Poems by Gloria Li

“The Cartographer’s Son”

Cartographer's SOn

i. Father’s Return

Well rested, the child awakens to
trumpets blaring outside his head
(for once) and he spies in the sea
a pale white speck bearing unsaid
abundances of gifts for the children
of sailors and adventurers such as he.

The ship is larger than life, yet when it
draws close, the boy can see that the men
upon its wooden deck are large as well.
His father’s eyes meet his when
he leans forward to survey the harbor
the ocean bears him towards on a blue swell.

Though the reunion does not surpass the
countless daydreams of the little boy,
he is glad to see that his father
had brought him back a little toy.
With its intricacies of design
he did not yet decide to bother.

They walk together in the green shade
and his father tells him about his travels
in this strange new world of wonders
where the fabric of understanding unravels
to illuminate as if across a stark backdrop
the previous society’s ignorant blunders.

Noble savages, he calls them with eyes
as misty as the morning in the park
and they keep walking, hand in hand,
until the monochromatic dark
had swept into the world and his father
ceased his whisperings alluring and grand.

When the child lays his head down
upon the pillow later that night
he sees his father’s silhouette
and then he sees a beautiful light
that gives way to foreign and unfamiliar
beasts dancing in a goldenrod sunset.

ii. Child’s Desire

Hours spin into days, days spin into weeks
for the little bright-eyed boy who sits
at home turning the toy in his hands
and occasionally throwing fits
of naïve jealousy for being left at home
whilst his father ventured to new lands.

What good is this little block if I cannot
witness the image of the savage who carved it
with sweat dripping down his face
while nearby on several small stones sit
his multiplicity of offspring with eyes
darker and as inquisitive as those of my race?

What interest should these carvings and
human-starved illustrations bring to my
mind besides the aching curiosity of
one who can only sit here and sigh
that he has not beheld them in real life
nor displayed to them his outsider’s love?

What use does a toy have when it can
no longer bring delight to me, a child,
because it only reminds me that I have not
run through the forests naked and wild
like the other children who in their native
habitat play with this trinket my father bought?

Listening with increasing concern,
the child’s father steps out from behind the door
and sweeps his son up in his strong arms,
Ah, do bright-eyed children too quickly bore
of little toys from unknown lands that
carry with them their ephemeral charms?

Papa, forgive me, Shame is
written all over his rosy face, but in this vital
moment with his father trying to read the closing
book that was his face—his father, his idol—
the child forgot the question he had planned to ask
him, seeing the obvious problem it was posing.

iii. Wish Granted

After the question was finally asked
and the child’s innocent dreams thrown on the stage
like ill-suited actors stumbling along
with no reason but ambition past their age
he gazes hopefully into his father’s eyes.
Papa, to ask you this, I’ve waited so long.

The father pauses, steps out of the room
and returns with a rolled up sheet of paper
that unravels to reveal a map so detailed
that it seems the child can see into a cape or
a coast as clearly as if he were seeing
firsthand the places to which his father had sailed.

Your father is not an adventurer alone
nor is he a sailor for the sole sake of sailing,
my dear son, your father is a cartographer
and he voyages to new places trailing
the unseen coastlines of the New World
and sketching them, he is a risk-taker

and you must understand that if you truly
wish to accompany him on his next journey,
you will become one of his risks as well—
though this experience is necessary
if you are to succeed me as this country’s foremost
mapmaker for you will need your own skills to sell!

Of course, the child had made up his mind before
his father had told him about his job
but as his eyes hungrily devoured the map
and its meticulous beauty, instantly the kid
nodded and threw his arms around his father’s neck
while sitting contentedly on his lap.

Oh take me with you! I see there is conflict
in your soul but there is only conviction in mine
as I am certain that I want to accompany
you on your next journey and no longer have to pine
about the places I have only heard of and smelled
though the toys you bring back for me.

iv. Set Sail

The ship feels just like the boy imagined
with the wood under his feet
smooth and worn by the passing tread
of so many before him; he takes a seat
atop the railing and dangles his legs
over it, counting head upon head.

He imagines that he must have looked
quite similar to his father as he was
returning to port— a small head in a crowd
with a crown of golden fuzz
eagerly searching for the man on the ship
who always stood tall and proud.

And now he was the one standing proud
or rather, swaying proud on the top deck
with the gentle bobbing motion of the waves
causing him to strain his eyes and neck
to see the harbor disappear into a sea spray
road that the great blue ocean paves.

And that’s where his father finds him,
and it seems to him as if his son is about
to topple over the railing into the ocean.
He rushes over with a worried shout,
grabs his son, and drags him below deck
in order to avoid making a commotion.

This is our quarters and this is where you will
stay while we are at sea, and no complaining!
his father tells him in a scolding tone
and when the son is through with feigning
apology, he’s called away by one of the
other sailors and he leaves with an exasperated groan.

The child can feel it in his stomach as surely
as the ship was moving forward, away and away
from his home of so many years. He could feel
it in the falling burnt orange of the sun’s last ray
as it grasped fingerlike the cloudless sky;
he wonders what lands morning would reveal!

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