Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Saturday, December 31, 2011



It started with an anonymous call in December 2010. The caller didn’t even say hello: “I say, ask that woman you live with who your mother is!” the venom landed in my ear. My heart beat fast, mad callers and call-centre marketers are the reason I don’t pick anonymous calls. And I still don't know why I answered that call. I laughed and asked who was calling. I mean what could be more ludicrous than for some random person to say that to me. Moreover, she spoke in seTswana—my first language is isiZulu. She repeated herself, then hung up. I was amused. Thought it was a wrong number. And I put it out of my mind.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my mother was also being harassed in the same, if not worse, manner.

I never gave that call much thought. I knew my mother, that woman loves me to death. This is the woman who still waits up for me when I've gone out at night. This is a woman who has drop-kicked shack doors in the rain in Alexandra when I was eight because she thought I was missing. This is the woman that screamed like a banshee at cops to release me when I was wrongfully arrested—and I heard, she tried to grab the cop's gun. I don’t want to imagine what would’ve happened had she gotten it...

I was sure that I knew her womb.

That night in January 2011, when my mother sat me down on her bed and dropped the bomb that I wasn’t her biological child was the world night of my life. I wasn’t my father’s biological child. Just like that I had been otherised. I was 29 years old when I found out that my parents had adopted me from my mother’s niece.

My parents were not my parents. My parents were my grandparents or at least according to Western customs they were great aunt and great uncle. My direct grandmother being my mother’s sister. My cousins were my aunts and uncles, my cousin being my biological mother. My nieces and nephews all became my cousins. Suddenly the relationships that I had with everyone in the family were different. I thought that meant I was her first born child but shockingly found out that I was her second child. Imagine the abandonment issues that gave me. See if I was the first born and she was a teenager then giving me up would make sense but how does a mother choose one child over the other? I hope to understand that some day.

(To avoid confusion, I will continue to refer to my parents as my parents and my biological mother as my cousin—that is how I grew up.)

See my parents have always had other people’s children in their care and often these people would return and rip these children away without a descent ‘thank you’.

I came from a stable house. I had both my parents. I had a strong sense of identity. And I was their blood. That is what I knew. And as an Africanist knowing my identity meant I was connected to my past (my ancestors). In 2007, I even changed my name to reflect this culture blood connection.

Here I am with a name that no longer fits. A culture that might’ve been different had I been wanted.


It hurts that I wasn’t wanted.

There’s a photo of me, I think I’m five years old. I’m standing on the stoep in our old KwaNdebele home, wearing a red t-shirt and blue shorts, I’m carrying a puppy we had named Bobby. Every time I look at this photo I can’t help but wonder “Who would look at that innocent cute face and not want this sweet child?” my mother, tells me all the time that I was a sweet child, talkative, a little naughty but a joy to have a round. I can’t help but wonder why my cousin, my biological mother, would see me at family events, visit my home and not want me back. I know that these questions only torture me; I’m still too angry to get answers from her. I don’t even trust that I will get honest answers.

She had her reasons, I'm sure. And did what she thought right at the time. I'm less bothered by the choice to give me up than the choices she continued to make through out the years. She knew me all my life and I knew her as my cousin. And in all these thirty years she never tried to have a relationship with me. I feel that even if I didn’t know that she was my biological mother, I would loved to have been close to her as a cousin. I could've had a better relationship with her and my nieces and nephew that turn out to be my siblings.

On the other hand, I had a great upbringing. A stable upbringing.

I feel robbed of my identity—I don’t know my biological father and his people and his culture. And according to her I am Tswana not Zulu. I look at everything that has been built on a false premise and I can’t help but wish for ignorance. Being called Zamantungwa is now tainted by lies. Being called a sister is now tainted by lies.

I think about the lost years, the relationships not built. I grew up in a home where my siblings were years older than me and my biological siblings are much closer. I think about how that’s affected my ability to relate to people. Now we have to rebuild the way we relate to each other.

Trust has been tainted. Identity now has to be reshaped, somewhat. Old relationships have to be built anew. I don't want anything to do with my cousin - I don’t trust her. I may change my mind in the next year or maybe never. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out who I am. And the one major lingering question is about my paternity.

I am thirty years old now. It really is a new era.

I still wonder if there’s someone out there that looks like me.



For a while I couldn’t write. I struggled to make sense of what was going on but my poetry has become darker. I eventually started to write poetry again just to release the pressure in my head, in my chest. It hasn't lead me any understanding but it has made it easier to deal, it has lessened the tears.

There are some poems that I wrote a long time ago about my identity. I know look at those poems and though I can't question their authenticity I wonder what kind of poems I would've written if i had known earlier... I've written a lot about identity but there was always a confidence and lightness and ease to it. This is the first stanza of "Untitled #23," written in 2003...
I’ve always been Afrikan
Daughter of Mntungwa*
uMuntu ngabantu**
Owadl’ izimfe zambili kwaphuma khambi lilinye**
One of the brown blk dirt
Soil burnished by ilanga
Daughter of sun
Dispossessed though
Langa linye ngizonqoba

*Mntungwa is my father's clan name, the name I took up in 2007 references this.
** These two lines are from the Mntungwa family praise poem (izibongo). In Zulu, and many other African cultures, these praise poems are part of the family's oral history. it is important to know the family izibongo and to pass them on to your children. Ones identity is embedded within these poems.

My poetry has become full of questions. Wondering. Wanting. My fears have become even more palpable and the only way to release—so that I don't feel like death is the only release—is to write. I have a number of unfinished poems and I think they shed a light to how I am now. I'm unfinished and I'm just trying to figure out what all this means.
1. something (broke)

something broke
pieces strewn everywhere
where they can't be found
hidden in crevices
eaten by demons
washed away by tears

2. something (died)

something died
a light went out
into darkness the spirit was plunged
there was no night vigil
the mourners did not know
what they had lost

3. something (let misery in)

something let misery in
let the doom become unbearable
took over pulled under the
light submerged
into a gloom
and there was no rising

My post-discovery work is full of 'spilt milk'. I don't like that space.
was trying to remember

was trying to remember
who i am
trying to pick up the pieces
that made me
looked back at who i was
only found a quilted personality
a cobbled self built by stories told
to a me i should've been
truth can't set you free
when ignorance is bliss
was trying to remember
who i am
when who i was
is a lie

While I will continue to write about this, I realise that at some point I have to confront everything and everyone. Finding my sanity is priority.

I am Duduzile—I have comforted and brought joy to my mother. I am/was Zamantungwa—my ancestors have adopted and looked after me thus far and they will continue to do so. Right now I can’t use this name. I am/was Mabaso’s daughter—this family chose me and they don’t want to lose me. Part of my journey now is about resolving my identity crisis.



duduzile mabaso is a writer, poet, publisher and designer. She publishes poetry at www.poetrypotion.com, and blogs about black women identities and politics at www.aintiwoman.com. “I’m pursuing a life out of bounds.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011



My adoption experience first began with the mystery of my father’s adoption in China in the 1910s. In Kwangtung province, it was a fairly common practice for richer families without sons to adopt a boy-child from a poor family to continue patriarchal traditions. Thus, my father was adopted by a family in another village which brought him to San Francisco as a 5-year-old and then loved him all the years of his life. I know little about my father’s birth family except that the birth-father was an educated man, but unfortunately, smoked opium and was unable to financially support his five boys. My father, the middle child, was adopted at age three.

The fact of my father’s adoption was kept a family secret until shared with my sister and me after our graduation from college. I’ve always sensed that my father felt a great deal of shame in being adopted in China because it signified poverty and failure in a culture which emphasized family unity. However, my father was able to live a full life raising two children, being married for over 50 years, and working four decades for the National Dollar Stores.

My father’s life was profoundly affected by his adoption experience, and I now understand that some of his behaviors were related to attachment issues. In his later years, he suffered from a form of dementia, and though his short-term memory faded, he still recalled the pain of his early childhood.

The next phase of my adoption experience began with the decision by my wife and I ten years ago to start a family by adopting a baby girl in China. In 2003, we traveled to Nanjing, Jiangsu province, to receive our lovely daughter Mariya, 9 months old at the time, from the Taizhou Social Welfare Institute. In the course of the past eight years, I’ve learned much about the adoption experience in raising our beautiful girl. Aside from the regular experiences of first-time parenting, I’ve also learned how critical the first months of a baby’s life are and how adoption can have longer term effects on a child, though changeable, in the emotional and physical spheres.

It is ironic in some ways that my father was adopted into another Chinese family to further the patriarchal traditions of China, while my daughter was possibly given to adoption because of the One-Child Policy and the traditional preferences for boys. Both adoption experiences are now a part of my life, and part of a circle of attachment, re-attachment, and love.

I feel fortunate that my father was able to know my daughter for the first few baby/toddler years, and despite his diminished intellectual capacity, I felt he understood that this baby girl was too adopted from China, and perhaps this knowledge was helpful to him.



My poetry is deeply affected by both my father’s and my daughter’s adoption experiences, as I’ve written about different aspects of my life in order to fully understand what it means to be human. My poetry often surprises me with insight I feel difficult to obtain elsewhere. It is a part of my spiritual practice, but also an aesthetic practice where life can be re-examined and purified through the prism of language.

In recent years, I’ve written many poems about being a first-time father and about my daughter’s adoption experience. I may never know her true feelings as an adoptee, her fears, anxieties and joys, except to the extent that any parent can know one’s own child. My daughter is growing up in a multi-racial family living in 21st century California, totally different fom her grandparents’ or her father’s experience, yet in other ways similar. She will still have to define herself as a Chinese-American female in an as-yet-inequitable American society, then too need to explore her individual gifts, an artistic talent and wild sense of humor. Her family will be there for her, and so will my poems.




To my 88-year old father,
“You were adopted, in China?” I asked,
a boldness made usual in its repeat,
unfilial, except that dementia had spilled his weekly sorrow,
his memory zapped of every happy filigree:
a sister’s name, the fading face of my mother.
On a Sunday at the Country Kitchen Café,
suddenly it’s 1916 again!
Adopted? I was sold! he relates, presses hard against Formica
as if to keep at bay the only story still without fade,
Six brothers (really five) and I was number three,
a fogged fix, once secreted from the children.
Every slip of a former life, figured
to this pain, freezes him mid-house salad,
dressed in tears, and forking lifts of empty air.

What can a son know of a father’s deep feelings,
his erased history of consequence,
transacted to the Lee’s and spirited to Gold Mountain?
Of that residual, only fractions remain.
His method: Tough Guy. WW II Air Force gunner-mechanic hides all.
And yet, every visit his weak-trickle
of toddler fail, an ache I sense as shadow,
and wishing to know that hulk, its dark cluster,
a step-mother, whose slap so real, her handprint forever planted.
But everything slipped in the memory disease,
sloughed and forever sliding.

I’ve been told in old Guangdong,
the hungry poor sold sons to richer families needing boys.
One birthfather Wong, married to opium, so smoked away his middle child.
But then, under adoptive father Joe Lee’s care,
that boy repapered to a “Leong,” and on to San Francisco,
a transit he accommodates each week as:
I’m lucky. I came to America.
What recompense for such a sale,
as if each sluice of abacus beads can sum a series to even?
Here, in the Shi Jing texts, boys inherit property,
fulfill familial deeds, as when my father carried the red funeral candles
for Eldest Sister to Colma, nearly stumbling
on a cemetery’s uneven weeds.
In those same tracts, girls written off as unlucky,
carry loom shuttles for toys, cradled on dirt,
where boys slept in beds, clasped new scepters.
Even now, girls drowned like kittens in wells,
never glimpsing light,
at least in 1913, he wasn’t born female.

Fingering ancient fumbles, I know not how to carry or solve.
In Chinatown, a boy slaps blackjack under boxwood,
steals gum, and is sent to Ming Kwong Home,
yet later, finds equilibrium selling dry goods to the poor.
I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, he still chants,
his mantra of clean living.
Can what tips a man start
in the cold imbalance of his own adoption?

In six months, my wife and I fly to Guangzhou,
will bus to White Swan'S four-star elegance,
where in a matter of hours, we receive an infant girl,
configured to instant family.
Dissolves a childlessness when she comes to us,
absent of orphanages where dozens of unlucky ones
lay evidence to a continued bend towards boys,
the One Child Policy not hers.
When I think of her saucer smile, her gurgling, farting,
insouciance, I wonder, How did it feel?
abandoned at 1 month on a police station’s steps, Were you cold?
But new minds clicking, shifting speed, won’t recall,
though hard-wired to a neurological pain.
I ache to shelter her, but some unintendeds must be,
just as a woman pregnant with life,
pushes, birth tunnel stretched to full,
an answer head first to our grasp.

In truth, girls are not boys, daughters not fathers,
some differences plain, without ambiguity,
a Confucian exercise in order.
Perhaps, nothing more to be conveyed on a plane’s reroute,
new xiao xin sidled against my wife’s breasts,
except to fly on cirrus, coursing mid-Pacific faith and duty,
home to California where wired bars gather:
boy-child, girl-child, siblings and sire,
together snug, so that a son may adopt a father.

The Pure Products of Parenting

At Safeway, that little old lady inquires
of her provenance, this infant you’ve adopted from Taizhou,
who so resembles you, the father,
sprouted roots of sleek black, thickening,
nut brown skin, (though you felt, grayed and rougher).
“Who is her mother?” she poses. Your wife
standing by — olive-tones, sharp-ridged nose,
ash-blond betray her.

Her mother? What other? you consider,
embarrassed for your spouse, watch her shrink
into an awful elf, felt alien,
a ‘foreign ghost,’ and not belonging.
You’ve readied for this query, braced for it,
in the twenty-five lines, the I-600A of claim and proof,
a myriad of insinuations, boxes a social worker
ticks for Abandonment, Abuse, or Cruelty.

All those checks for children who refuse
a ripeness unto rot, a loss you want unmarked
from a girl’s past. What child, still raw,
could have originally sinned (no lustful reach,
windfallen)? You two didn’t exactly steal her away,
but in fact you did, plucked from vacant air.
Both of you, now, charged with fraud,
pressed for authenticity, brands like Chiquita bananas

and genuine Best Food’s mayo. What agency endorses
this? A babe laid down by a village gate,
her birth date unknown, or the bureaucrat who lists
her to the international scrum of parents?
What’s most pure in the DNA of giving and getting?
You two, twice divorced. No, not a 2 x 2,
but distinctly, then married Mendelian into a reverse
split, coiled into admirable bliss, with an

unexpected bless to add a third, a kind of mitosis,
a parsing which multiplies in layers: two, four,
then eight, to replicate a whole in
the form of a babe.
This braided ancestry, though unbiologic, produces
a new old form: family, familiar and famished.
Hunger steels in this gird of grocery cart,
must now speak: There is no other mother.

Elegy for the Death of Sex at the Coming of

After the How-To-Books on shelves at Barnes & Noble,
those finer volumes, compendiums for child rearing,

with somber “bombs of warning,” or italics for questions,
grids which set to evolution answers you feared

were near, that after the coming of a baby,
there wouldn’t be any sex that you could remember,

no midnight passion, no spark of nubbed opportunity,
like after a snack of milk and cookies, or watching

the 11 o’clock news; on a Sunday when to wake for it,
was to lose that weekend manner of late sleep.

All of that can go, the pages stayed, though a manual
imagines not your own particulars, but a general alarm.

How wrong they were, you then had thought, remembering
that fiery eve, upon returning from first new week

in Nanjing, where you two, tired of being parents,
no, tired in being parents, the initiate of bottles,

finality of poops, a tepidness that’s bathwater, and
had begun to get lost in boot camp, the hustle to please,

to answer a voice never heard once before, but now,
cannot help but hear again, and yet again.

In Guangzhou, at the stork hotel of babies and baby farmers,
as the innocence of first caregiving was losing shine,

you lay her down early in rosewood crib, watched
in wonder at the split-tired breathing of her husky tones,

her howl of blanket, her suddenness,
in that wonder, two had become parents,

the dotted lines of waiting year finally reaching signature.
And after, both tired (already tired) of losing lips, crawled

together onto a single bed under a stopped air conditioner
to cool your bodies down to sleep.

But for some memory, some immediate recall, your male
began nibbling her upper lip, as if it were a small cookie, not candy,

a sustenance not sweet, but carbohydrate, steel,
yet water-like, an eel, something familiar but softer

than anything ever lipped before.
And so the kissing ran, along the length of your sweat-driven

ancient bodies, your beleaguered insane selves,
loving not as if to reclaim a notion of first dating,

but your own birthing begins, some water in a womb
to be discovered in, again and yet unknown.

And you wept, leapt into your passions
until the hard thumping propulsions climaxed,

killed you two into a sleep of one. But that seemed to be
a last, a final dip, the book’s prophecies kept.

Months later, two stand before white-panels of small
slumber, and this her, to whom both genuflect.

Every kiss passed now, dry and drier, ghosting as in
a mirror, impenetrable and harried smooth.

You’ve tried to recall some sex older than a couple
a year ago, older than they could ever be,

now seemingly past and lapsed into an irretrievable,
another near, feared gone.

Approaching Hong Wan Village Gate, Taizhou

What I most need to know about those last moments,
blood stroke of future years, is your
bend beside a gate, to place
down a cry as if offered at an open temple,
intersect of passageway and place
where things are left each day:
thoughts, hurry, pushing towards a home.
You (whom I will never know) drop all that
behind, not going anywhere you,
but perhaps, leaving a self behind, at a juncture
visited only sporadically, unlike the returnees
whose commute to factory or garden regular
mouths opened to an everyday rice,
yours was final, fixed.
Though, you will never pass it again without a shudder…
a small uttered "oh," pain of letting in
omission, the less of loss.

That voice (baby's cry) heard no more except in
your thoughts (always in thoughts, farther away than here).
You must carry what you’ve unburdened:
her, and too, these drippings of
why you went there,
a there that continues and will,
at least, in what you think each hour.
Not the idea of a 9-month old carried in foreign arms,
nor of a me you cannot begin to imagine,
no, dare not imagine for the opaqueness of eyes
shadows that me thinking, of transfer,
where at an opening still, if motioned through,
we inadvertently brush elbows,
stuck in a middle
beneath the weight of ancient columns.

(“Abacus,” was published in the anthology, Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting; “The Pure Products of Parenting” and “Approaching Hong Wan Village Gate, Taizhou” were published in Crab Orchard Review; and “Elegy for the Death of Sex at the Coming of,” was published in Cimarron Review. These poems are part of Jeff’s first manuscript.)



Jeffrey Thomas Leong's poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, Flyway, Asian Pacific American Journal, Bamboo Ridge, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, nycBigCityLit, and in anthologies such as Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting, and Ohana: The Ohana Open Mic Anthology. In 2003, Jeffrey and his wife adopted a 9-month old baby girl from Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Sunday, July 24, 2011



I have been writing since 1968 and have been published since 1970. I ran and published Amazing Grace Poetry Magazine in the 1960’s/70’s, which was a highly acclaimed small press literary magazine which was published quarterly and each edition sold five hundred copies. Contributors included Jeff Nuttall Tom Pickard Barry MacSweeney, Mike Horovitz, James Kirkup and many others. I went on to run the Secret Books Press publishing Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher and Paul Matthews. I was married to the poet and journalist Barry MacSweeney between 1973 to 1979. I have three grown up children and live in Kent with sheep and chickens.

I have always worked full time and have a background socio legal work, having worked for over twenty years in the U.K. as a Children’s Guardian (Officer of the Court) representing the interests of children subject to Care proceedings and I now work as a Child Psychotherapist. I have worked extensively in mental health and particularly in the adoption of hard to place children, preparing them for placement in the recruitment and training of families. I hold a Msc in Forensic Psychology and Law.



My poetry and prose uses the skills that I have acquired in my employment; that is, of listening carefully and closely to what people say and observing what they do. I use these forensic skills in writing. The Guardian newspaper article in 1996 described me as "working with the casework fable--a brilliant poet. What elevates the dramatic monologues above raw emotion to real art is Randell’s ear for the way language reveals character."

My new book, Faulty Mothering explores ideas about the particular importance of mothering, the onus and responsibility of getting it right for children.

From the publisher's book page:
Faulty Mothering is based on my work with families but focusing on mothers in particular who are experiencing problems in attachment to their children. A backdrop to such difficulties maybe poverty, mental health problems, substance misuse, adoption, fostering, domestic violence or being poorly parented themselves. I am interested in the capacity of people to change and in the courage of children and young people who adapt and survive adversity. The poems explore those issues. "The Song Cycles," which make up the rest of the book, come from a call and response, using sentences sometimes written by others in novels which have resonated for me.



from Hard To Place

His mother, a petrol pump attendant, was said by those who knew
her to be far less than bright. She had not wanted the child but
had wanted his father. She grew very fat with the pregnancy but
told no one of the forthcoming child inside her. On the forecourt
of the garage she went into labour while delivering three gallons
of four star. They stifled her screams with the rag that wiped the
dip stick and mopped her waters with the sponge that cleaned the

Now eight years later he’s a tiny child and the doctors write
notes about his small head circumference and his stammer. He
has moved eight times in the last three years, he is a difficult boy.
The woman from the home writes on his review form that he
often uses situations to his own advantage. His gait is odd, she
comments, and he frequently limps to attract the attention of

It must have been an odd thing from the start. The way they had
met, the differing backgrounds from where they both came. He
was from a strong Jewish family, his father had been murdered by
the Nazis, his mother was said to be beautiful but no one could
recollect what became of her. It is known that he was proud of
his Jewish heritage and that he played the violin. He was nineteen
years old when he met the girl who later became his wife. She
was a farmer’s daughter who developed an addiction to heroin,
later she became a prostitute. There is a photograph of her on
the file wearing a tiny black mini skirt and holding one of her
sons in her arms, her face is tear stained. A few days later she
killed herself.

The two sons have no living memory of her, they have,
throughout their lives met their father on three occasions but the
interviews were brief and his whereabouts are unknown.

The boys don’t form relationships very easily and they tend
to test adults out to see how far they will go before they snap.
They rarely smile and say they want to live in a family where
someone can teach them to play the violin.

It had all been too much one way and another. The fact that her
boyfriend had been taken away in a police car that morning, her
final demand from the credit card company had been delivered,
the fl at reeked of the damp and the child was fretful. She
collected together her purse, pushchair and raincoat and set off
for the shopping precinct. Once inside she felt better but the child
moaned for sweets and the piped music mixed with the lights
and her lack of food made her become dizzy. Sitting down next
to an elderly couple who were rearranging their shopping, she
enquired whether they would keep an eye on the child while she
found a toilet. Two hours later the couple continued with their
attempt to extract information from the wailing child. Eventually
the precinct security guard took the child away and a police
woman was called. The sobbing of the infant drowned even the
piped music.

Now, four years later, the little girl has a new family who
worry about her insecurity and dreadful fear of open spaces.

After her brother had been killed by swallowing the bleach she
came into care. Her mother had asked that she be taken away
before she harmed her. The last she saw of her mother was
never to be forgotten, she has no recollection of her father at all
but it is believed he works on a fairground. She frequently has
terrible nightmares that wake the whole home. The staff say she
encourages boys to come into her room, she has absconded on
two occasions when the fair has been in town.

Her mother is now in prison and she has written to her but
has received no reply.

The staff at the home would like her to live in a family to be
taught some discipline since everyone believes she is promiscuous
and could be in moral danger. She is nine years old and calls her
dolly ‘Mummy’.

Late one January night when the whole house was sleeping the
young mother put her careful plans into action and slipped away
from her family and its life. The three tiny children remained
asleep until 7.00 a.m. and their father until 9.00 a.m. It has long
been agreed that the woman has returned to Ireland and all
efforts to trace her through the newspapers, police and Salvation
Army have now been terminated.

When the children realised their mother had gone they tried
to ring her on their toy telephones and sent her letters through
the Mr Men post office. They cried themselves to sleep most
nights and became greedy for food constantly.

When their father realised his wife had gone he spent
the family allowance at the bookies and told the welfare that
something would have to be done. He signed them into care and
jumped beneath the Northern line train on the way home. It is
true to say that children with their 6, 4 and 2 years are a handful
and tend to be clingy. Only last week the eldest boy was found
asking a policeman to please find his mummy.

“All I know about me Dad is that he murdered my little sister
when she was eighteen months old and I was five. I know that
he was from Glasgow and only had one eye. My Mum came to
see me just after I came into the home but she was very ill and
they took her to a hospital for diffy people where she still is. I
think being in the home with all the other children was better
than being with my parents. I miss my little sister though. I hope
if you do find me a home it won’t be with diffy people, I’ve had
enough of them.” She laughs and shakes her head of yellow and
green streaked hair. At thirteen years old she possesses the body
of a woman and the warmth and humour of a friend. “I don’t
remember much about him doing her in really, only that one
moment she was laughing because she’d pulled his newspaper to
bits and the next she wasn’t.”

What she said when I asked why she hadn’t seen the children was
that she had meant to but hadn’t, she had wanted to but then
as it had been so long that she thought it best to stay away. Then
she cried a bit and I asked her if she wanted a tissue “I want my
f . . . g kids” she said. I told her she needed to show the court that
she was responsible now and could care for them properly, she
looked out of the window. “Why don’t you take someone else’s
kids away”. Then she spat. As she walked away she turned back
and shouted “anyway you can have them, see if I care,” I watch
her angry back walk through the heavy doors.

When she came back she said that it wasn’t me she was angry
with. She told me that she had been twelve years old when her
mum left her, she had never seen her since and hadn’t wanted to
see her anyway. “I can’t be it, I can’t love them enough.”

She walks away pressing digits on her mobile phone as she walks
out of the building, I watch her as she passes the hoardings on the
roadside advertising milk.

from “Faulty Mothering”


The space between crying and surrender
is a handkerchief away
oblivion makes a lumpy pillow at night
contentment can only be a closing off
a kind of breaking down

The shimmer of tears lack lustre.
In a nearby garden a young girl a mother
of a baby lay down
her head in my neighbor’s Syringa, fell asleep
confused and drunk.
They took her baby inside and cleaned his little
I feel sick she said.


The first time I shook her
I knew it would remember it
Something unchangeable had happened.
She was better in the rain
there was hope and breath.
I drank in long open
The savage lines in my heart
are forever on my face
great ditches of
poisoned forests.

More from “Faulty Mothering” is available HERE.

Poem was first published in
Faulty Mothering (Shearsman Books, Exeter, U.K., 2010)



I have had a number of books published and I have contributed widely to anthologies, which are listed. I have read many times over the years at some Festivals and Conferences. For many years in the 19702-80s I served on the Poetry Society Council (U.K.).

Songs of Hesperus, Curiously Strong Press 1972
Telegrams from the Midnight Country, Black Suede Boot Press 1973
Seven Poems, Transgravity Press 1973
A Taper to the Outwarde Roome, Laundering Room Press 1974
The Larger Breath of all things, Spectacular Diseases Press 1978
This, our frailty, Oasis Books July 1979
Songs for the Sleepless, Pig Press 1982
Beyond All Other, Pig Press 1986
Gut Reaction, North and South Press 1987
Prospect into Breath Interviews with writer, North and South Press 1991
Selected Poems 1970 to 2005, Shearsman Books 2006
Faulty Mothering, Shearsman Books 2010

Grandchildren of Albion, New Departures 1992
The New British Poetry, Paladin Books 1988
Other, British and Irish Poetry since 1970, Wesleyan University Press 1999

Southern TV with Adrian Mitchell 1985
BBC Radio 4 Midweek Programme with Libby Purvis March 2006
BBC commissioned Bill Connors to set Songs for the Sleepless to music. This was played at the Llandudno Music Festival
-review of Faulty Mothering

Significant Poetry Readings
Cambridge Contemporary Poetry Festival, 1982 & April 2006,
Conference of Translation and Translated poetry, British Council, Paris 1985
Cheltenham Festival, 1988


Saturday, June 25, 2011



I was adopted at two weeks old, always knew I was adopted, and searched for and found my birthmother when I was 20. One of the first things I did, when we met, was to hand her copies of the two literary journals I’d just appeared in, my first “quality” publications; I’d felt those appearances as a deeply desired validation of my writing. My birthmother glanced at the magazines, and without opening them, set them on a side table. Over the course of the weekend, I gathered she was more interested in my weight and career plans than my poetry, and our relationship didn’t go much further.

At 17, I gave up my own son for adoption. At first I wrote about it confessionally; at readings in L.A., where I moved at 19, I often read a poem about childbirth in the knowledge I was giving him up and came to consider it my “signature poem.” Once, following a reading, a woman approached to express her sympathy for the pain I’d experienced in surrendering him—and said the poem made her glad she’d gone through with an abortion. I’m pro-choice, but I was aghast at such a response and think it was the last time I read the poem publicly.

In my mid-twenties, starting my MFA at the University of California, Irvine, I started to dislike focusing my poems wholly and directly on personal experience, and so didn’t write much about my son. During this period, though, every couple years I wrote a prose poem imagining meeting him once he’d come of age. In 2005, in my mid-thirties and now living in England, I wrote two more such “imagined sons” and sent one to Michael Schmidt at PN Review as part of a larger submission. He turned down the group as a whole but expressed his interest in “the birthmother poem” and seeing more of the same. I sent another submission, with another “Imagined Son,” as they were now titled, and Schmidt said he’d like to see the series.

Series? What series? I realized at once that I wanted to write this larger, longer series Schmidt alluded to, and in the next six weeks I focused on the project exclusively; by the end, I had 30 I felt worthy of publication. Thirteen appeared in PN Review, and later another sixteen in The Republic of Letters, as I continued developing the series into a book.

A few months after finishing that initial 30, still working on it in every spare moment, I realized that the book couldn’t be composed solely of the imagined sons. There needed to be another element, some sort of contrast that showed other dimensions of what it is to be a birthmother. After some weeks, I had the idea of the sons alternating every so often with “birthmother’s catechisms,” where a question that runs through my consciousness repeats, with different answers suggesting the array of responses that might occur at different times.

In September 2009, Oystercatcher Press published a pamphlet/chapbook of the work, The Son (Oystercatcher Press), selected as the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for the quarter. The reviews have been heartening as I complete work on Imagined Sons, my third book of poetry.

Carrie Etter



A Birthmother’s Catechism

How did you let him go?

With black ink and legalese

How did you let him go?

It’d be another year before I could vote

How did you let him go?

With altruism, tears, and self-loathing

How did you let him go?

A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?



Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles at the age of nineteen and lived in southern California for the next thirteen years. She completed her BA in English at UCLA and MFA in creative writing at UC Irvine before beginning a PhD in English, focusing on mid-Victorian fiction and early British criminology. In 2001 she moved to London and finished her PhD in 2003.

In 2004 she began teaching creative writing at Bath Spa University and moved to “the West Country” the following year. Her first collection, The Tethers (Seren Books, 2009), won the London New Poetry Award 2010 for the best first collection published in the UK and Ireland in the preceding year, and her second collection, Divining for Starters, was published by Shearsman Books in February 2011. She has also edited an anthology, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010).


Wednesday, June 22, 2011



My younger daughter adopted two children, each arranged before birth, each put into her arms within a few days of birth—the first, 4 years ago in Massachusetts, and the second, 2 years ago in Louisiana. Both adoptions are 'semi open'—the new style. My daughter & her husband submitted the whole thing each time: a dear birth mother letter, the album picture story of their life, all to induce a pregnant woman intent on surrendering her child to choose them. They met the mothers and some family members and keep in touch through an agency in one case and a lawyer in the other—sending a letter or two with photographs a year. (The birthparents are told there's a letter and can pick it up or not.) Both daughters keep as a middle name the name given to them by their birthmother. A token they will be told about... Thus Evelyn Monique and Agnes Grace. Their first names are family too: Evelyn is a favorite great aunt of my son-in-law; Agnes is my grandmother, who meant a great deal to me in childhood.

In truth this separation is another fiction. The families could find my daughter and her husband in a flash...via address, last name, employer, etc. At least for now. But they don't. Everyone obeys the rules.


The cost of modern American semi-open domestic adoption is not all that high in money terms. There’s lots of false information circulating on this. Also stories, totally outdated most of them, about the insecurity of domestic adoptions. That a court may demand return of a child to the biological family, for example. As a life-long conspiracy theorist, unconscious conspiracy, that foulest of all, being paramount, I speculate reasons may have to do with deep distrust of many white Americans for people with African heritage—plus class issues, of course, plus fear of exposure, all of which are ameliorated when a baby comes from a culture far away. Not even the prospect of being present at the baby’s birth, of bringing that baby home within a very few days, is enough to overcome a widespread preference for adoptions from Asia or the Caucuses by those with the resources to effect them.

The actual cost of the “domestic semi-open” is invasion—and the presence of a birthparent in the adoptive family’s collective imagination. Like all adoptions, this parenthood doesn’t start under the covers, in the back of a dark van, in a hot private midnight no one else knows. Grief enough. As in foreign adoptions, institutional grey-blue florescent light bathes every move. Domestic adoptions go still deeper. Not only the “Dear birthmother” letter and the photo album depicting the ideal childhood promised to the baby, but also social worker home studies, employment and medical histories, financial reviews, Homeland Security clearance, pre-adoption counseling, and enough certified paperwork for a Fortune 500 merger, all provided for uncounted strangers to review, copy, file and, oh yes, lose and then demand replacement of. Topped off by a required live performance before the birth: the face to face meeting of prospective parents with pregnant birthmother along with agency rep and whomever else birthmother has requested to be present.

Remember, parents, this is not an interview. We social workers have done all that. This is a meeting, a chance for you all to know each other a little more. (Why?) This is not the time to press for facts. (Why not?) The sibling question for example, is not to be touched. (Why?) In part, I think, this performance is structured to protect birthmother’s self esteem. She is not to feel incompetent, stupid, crazy or sick—though she may be some, all, or none. But she is also not acknowledged to be desperate or even in trouble. This decision is to be seen by all involved as an act of altruism. For the visit, birthmother is pulling on a face of respectability so the adopters will think well of her. To protect herself from any hint of scorn she’ll make coffee and serve something sweet, tell lies about herself and her circumstances, tell her visitors she is sure she has made a wonderful choice. This is the first step in a process that will continue during her free counseling sessions in the weeks following the surrender. Her story will be processed, justified, dewormed and buried in clean wrappings. In my family there are now two such women. I think about them. So does my daughter. My son-in-law operates on a stricter sense of denial, so if he does too, the fact isn’t shared with me. But we all agree that someday there may be contact with one of these women and their birth child, if their daughter, my granddaughter wants it.

The aim of all this is to make a good story about of two bad ones…and surely this is more humane than any adoption process used in the past. I now have four grandchildren, and I could not imagine my life or my family without any one of them.

(Martha’s daughters Hetty and Mallory, and granddaughters Satrianna, Aggie and Evie)

(Martha and her husband artist-poet Basil King)


I haven't written about this explicitly...but the adoption has certainly had an impact on my world view, on my emotions, on my "family" feelings, on what I've observed of the dance of nature and nurture (which sounds so academic, but believe me it's not!). Essay to come perhaps? Impact is here and working. I never suspected the impact would be this profound, that's for sure. Initially, adoption only seemed to offer relief of the pain of childlessness...after too many miscarriages.

I have wrestled all my writing life with the shifts between memory and inventions, family (and social) lies and conspiracies, ethical demands of loyalty and ethical demands of art, the impossibility of telling a “whole” story, of writing itself as a need to be seen and yet to hide. My family circumstances and the choices my daughter made have confirmed my instinct that these are worthy issues to contend with…and, perversely, conversely, delightfully, they have helped me decide to leave off memoir and consider poetry again. With a willful dissolution of boundaries at my disposal. With an eye to humor always lurking in the quagmire underneath the logical bridge. With a huge hello to Satrianna, Kirin, Evelyn, and Aggie!



“Impact is here and (still) working.”



Martha King was born in Virginia in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and married Basil King in 1958. She began writing in the late 1960s, after the birth of their two daughters, Mallory and Hetty.

Living in Brooklyn since 1968, King produced 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle in the late 1980s (sent free to interested readers). She has worked as an editor in mainstream book publishing, for Poets & Writers, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and currently for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Her collections of short stories include North & South (2007), Separate Parts (2002), and Little Tales of Family and War (1999). Other stories have been anthologized in Fiction from the Rail and The Wreckage of Reason. A collection of her poetry, Imperfect Fit, was published in 2004. Currently, King is at work on a memoir, Outside Inside, chapters of which have appeared in Jacket #40, Bombay Gin, Blaze Vox and New York Stories.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

kim thompson


more thoughts on what can or cannot be...

Friday, June 3, 2011 at 11:44am

"as an adoptee, i..."

and then where does one go with that statement...

its like when (non adoptees) say "but arent you glad that you grew up in the west? i mean if youd grown up in korea as an orphan or with your mom you would have been so poor and you wouldnt have gotten to do everything youve done"

they say this as if i have never considered this...
they ask this as if i could ever really choose the goodness of the life i know over a life i do not know... they ask this as if i could really choose if i want to love my umma or if i want to love my two aunts pat and kathy and have loved my beloved grandparents—jerry and loretta... "you can only choose one"
they ask me this as if i could really choose between the things i can do with english and what i most likely would have been able to do with korean...
they ask me this as if i could choose between being my umma's daughter or being my mother's daughter...
they ask me this as if i could choose between having been able to see so much of the world and live so many places or grow up in the city that i was born in and know it like the back of my own hand and understand my relationship with the river that runs through it...
they ask me as if whatever my answer is, is somehow representative of the other 199,000+ adoptees...

they ask me as if i somehow have an answer to questions that
(im beginning to believe)
were not necessarily meant to be reconciled with an answer of knowing.

sometimes "i dont know" is the best answer

and so, i say that more and more:

Q: "how are things with your umma?"
A: "*sighs* its a very complicated relationship. i dont know what to say about it except that some things are not necessarily meant to be reconciled."

Q: "how is it living in korea? it must be nice looking like everyone else."
A: "i love it here but it is also such a complicated relationship. and i dont look like everyone else, but yes if an aerial shot were taken of me standing at a crosswalk in a crowd waiting for the light to change then you wouldnt be able to find me and that feels nice. but no, i dont fit in here... not all things are meant to be reconciled."

Q: "that must be hard for you being as you are in a place that is so conservative"
A: "i dont know. its ok. sometimes it makes me crazy and sometimes it doesnt. sometimes minneapolis made me crazy and sometimes the liberals there made me crazy... and sometimes they didnt and sometimes minneapolis didnt... i dont think that everything can be reconciled, when so much of my being who i am, in a place like this, is so full of complexities."

Q: "it must be so nice having found your umma. you're so lucky. do you see her all the time?"
A: "*long sigh* i am beyond fortunate and i know that. but its so damn complicated and has led to 2 plus years of insanity that im only recently just coming out from... i dont know that something that is so full of complexities and balls of string can ever be fully reconciled... the past cannot be undone ... she is dealing with her own things and i am dealing with mine. some things take so much time..."

Q: "so your korean must be really good. has it been easy to learn?"
A: "for me, as an adoptee, i find that learning the language is also a constant reminder of how i have lost this language. which then for me, as an adoptee, i end up getting angry at my umma which leads to getting angry at korea and the west and every single person who gives their kid up for adoption and it spirals out of control and then i have to spend the next minutes saying 'breathe kim. calm down. your teacher is just asking you to answer if you have milk in your house, in korean.'
so no, it is not easy... it is a daily uphill struggle that cannot be explained... but within it, as an adoptee, i am finding the joy of doing plays on words between korean and english ... but no... it is not easy and i doubt my relationship to the language can ever be fully reconciled."

Q: "does you umma wish she'd kept you?"
A: "does your mother wish she hadn't kept you?"

but no one seems to ask the things that "as an adoptee, i" spend a lot more time thinking about and working through... like:

"what is your relationship to the han river? is that why youve always lived in cities or villages that have a significant body of water running down their middle?"

"what is your body's relationship to the physical geography of the place? is that why youve often lived and have always preferred to live and have always felt most at home in places that are comprised of mountains and rivers or oceans?"

"how does it feel to know that your body is so much of this place. your genetic history is all here and you are returned to it and yet often all you can feel is the loss of all of these things?"

"how is it that almost all of your friends in the states are white and you love as you love your own life, but here in korea you tend to avoid making friendships with white foreigners? what does this say about you? are you internalizing some kind of racism? or are you simply enjoying the fact that you have a choice that you didnt have before? and do you ever feel badly for thinking that?"

"do you see any possibilities of making it as a full time artist there just as you did for years back in minneapolis? do you ever get lost in this? do you ever grow despondent in this? do you ever feel like youve given up so much to be here and wonder if and how this is going to work out?"

"are you being changed by the place? what are you learning about yourself?"

"are you confronting and acknowledging just how deep your attachment and abandonment issues go? or are you still doing like you used to when youd always tell us 'im not affected by that shit that just for weak people who end up on tv talk shows' ?"

"do you see other adoptees as some kind of distant relatives? even the crazy ones? do you have love for the crazy ones?"

"are you sometimes jealous of kyopos for being able to speak korean?"

"do adoptees have a lot of in house fighting and differ greatly on their opinions towards international adoption and being adopted?"

"does it ever make you sad that sometimes people seem to misunderstand what youre saying, and take it to mean that youre bitter when really youre saying, 'i love my life. but i think the system is corrupt and needs to change as its not right to sell children whove been stolen from their families and its not right to deny adopteees access to their own records and its not right that there is and has been such little support for single mothers who are the 'source' of 90% of children being put up for adoption -- but NONE of these things change the reality that i love the life that i have been given and feel immensely blessed each and every day and i am learning to accept that not everything is meant to be reconciled.'"


"how do you feel when you eat the food and hear the chatter of people and take everything in and just feel like youre constantly discovering this part of you that you spent the majority of your life denying that it even existed?"


"do you think that all adoptee literature and plays are good?"

"do you think that some adoptees are dealing with their inner demons in some very unhealthy ways, even though they appear to be such impressive individuals? do you think that YOU are dealing with your issues in some very unhealthy ways? do you think you are learning how to deal with your issues in healthier ways?"


"do you think that there are enough counseling services and support systems in place for adoptees especially in terms of post-reunion?"

"what is post-reunion anyways?"

"do you ever feel like youve just committed to a form of insanity? do you ever worry that maybe this is going to be your undoing? do you ever feel like this might be the path to your own enlightenment? do you ever feel all of those things at the same time? what is that like - to live with so many conflicting emotions all at once each and every day?"

and then...

"what are the things that you believe may not be meant to be reconciled both within yourself, in your relationship with your umma, in your relationship with the people, city, the river, and the country?"

to which i would answer

"all of them."

followed by a "and accepting that is making all the difference in the world for the me who is 'as an adoptee, i...' "



i was adopted and i am an adoptee, so whether i am writing specifically about such themes or the smell of bread coming from the baker's at the end of my street or how i mistook the moon for a street lamp—i view all of my writing to have been and to be affected by my experiences as an adoptee. i do not view it to be my all defining point just as i do not view my spiritual beliefs or sexuality or the fact that i love meat to be my sole points of definition... but, i do ... view each thing as being a part of who i am and who i am then shapes how i speak and write ... and how i speak and write then shapes how i am and how i live as a queer meditating (yet non full fledged buddhist) meat eating korean american adoptee who has wandered about the world ...



Note: i wrote this on mother's day this spring whilst i was visiting in mpls... *originally the word "umma" is written in hangul/korean in my poem but have romanized it for easier viewing and readability.

for (my) umma

the past cannot be undone...
it is not a string that can be
unknotted ...
nor unwound

and yet (i) have stood before you
unraveling since the moment that
you let me
(halfway) in

and the half of me thats still outside
and the half of me thats been let inside
are divided into broken splinters
my heart a human form of flowering

but i love you
and have done so
since you carried me sight unseen
back when your flesh was my shield
back when we stirred each other into waking
i have loved you always
even in the midst of every righteous tantrum fit of anger/pain for all you did
and did not

and our past is the world's largest ball of seemingly unworkable yarn
but the train keeps speeding forward
and the solitary street lamps
are shining down on this
slowly knitted path

so today
just like back in the beginning
and all throughout the middle...
i love you with the heart
that you and he
made for me.

Image from kim's 2006 solo work at Intermedia Arts, Mpls, MN where she was a recipient of their "Naked Stages" grant. The title of the piece was: "timeline autobigraphia: everything that is..." Photo by Usry Alleyne



kim thompson is an interdisciplinary artist who was born in seoul, s. korea in 1975 and sent overseas for adoption in 1976. she grew up in s. florida, wandered around europe for most of her 20's, and is currently residing in seoul. before moving to seoul she lived in minneapolis, mn where she was the recipient of several state and national grants including the 2008/2009 jerome travel grant for literature. her style of writing falls within the genre of the jazz aesthetic, hence the seeming "lack" of caps and punctuation as she uses such things to denote—emphasis, space, and breath.

she has been published in the O.K.A.Y. (the Overseas Korean Artist Yearbook) book vol 6; G.O.A.L's (Global Overseas Adoption Link in Seoul, S. Korea) publication "The OAK Newsletter," where her work was also translated into Korean; and the Playwright's Center in minneapolis, mn "Notes From Rehearsal" website.

along with other poet adoptees residing in n. america, s. africa, and korea, kim runs a korean adoptee poetry blog at: www.thursdaypoems.blogspot.com


Tuesday, May 31, 2011



Like the Lotus

December 29, 2006

I am standing on a cliff fifty feet above the Pacific Ocean, balanced on a precipice between two oceans. I don’t know how life has brought me to this place, this beautiful rock on the Northern Izu Peninsula on the island of Honshu. But I’m here, with my husband and dog. We’ve hiked up twenty miles to stand on this small point of rock in Dogashima, watching the waves crest below and the falcons crest above.

It’s my birthday; the dawn of a new year. I sit down on this line of solid land that cuts into the cliff and give thanks to all of those who have held my hand to pull me up the mountain of life. I feel safe, yet I am literally perched on a dangerous place, a narrow cliff that juts straight down to the ocean. But it’s not the literal I am interested in. Deep in my heart, I feel a sense of security and peace that I’ve never felt before. So I shift my weight to one foot. I lift the other foot up, place it onto my thigh. I look straight ahead and hold my focus. If I look down I will be overcome with fear. I hold my tree pose, breathing deeply. Strength and courage flood my cells. I repeat my mantra: “I am calm, I am poised…at the center of life’s storms, I stand serene.”

It’s taken me 44 years to get here.

I’ve searched half the world for this feeling.

And I know, of course, that it is fleeting.

I don’t have a Zen master, a guru, or even, really, a religion. But neither did Tu Fu, Basho, Musashi Miyamoto or countless other poets and wanderers who made their way through hills and valleys, over mountains and rivers, to seek solace. They didn’t have to sit in a meditation hall and stare at a wall to look inside. They just looked around and paid attention to what was near them. Their teachers were the mountains, rivers, rocks, and trees. Their parents were Mother earth, Father sky. Then they woke up. Or should I say, were awakened. I’m waiting for my epiphany. I’ve found ten thousand other ways to be a mother, but I’m still waiting for a child.


I have a friend who took his 3-year old boy up to the mountains in the Japanese countryside. The boy ran ahead excitedly, as little boys will do. There was a wooden footbridge. It hung over a steep ravine, a hundred foot drop. The boy ran ahead onto the footbridge. The footbridge was made of planks of old wood. Not many people walked in the mountains anymore. There were gaps in the planks. Big gaps.

The father watched.

Every year on the day the boy died, my friend posts a memorial picture of his son on his blog. The boy playing a drum set. Standing in front of a samurai helmet. Smiling for the camera. Making the peace sign with both hands. No words, no commentary. Only his son’s picture and the word “elegy.”

To remember. To honor.

Life is not safe. I know that. Nothing is certain. Things we hope for, dream about, come or don’t come, and then are gone.

I meet with my friend often. In our own ways, we both mourn our lost children.

Somehow, we have been drawn together in this strange world to mirror each other’s pain. To give each other comfort and hope. We will move on, our mutual presence seems to say. We give each other that.


My husband is chonan. In Japan, this is a serious business. Chonan means the oldest son and heir to the family name and whatever fortune it may have acquired. While we’d been “away” in the paradise of Northern California for ten years, his younger sister had been doing the dad’s cooking and laundry. But his sister, now in her thirties, wanted to start her own life—open her own business, move on. We couldn’t ask her to take care of the dad forever. It was Shogo’s turn—our turn.

I hadn’t wanted to go back to Tokyo, the busy life, the pollution, the stress. But I loved my husband, and wanted to be with him. And I knew that a good marriage was based on compromise—even sacrifice. After all, the root of the word sacrifice is sacred. In the highest sense, to sacrifice is to do something completely for someone else, with no personal gain. As an independent American woman, that took some getting used to.

And it was time to start a family.

I’d gone about trying to have a child the way I’d gone about everything else in my life—one part perseverance, one part “trusting the process.” And I thought, as many do, that “if it’s meant to be, it will be.” I had a full, fantastic life and no regrets. But after eight years, I did something I’d never done before in quite the same way. I got down on my knees and prayed.

And then my beloved aunt got cancer. Her one regret is that she did not have children. She worked all her life in child protective services, and had wanted to adopt. She urges me forward with a force and conviction that only impending death can render.

I learn of an Australian psychologist who has adopted an infant in Japan. When I contact her, she gives me the name of the government agency—Jido Sodan Jo. The application asks questions like: why do you want a child, what kind of upbringing and education would you give it, what are the most important values you would share with a child, what about religion? Filling out the application is challenging, but it is an opportunity for Shogo and me to become very clear on what our values are. So we send in our application and wait.


“Japan is a difficult country to adopt from,” everyone says. Not only are there few children up for adoption, but it’s the only country in the world where you need to get the extended family’s approval for the process.

Bloodlines are seen as all-important, one’s ancestors are one’s link to the past. The family registry or koseki goes back generations and lists each birth and marriage, tying family to family. When we got married, I did not take my husband’s name, and this caused a commotion at the ward office, as the clerk said there was no “official space” to put my own name on the form.

My husband stood his ground. “Well, make a space,” he said, knowing that was impossible. One thing about bureaucracy is that it most definitely cannot make a space.

It would have been much easier for him to request or insist that I change my name, but he didn’t. He just waited for the bureaucrat to find a way to remedy the situation. I kept my own name and was added to the koseki.

Then doubts start to flood my mind. If we succeed in adoption, I’ll be bucking the system again.

I know how difficult it is to raise a child, let alone one who is adopted in a country that is not particularly “open” to adoption. In Japan, most adoptions are kept secret. Some children don’t even find out until their parents die.

So we brace ourselves and ask my husband’s father for permission. I find out, to my surprise, that his own father was adopted. Samurai on one side, gangster on the other. My husband has them all in his ancestry—geisha, gangster, samurai, rickshaw driver. This assortment of characters pleases me, makes me feel less strange for my difference, more welcome. My father-in-law says yes.

We ask his sister, since she lives with us. She says yes. We breathe a big sigh of relief. But still I worry. All the possible scenarios tumble through my mind: I am a Westerner and the child will not look like me, so everyone will know he or she is adopted. I know of foreign women who don’t take their half-Japanese children to school as their children are ashamed and don’t want their peers to know they are “hafu.” And because he is “different,” I don’t want him or her to be the victim of ijime, school bullying. That could lead to hikikomori, someone afraid to leave the house who spends his childhood at home. Even worse, it could lead to jisatsu or suicide. I know I am being neurotic, already thinking about the difficulties the child will face in grade school, middle school, junior high, high school and beyond. I know I am already being a mother.

I share my fears with my husband. He was beaten up in school, too.

“We turned out okay,” he says. It was why I studied karate and meditation, which ultimately led me to Japan.

“Yeah, but we got our asses kicked a lot!”

“Maybe we went through it so our child wouldn’t have to,” he says.

“That’s a nice thought,” I shake my head. If only that’s how it worked.

We decide that we are already a rainbow family, he with his long hair and stay-at-home job, me with my red streaks and funky yoga studio, not to mention our strange pit-bull mutt and his family’s eccentric lineage. In a conservative neighborhood in a conservative country, we already stand out as freaks. Why not embrace it completely?

Perpetual Yes

In September, the agency calls about a little girl. We say yes. Nothing happens. In December, they call about a boy. We wait. They offer the child to another family. Many young couples are waiting to adopt, and we are low on the list due to our ages.

I have to do something proactive. I am fiercely committed to living my dreams. If I’m not, who else will be? I contact a dozen international adoption agencies. Most of them don’t write back. The few who do bother to respond say they don’t work with families who live abroad. We apply in Vietnam. We wait some more.

Finally, I make my husband call the orphanage. I insist that he tell them to stop calling us every month to ask if we are interested in a different child.

“Tell them to put a perpetual `yes’ on our file, ok? Tell them that whatever child they have available, we are interested.”

“Whatever child?”

“Yes. Whatever child.”

I want to say all those things like “It isn’t fair,” and “Why us?” but I already know the answers to those questions, that there are no answers. This is our fate, our journey, our path.

And somehow, miraculously, it works.

A little boy is available.

“Yes!” we say, eager to meet the child who is destined to be ours.

But when they come to our house to tell us about him, the information is sketchy at best.

“Do you have a picture?” I ask.

No picture.

This astounds me. More people have cameras in Japan than they have driver’s licenses. Japan is the land of the camera—how could they not have a picture?

“Are you interested or not?” they ask. They’re not messing around with this child. He’s suffered enough.

“We’re interested,” we say together.

And for the second time in my life, I get down on my knees and pray.

Mothering Zen

Feb 1, 2007

We visit Shinji in the orphanage for hours, days, weeks, months. Finally, we can bring him home for an overnight. Then, finally, we can bring him home forever, just after his second birthday.

We go to a playground where he can see the bullet trains passing overhead. At the playground, he comes up to the other kids and wants to play with their toys, or play with their balls, or play with them in general. He likes to hold hands. He wants contact, touch, closeness. Because he grew up in an orphanage where everything was communal, he misses it. He has no concept of personal ownership.

The first time we give him Ai-Ai, the stuffed monkey we’d brought to take with him in the car—he tries to leave it behind at the orphanage. We have to convince him that he can keep it: he’s never had a single thing of his own.

He is the opposite of other kids, who have to learn how to share. He brings his own toys to share, but the other kids don’t take much interest in them. I don’t want to try to make sense of things like this, or explain everything to him He’ll learn. I want to cut a path in this crazy forest of life with him. Sitting Zen. Walking Zen. Playing Zen. Mothering Zen. It’s all practice, and we have a lifetime.

But my aunt doesn’t. I want him to meet her before she dies.

So we bring him to San Francisco.

We see a homeless man with a cat on the street in front of Macy’s on Union Square. The cat has been hit by a car and the man needs money for its hospital bills. Everyone rushes by the man and the cat, but Shinji pulls my arm, insists on petting the cat. Then he sits down on the pavement and tries to pick up the cat to hug it. I tell him the cat is hurt and he shouldn’t touch it. So he pets it instead. Now people stop to look at the little boy sitting on the sidewalk, blocking their way. Some mothers pull their children away. A photographer stops to take a picture. Others put money in the basket. More children come to sit by his side.

Somehow, he brings together the splintered worlds of strangers. He is a healer of cats and hearts, a small wonder in this world of so many wonders. If I ever felt any doubts, I do not now.

All That has Divided Us Will Merge

September 14, 2007

Though there are many customs for birth in Japan—the mother returning to her parents’ house, a celebration of the child’s first solid foods—we’ve missed them all. So we return to California to hold a Jewish baby naming ceremony for Shinji. Many people from my mother’s community gather to welcome him, though we are strangers. Shinji is given the name Benjamin after his maternal grandfather, who came from Ludz, Poland, and Walter Benjamin, the Jewish writer/philosopher and member of the resistance in WWII. There is a ceremony where we throw all of our sins into the Napa River. Any time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in the Jewish tradition, it is customary to throw breadcrumbs into a body of water as a symbolic act of repentance. The ritual is called Tashlich, A Sending Out. We gather at a waterfront to “cast away” the sins of the past and resolve to have a better year in the year to come.

My mother and stepfather, father and stepmother, my sisters and their sons are there. The whole family has gathered to heal and rejoice. All over the world, it is a holy time. In India it is the Ganesha festival, honoring the Elephant god of new beginnings and remover of obstacles. In the Muslim world, it is Ramadan.

My mother’s friends, most of whom I don’t know, come up to congratulate us. Some tell me their stories, of how they too were adopted, or how they have adopted children, and what a wonderful mitzvah it is.

Tossing bread into the water, everything is still. It is a beautiful moment.

The congregation has prepared a special blessing for the occasion. It says:
May the one who blessed your ancestors bless you. We hope that you will be a blessing to everyone you know, humanity is blessed to have you.

Shinji sits atop his father’s shoulders wearing his beaded yarmulke, smiling and dancing. Shinji is Jewish and Japanese, he is universal.

I look at my husband and see that he is crying, too.
Humanity is blessed to have you.

The adults gather and say the Shabbat prayer:
And then all that has divided us will merge
Then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both women and men will be gentle
And then both men and women will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
Then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the environment
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

My mother has ordered a special cake for Shinji decorated with Pokemon, though Shinji seems to be the only one there who does not know who Pokemon is. He devours the cake, which says: “Mazel Tov, Shinji. Welcome to the Tribe.”

April, 2008

My aunt passes away. I am stricken with grief. She is my beloved, my friend, my mentor, my guide. But I cannot cry forever. Shinji has been given a pogo stick and wants to bounce on the sidewalk. It is dangerous, but he can’t be stopped. He seems impervious to pain, though I know he is not. It’s just that he learned not to cry at the orphanage, where help might not have been as quick and as plentifully as it might otherwise have come.

Suddenly, he points to the pavement.

“Cho cho! Cho cho!”

A butterfly lay on the ground. A beautiful orange and black monarch.

Nette imasu,”—it’s sleeping. I use the Japanese euphemism for death.

He leans over its lifeless body. “Shinda?” he asks. Is it dead?

I wonder how, and where, he has learned that word.

“Yes,” I say, scooping up the butterfly in my hands and bringing it over to the garbage.

But this will not do.

Hana! Hana,” he stomps his feet and motions to a potted daisy bush in front of the house. Understanding, I carry the butterfly over and put it to rest on the bed of flowers. He covers it with a leaf. Then he points up. Sora, he says. Sky.

Satisfied, he takes my hand and leads me back to the pogo stick, where he bounces and bounces until dinnertime.

(First appeared in the May 2010 Shambhala Sun magazine. It also will appear in Best Buddhist Writing anthology 2011, edited by Melvin McLeod, and published by Shambhala.)

Leza Lowitz and her son



I am not sure if the adoption experience per se has affected my poetry as much as becoming a mother. It has made me more patient, compassionate, understanding. At least, I try.




Orange and black butterfly
alights on a potted sage
in an alley.

Put one hand on top of the other,
spread your fingers into wings,
move them up and down,
together and apart.

What else is there to do
than to become the butterfly,
winging through the world,

Its freedom our freedom,
its beauty our beauty.


Not words
but the echo

of a temple bell
after it has been struck.

not action
but an awareness of being.

Form finds form
as in painting, prayer, song.

Resistance too,
finds a welcome,

for without resistance
there is no yielding,

without struggle
no triumph,

without sound,
no silence.

What if all your mistakes
were really divine designs

to teach you how to see
beyond yourself?

What you struggle against
eventually becomes you,

the way river becomes ocean,
small water inseperable

from big water,
everything in flow.

Rock Gardens

There are those who believe life is like a recalcitrant garden—
no matter how many times you pull the weeds,
they’ll grow right back: no provocation, no fertilizer,
barely any sunshine, not even much water.
They think that like the poison Oleander
the more you abuse yourself, the stronger you grow.

I’m not a believer.
Drench your neighbor in compassion,
give them a Japanese rock garden any day.
They don’t care to be cultivated by abrasion,
don’t want to blossom under duress.
They need only to be tended to gently,
contemplated in serenity by moonlight,
raked over gently,

(Poems reprinted with permission from Yoga Heart: Lines on the Six Perfections, Stone Bridge Press, June 2011)



Leza Lowitz was born in San Francisco in 1962 and grew up in Berkeley, California. She has a B.A. in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley, and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For over two decades, she has been bringing together the worlds of poetry, writing and yoga, sharing her experience in Yoga Journal, Shambhala Sun, The Best Buddhist Writing 2011, The Huffington Post, The Japan Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among many others. Her award-winning poetry has been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, Burmese and Farsi.

The author of over 17 books, Lowitz is the recipient of numerous honors for her poetry, fiction, and translations. Among them are the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Best Book of Poetry and The Bay Area Independent Publisher’s Association Award for Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By, the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, an individual Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a California Arts Council Individual Fellowship in Poetry, an Independent Scholar Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and together with her husband, Shogo Oketani, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature from the Donald Keene Center for Japanese Culture at Columbia University. Other honors include the Copperfield’s Dickens Fiction Award, the Barbara Deming Memorial Award in the Novel, the Japanophile Fiction Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award for Editorial Excellence, the Tokyo Journal Fiction Translation Award, and two Pushcart Prize nominations in Poetry.

Lowitz first made her way to Tokyo in 1989, where she worked as a freelance writer/editor for the Japan Times and the Asahi Evening News, and as an art critic for Art in America. She wrote regular radio reviews for NHK Radio’s “Japan Diary” and was a lecturer at the prestigious Tokyo University. Since 1990, Lowitz has been Corresponding Editor to Japan for Mänoa, for whom she has guest edited two features, including Silence to Light: Japan and the Shadows of War. She also broadcast book reviews on Asia for NPR’s “Pacific Time Radio.”

After almost a decade in California, Lowitz relocated to Tokyo in 2003, where she opened Sun and Moon Yoga. She is grateful to be able to write and to share her love of yoga with others. This essay on adoption appeared in Shambhala Sun, and is forthcoming in The Best Buddhist Writing 2011. She adopted her son in 2007 and considers him her wisest teacher.

She can be reached at www.lezalowitz.com and www.sunandmoon.jp


Monday, May 30, 2011



I came to adoption at the age of twenty-four, when I was told by my gynecologist that my chances of getting pregnant and having a live birth were very slim. I’d been married for a few years and my husband and I quickly decided to pursue adoption of an infant from South Korea, having had as young adults the image of the 1973 Saigon Baby Lift burned into our minds. As sad as it was to begin to adjust to the idea that I’d not be likely to make a baby, the prospect of international adoption was an open door we barreled through with gusto.

It was the early eighties in Fairfield county, Connecticut (not too far from where fellow poet and adoption essay writer Michael Snediker grew up) and the only Asians we regularly came into contact with were the owners and servers at the local Chinese restaurant. Thankfully, we were supported without restraint by our families and shared a sense that the world was larger and more diverse than our upbringing had shown us.

We filled out the forms, had our backgrounds checked, opened up our home for a home study, and waited. During this time, we received just one day of counseling from the adoption agency, headquartered in Massachusetts, but this really stuck with me: every person is wounded during his or her life; our adopted children will be aware (as would we) of one of those wounds very early on. In one sense, this helped me feel prepared, in a small way, for some of what was to come.

We picked up our three month old daughter at Logan airport in Boston on a mild May night in 1983. We were hungry on the drive home and I was eager to give Carly her first bottle, so we stopped at a chain restaurant. Our waitress offered to heat the bottle. A few moments later, she handed it to me and asked to see our baby. I turned Carly toward her with great pride. The woman flinched and backed away, unable to cover her shock. I don’t know whether she thought our daughter had Down syndrome (babies with Down have eyes which look vaguely Asian) or if she was simply shocked not to see a white child, but I felt a rush of near-murderous protectiveness I’d come to feel over and over again during Carly’s childhood. Strangers would approach us and ask how much she cost, tell us how cute “they” are when they’re babies, if she was Communist. People wanted to know if my six month old daughter spoke English. People assumed she didn’t speak English until she was in her teens. One of my childhood friends asked me during a phone call why I’d want to adopt a “gook.” Another friend, who’d just given birth to a son, let it be known that she’d let him play with her but that she wasn’t “marriage material.”

I registered every racial insult, real or perceived, conscious or accidental, that came our way. It was exhausting. At some point during her adolescence, I began to realize that my indignation was doing Carly no service at all. She’d developed her own set of defenses, the primary being humor. She told people she was Korean-Irish and replaced the lining of her Catholic school uniform with jaunty green cotton strewn with shamrocks. She’d taunt her younger sister (my biological daughter) “you may look like Mom, but she chose me.” Late one afternoon, I was fed up with my girls’ sniping at each other while we were in the grocery store. I yelled from the front of the line, “Carly, get over here right this minute!” A number of heads turned in her direction. She looked at me blankly and replied in a Japanese B-movie accent “I no know you, white devil. You not my motha!”

It took a few explanations before I was allowed to leave the store with her.

When she was 14, Carly and I took one of the first homeland tours of South Korea with 98 other American families with adopted Korean children. Though we’d been promised access to our children’s birth records at the adoption agency in Seoul, Korean law was changed when our plane was crossing the Atlantic: only the adoptees over the age of 18 would be allowed to obtain information about their birth parents. Most of adoptees in our group were girls; most had been left as infants at police stations, street corners, or other places where they’d be likely to be found. Carly was unusual in that we knew that she’d come from an intact family—the fourth of four girls. It was a blow to get so close to having the means to contact them and have that opportunity lost at the last minute. I promised Carly I’d do everything I could to let her birth family know she was safe and loved.

Once we returned to the U.S., it took a couple of years of phone calls and letters before I was told our adoption agency had made contact with Carly’s birth mother, who indicated she wanted to hear from us. Carly, then seventeen, sent a letter accompanied by a number of photos of her childhood—dressed as a Brownie, wet in a bathing suit, and proudly dandling a sackful of Halloween candy. A month or two later, she received four letters: one from her mother and each of her three older sisters. Once they were translated, we began to learn about the circumstances of her birth and relinquishment. The story we had been told by the agency about the details of her being given up for adoption had been a whitewash of a far more troubling reality, but that’s a story for Carly to tell. What I feel comfortable saying is this: it meant everything to her birth mother to know her daughter was loved.

Carly has visited her birth family in Seoul three times in the last ten years. She speaks only a few words of Korean; they speak only a few words of English. She has a different relationship with each of her birth sisters and is in touch via the internet with her extended family of nieces, nephews and cousins.

Two years ago when she married her husband Jordan, she walked down the aisle in a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress. Her birth mother, who had flown to the U.S. for the first time, tied the mint green jeogori with an intricate single-looped knot, then fastened a small pin at Carly’s neck. She stepped back and looked at her daughter—our daughter—and said “Now I die happy.”

Carly and her three mothers at her wedding: Left to right: Leslie (adoptive mother);
Carly; Carly's biological mother; and Pam (Carly's adoptive stepmother)



For me, adoption has been a process of opening. Sometimes it’s a warm sense of having created a bond from sheer love. Family is a thing consciously made and requiring regular upkeep. Sometimes it’s a sense that, by adopting a child of another race, I’ve made a political statement, one which others feel they have the right to weigh in on. The opening continues in other ways as well: my own racial identity as a white person feels fuller, less dissociated from the other races.

In my poetic imagination, the souls who inhabit my poems are not all white, not all happily awash in family. I’m aware of that deep desire to be one with others and of the limits on the reality of truly being “at one.” Adoption is a kind of mortar which attaches one person to another more or less perfectly, more or less eternally, more or less happily.



It’s funny, I’ve written a few poems about my younger daughter. I’ve written poems referring to both my daughters, but every poem I’ve tried to write about Carly as an adoptee has been unsuccessful. I veer into sentimentality or defensiveness. I worry about leaving the reader with more of a sense of exoticism than of familiarity with her as a person I love. I feel more comfortable writing about how my experience as a mother has changed as my daughters have entered adulthood. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that I wasn’t a poet when Carly was a child. I also want to balance my desire to write what moves me with her desire for privacy. It’s a moving target, though, as all writing about loved ones inevitably is.



Leslie McGrath became a mother at 25, when Eun Jin, who she and her husband renamed Carly, arrived on a 13 hour flight from Seoul, Korea. Leslie McGrath’s poems have been widely published, most recently in SLATE, Tiferet, Long Poem magazine (UK) and PANK. Winner of the 2004 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, her first collection of poetry, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage, was a finalist for the CT Book Award and nominated for The Poet’s Prize. McGrath teaches creative writing and literature part time at Central CT State University and serves on the board of the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT.

Carly is now 28, a graduate of Lesley University, and is in charge of child nutrition at the CT Food Bank. She’s been married for two years to Jordan, who is blonde and blue-eyed, and enjoys speculating about the odds of having a blue-eyed baby—just to get a rise out of her adoptive mother.