"I Have a Buddhist Mother..." | Poetry Contest | Indy Week

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"I Have a Buddhist Mother..."

Third Place

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by Zi-Qiang Chen

I have a Buddhist mother
Who always tells me--
To save a life is a greater deed
than to build seven temples for the God

I have a Buddhist mother
Who always tells me--
A killing is ten times worse
than a hundred unwanted abortions

I have a Buddhist mother
Who always tells me--
You plant a rose, you harvest roses
You plant a knife, you harvest murders

I have a Buddhist mother
Who always tells me--
Your strength is not measured by how tall you stand
but how deep you bend your knees to the weak and poor

Zi-Qiang Chen lives in Raleigh

In "I Have a Buddhist Mother," rhythm and precision contribute to the force and wisdom of this poem. The repetition of lines that are both economical and ritualistic invoke and affirm--like a mantra--the belief in and the transforming power of the "said." The poem is a double performance of both recounting what was told in the past and now telling it in the present. The Buddhist mother tells the poet, who tells us, making us the next generation (or next iteration) of listeners. Now she, in an instant, mothers us. The rhythm and signification of the poem makes this mother not any mother, but historicizes her in a tradition of Buddhism that may awaken a political history of specific contested locations. This Buddhist mother's wisdom is framed not only as a double telling, but as a doubling of rhetorical oppositions within each stanza: saving lives over worshiping temples; the sacredness of lives lived over the sacredness of lives unborn; the preservation of nature over the preservation of weapons; and, in a concluding transference, the strength of brute force under the strength of compassion. This short and disguisedly simple poem holds a wealth of rhythms, wisdoms and political implications.

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