book.

Whatever       information the label once
announced has long since peeled away. Above
            the green, the year

is embossed    in gold: 1975. Some
of the entries inside are so  faded
they are difficult         to read. A man

accustomed to             impermanence, my father
             preferred to write       in pencil. Many
of the contacts             listed    are Vietnamese. Most

are located     in New York, some    in
Virginia, a few                       in Việt Nam.
Recorded       on the              inside flap

             — of both
the front        and the back cover —
is my   father’s Certificate  of Naturalization

number. Was it a    reminder
that he could no longer
             return to the country that he

called home for forty-four years? Or,
more practically, was the twice-
recorded number     a reflection

of his concern, a gesture     toward self-
preservation? Did he            fear
being   stopped

              and questioned
in the only        place
             he could           now call home?

In the middle               of the address book
            is an entry that lists no
name, either  for an individual or

a business, instead     tantalizing with a
one-word         question: Jobs?
And an                          address

in Rego Park,               Queens, New York.
            Near this           listing is another,
more complete. It includes not only

a name,           address, and phone number,
but also a hint after the name,
             in parentheses: (private detective).

A different       entry promises Mexican snacks.
Another            offers               almost             nothing
at all. No           contact name, no

            location, not even a city, no
phone             number. Its only     offering,
a reminder.   of its    existence: Suicide

Prevention Center. 

             My father was a self-taught              speaker
of multiple languages. My mother,
like me, a speaker      of a single

              tongue (though          a different one),
              can answer     none
of my most      pressing questions.

She tells me    my father never had a          hair
or pencil          out of place, that he enjoyed
            taking photographs

with no           people in them
and.      was extraordinarily protective
                           of his plants.

On my desk sit two    biographies of a man,
not        my father.
I read them    as if they might reveal something to me.

And they do. Flagged with             Post-its,
they     surrender secrets
in a manner not so       different

           from the way                  a person might:
in measured layers, offering                some facts
but holding back        crucial details, repeating

             certain             phrasing, teasing
with ambiguous         wording.
The Vietnamese subject         of these biographies

grew a moustache
             to disguise     himself
when he went            into the field.

He told his     colleagues
that    the women
                        of Huế

              the hippie look.
He called himself

a doctor
of          sexology. He said
he was                         bird watching.

              He was, in fact,
                          an intelligence agent.
              His mistress was the American occupation.

In the year   of the Tết Offensive, the year
of my birth, my      father left the family
for a job        in Texas.

He was,         he said, teaching American
            officers the Vietnamese       language.
He took            no family members with him.

In the photos he sent home              during this period,
no people other than           himself appear.
Even the          background is          scrubbed

of human        presence. It is a        desert,
and figuratively.

Another version of this story:

             My father is planting seeds, teaching
                         his language, that the shared words
             might blossom          into peace.

                         In my mind, a different kind
                              of blossom opens: Malcolm
                                       Browne’s photo,

             the       Buddhist monk
Thích Quảng Đức ablaze.
                        Like a flowering

            ocotillo in the desert,
                        he drew all eyes
            before rejoining

                                      the earth.

             On a plain white
piece of paper, my father     wrote
the beginning             of his autobiography, a letter, a

suicide note(?) My name is       Tran Long Nghi …
The document             whirls
            through his life in India,

the Philippines, Việt Nam, and        the United
States all in a short   paragraph, revealing
                          little. It           ends

            with the            relinquishment
of his duty      at the United
                          Nations: I was forced.

With each       new photo
or        document of his
that I discover, the    tide

             Writing this
              is my one