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My Country Is a Collection of Fires

CAS for Database

Jessica Zhang

Lexington, MA, USA

Northfield Mount Hermon


My Country Is a Collection of Fires

after Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth

Between my father and I, there isn’t enough lung capacity

To go around. Every third breath is tobacco, or engine exhaust,

Construction dusting up the roads so much

You’d think the entire world was on fire.

Still, every summer I return to nibble at nostalgia,

Encircling like a migratory bird,feasting the new crop

Until it dries and rots, until even the mallards and cuckoos and cranes

Have flown down South and up again. Northward, there is a city

Besieged by a longing I can only recognize

In my father, and his father, and in the eyes of soldiers

Patrolling Tiananmen Square. Before I was a poet,

I was just a girl deathly afraid

Of new year's firecrackers. There’s an apartment in Chaoyang

Still hiding the cracks and pops and splinters, and every June

I still look under the awning for a swallow nest, even when I know

All the songbirds are gone. I admit, I was never angry enough to stay

Where the incessant cogs are always trampling

Every sweet and budding green.

I have never envied another blood

Until mine tethered me here, bloated heart

Drifting somewhere along the Yangtze. So when I am missing home,

Is this yearning mine, or my mothers, or her mother’s?

And is this the country what I am to call motherland, and to inherit, and love

Forever? And would the Beijing streets always be this solemn

And lonely, our little revolutions dog-eared away

As if in surrender? And after all these years,

Will my anguish finally nest somewhere? In spite of the days spent

Licking the wound of memory, carrying its weight in gauze,

Sweeping its shards up like October leaves,

I still turn to the fire, turn to it as a homesick daughter,

Turn even as I know

How that first burn lingers.


Tracing the intersections of patriotism, displacement, and lineage, “My Country is a Collection of Fires” paints a hauntingly lyrical narrative of a girl and her country, where fire is not simply a chemical reaction, but something that is deeply entrenched in longing. As the reader traverses through this piece, they, too, will find themselves following the speaker’s questioning–which is, how does one reconcile loss with self-identity? Where does inheritance end and desire begin? And, above all else, what does it mean to love one’s country?


Jessica Zhang is a poet from Shanghai, China. She now lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, where she likes to take long strolls by the Charles River in between bouts of writing poetry.

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