If in America

Hmong Hunter Charged with 6 Murders
Is Said to Be a Shaman —new york times

If a tree falls in a forest,
does it make a sound?

If a rifle fires a shot in the woods,
whose body first hits the ground?

If a group of angry hunters
surrounds, curses at, and accosts you
for wandering onto their land

If you apologize for being lost,
inform you saw no posted signs, swallow
their chinks this and gooks taking over that;
are walking away over mud and fallen leaves when a loud
crack far behind you kicks up black earth

If your father was conscripted to fight
on the side of the United States
for the cia during the war in Vietnam

If he, your mother, you—the oldest son—
and all your younger siblings were later abandoned
in the hills of Laos as targets for genocide by the Viet Cong

If after five years in a Thai refugee camp,
you come to this land as a teen, a casualty
of history and time, then receive three years
of training to become a sharpshooter
in the u.s. military

If you spent your adolescence watching blacks,
Asians, Latinos, and whites watching one
another watch each other for weakness and flaws

If, after this first blast, you wheel
around in a bright orange vest; glimpse
in that split second an angry, possibly
inebriated man lowering or resighting his rifle

If, in that icy moment, you recall
the Native friend you used to collect cans with;
once watched his three-hundred-pound father
unload himself from a Chevy Impala and chase
the boy down University with a ball-peen hammer

If, of your own children, your quietest
son lately lacks the wherewithal at school
to defend himself; and your oldest daughter
has always been for some inexplicable reason
ashamed of you

If hunting for you is not just a sport;
never a time to drink beers
with friends in a cabin, but rather
is a factor in considering your family's winter protein consumption

If you believe in God, but not the good in everyone

If you hate to think about this shit, because
why the fuck is it always on you
to preprove your loyalty and innocence?

If—frightened for your life and
the livelihood of your immediate and extended
family—in that split second, you reel
and train your own gun back at the far face
of that vapory barrel now aiming at your own

If, yes, you are sometimes angry and so look forward
to escaping your truck driver's life on certain
designated dates, on certain designated
lands, not always clearly demarcated, but always clearly stolen
from the ancestors of fat drunk red men
so confused they chase their own firey songs
in the form of their sons

Stolen from generations of skewed black backs,
hunched your whole life on street corners laughing
and picking their bones

Stolen from the paychecks of your brown coworker
social security ghosts

Stolen like your own people
from mountains in one land
only to be resettled and resented here
in projects and tenements

If you barely finished high school, but you know
from all you've ever seen of this system
Might Makes Right,
and excuses, treaties, and cover-ups
appear the only true code inscribed on most white men's souls

If, after such slurs, pushes, and threats in these woods
it is now also on you to assess
if that far rifle still locked on your face
just issued a mistake, a warning
shot, or murderous attempt—
                                    and the answer is:
your military muscle fibers
act

If you then spot three four five six seven? other
hunters now scattering for their atvs
and, of course—if a gook,
don't be a dumb one—
scattering now also for their weapons

If you are alone in this land,
on foot, in miles of coming snow, wind, and branches
and don't even know
in which direction you'd run

If from birth you've seen
what men with guns, knives,
and bombs are capable of doing
for reasons you never wanted to understand

If in this very same county's court of all-white
witnesses, counsel, judge, and jurors
it will forever be your word against theirs
because there was no forensic testimony
over who shot first

If, yes, sometimes you can hear voices,
not because you're insane, but
in your culture
you are a shaman, a spiritual healer,
though in this very different land
of goods and fears, your only true worth
seems to be as a delivery man and soldier

If, upon that first fateful exchange in these woods,
your instinct, pushing pin to
balloon, were to tell you it's now
either you and your fatherless family of fourteen,
or all of them

Would you set your rifle down;
hope the right, the decent,
the fair thing on this buried American soil
will happen?

Or would you stay low,
one knee cold, and do
precisely as your whole life
and history have trained?

And if you did,
would anyone even care
what really happened

that afternoon
eight bodies plummeted
to earth like deer?

Ed Bok Lee, "If In America" from Whorled. Copyright © 2011 by Ed Bok Lee.  Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press.
Source: Whorled (Coffee House Press, 2011)
More Poems by Ed Bok Lee