A poem: Two Squares Of Light Cast Out The Window

Guest article by Carlina Duan
University of Michigan
Poem first presented at a celebration of the 2016 ETA program at the National Library of Malaysia on October 31, 2016. 

Carlina and her Form 4 students at the release party of their literary arts anthology, Underneath My Heart (in collaboration with SMK Jengka 16 & 18).

One of my first evenings in Malaysia, my roommate and I took a walk around our neighborhood. Everything was a whir of color. Somebody beeped at us from a passing motorbike and hollered, “Teachers! Hi, teacher!” I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t feel like I fit the frame of “teacher,” and I barely recognized our house on the walk back. Ten months later, I knew names, faces; I’d been hugged and I’d been gifted bunches of bananas and I’d been schooled on fashionable shoe choices by 16-year-olds. I feel saturated in luck and in love. I am so grateful for my year of rice, of bicycle wheels, and my students folding pieces of paper into pocket-sized hearts, then shoving their tiny creations into my hands. I wanted to create a poem that spoke to this stunning mash of color, joy, hardness, challenge and power that has filtered into my time as an ETA in Malaysia. This poem was written after my last day of school, after receiving a photo of my house in Michigan from my mother, and realizing, to some extent, I had built a new home in Malaysia. I am grateful.

Carlina and her Form 1 students after a dance workshop. 


in the photo my mom sends of our house.
how long has it been? January, then March, months
full of nasi and cats. my laundry gets
rained on. my students eat strips of guava,
sugar hums inside their mouths. trash
burns, and I listen to Drake. pink houses.
gold fabric. sweat, and sweat. ten months,
with the baju kurung draped around my knees
while the mangoes hang plump, green &
thick, children bike slow down our
street, Hakimi shouts “Helloooo!” and I smell
the smart smell of trees. months I know love.
months I zip colored markers into
a backpack and my students use them
to color maps, dribble yellow stars onto
paper. months they spell out my name.
dragonflies land inside my shoes, I do not
shoo them away. a wingspan, a pulse.
I eat chicken satay glazed on a stick. drive
past palm oil sprawl, cows that shake
their calves and moo, moo. there is
light running into me, an open
mouth, ketchup that is secretly
chili sauce. there are the long
months, & English alphabet,
curled & thick, caught like animals
within my jaw. months I understand
power, or lack of, months
I boil the corn
and sing.  
on the weekends, one ringgit
cones sling into me, and so does
thunder — I love the heavy
heavy rain. I love the way
the bus window cools my forehead
til I can see all of jengka spread
before me, shiny, ecostore & stadium
& grass, shiny – I can see all of my
past selves etched into the glass: black
hair, mints & fists, wind on my first
day of school, five hundred small bodies
wishing me a good morning, girls reaching
out for my hand. months. I know love.
and it shouts from school
balconies, proclaims itself: “Miss I love
you so so really really much.” I know love
and it’s sixteen year olds on microphones,
reading poems about motorbikes, or moms,
love in bottles of peach hand sanitizer my students
say smells “beautiful” or the children
on our street sliding comic pages into the mailbox.
I know love. and I’m still
stretching. I wanna rope in all
these months, fields of awakening
and sleep, catch all the ways
my body moves, plaited beneath
the sun.
stand in awe.
that no, I can’t just extinguish.
& yes, how holy, how strange,
that this year, I stood
beneath a lash of sky, & somehow,
I still steadily
Carlina Duan
2016 ETA, SMK Jengka 16
Pahang, Malaysia

Carlina and fellow ETA Kacy Rauschenberger with Form 5 students.

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