Naming the Absence

As I am writing this in the summer of 2018, more than two thousand migrant children are being kept at the U.S.-Mexico border and around the United States, separated from their families, as pawns in a cruel political agenda. Doctors and healthcare professionals have spoken publicly about the long-term, irreversible physical and psychological effects of the “toxic stress” detainees experience. For the children, there is the trauma of the initial separation, of course, but also the ongoing uncertainty and confusion about when and whether they will be reunited with their parents. 

For many adoptees, following this story stirs up a great deal of pain and anger. Even for those who have had continuous, secure families since their adoption, even for those who have reunited with birth families, and even for those who have gone on to have families of their own, the initial trauma of separation is never reversed, never undone. 

In the case of the detained migrant children, the aggression and dehumanization has been made explicit. You are only able to keep in cages those you do not consider to be fully human. 

The narrative surrounding transnational adoption is complicated in different ways, even if the resulting effects on the children are similar and even if the players—the state and its institutional structures and the non-white children—are the same.

I was two years old when I made the eighteen-hour trip from Seoul to New York’s JFK Airport. My flight landed at night. It was late spring, but a light snow had fallen. A woman I had never met spoke to me in halting Korean. When she said, “I am your mother,” I can only wonder, decades later, what I must have thought. I was old enough to speak a few Korean words, speak in simple sentences. What could her words have possibly meant at that time? 

To connect that moment of utterance to my own preoccupation with language, my own path to writing, might perhaps be too great a leap to make, but the question of how language can function in a life that arises from rupture is one that is not uncommon to children who have been separated from their parents.

The experience of poet and visual artist Sam Roxas-Chua 姚,who was born in the Philippines, adopted into a Chinese family, and later immigrated to the United States, carries familiar echoes of displacement and diaspora, of interrupted lineage and complicated attachments. 

The dedication Roxas-Chua 姚 makes, which is the same in both of his two most recent books, haunts my reading of his work. His first words to his readers, before poems or images or any prefatory materials, are: “Dedicated to those abandoned at birth.” I am struck by the tenderness in this phrase, but also by its inherent tension: the state of dedication—its ongoing devotion, its purposefulness, its steadfastness—alongside the act of abandonment, arguably its opposite. One who is dedicated does not abandon. If to be abandoned at birth is to be renounced, denied—to be without family and without name—then to name something is to lay claim to it, and many poems in Roxas-Chua 姚’s collection, Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater, are concerned with naming and the related acts of claiming family connections. 

Names can be obscured, as in “Several times I hid my name / behind my ears” and “how deep a voice travels / to swallow / a name.” Names can take on the quality of a wish, or of possibility, as in “Lacuna” (“the missing part”), where the speaker offers that “Here is a list of all the names I wish I had, here are my shoes.” Names can function as prayers or spells, as in eponymous poems, when the act of speaking a name suggests incantation. The line is addressed to the father, through a lens of loss: “I’ve lost keys to doors that remain locked, I’ve forgotten the sound that echoed the names of the fatherless, the motherless—” This twelve-line prose poem ends, “Father, find me saying your name three times underwater.” 

Is it not the particular wish of the orphan to know one’s own name? In the absence of knowing, might the nameless claim one for herself? This act of claiming is what comes to mind when names appear to be re-inscribed, as in “A Collection of Eyelashes on Paper”:

When I was eighteen

I swallowed a needle

attached to a red thread.

I stitched my name

to the sails of a moored haunt—

my parents.

Later in the collection, in “Seaside,” the speaker observes “leviathans on the beach // spelling my name on the surf with their tongue,” and in “The Moon is a Cold Fruit” men dream “of etching their names on the moon.” The recurrence of this motif—the act of re-inscribing a name—seems one way an abandoned child might attempt wholeness, might reflect her own dedication to claiming self in the face of renunciation.

Names tether us to our family lineage, most immediately to mothers and fathers. In this collection, parents, like names, are persistently present but often in the process of transforming, and so cannot be fully held. In the opening poem, “A Beast in the Chapel,” the father disappears (“my mother sat me down / and said he wasn’t coming home—”), then a man turns up, unrecognizable, in a river (“his face eaten by fish. Several / times I asked Who was he? // Who was he?”). Whether or not the dead man is actually the speaker’s father, the association is made and the father rendered permanently transformed, unknown, unknowable. In the second to last poem, the speaker washes the father’s body, a body “in transition to an animal.” 

Mothers disappear, too. In “Of Blood and Stem,” the speaker entreats his lost mother: “If I had known the sky / would inhale you out of me so quickly, // I would have been a better boy, / I would have been a bird.” Mothers also transform, and often are associated with water or the sea: “She forms her hands / into a dorsal and swims inside each room / of our house on Palmetto Drive,” and later she “sleeps with folded hands— / a dorsal.” In “Our Priest Takes Our Family Picture,” a mother is found: “in the ocean, she was backside // like a starfish, half-opened—skin drunk / on salt and sand.”

Certainly water imagery is associated with the womb, and Roxas-Chua 姚 makes this connection, as in “My Last Packet,” when the speaker states, “This morning by the kitchen sink I washed my hands in lotus threads, they reminded me of my mother’s hair in water.” In the context of abandonment and adoption, the image of water might offer other possibilities for interpretation as well. As unknowable as water can be—consider the vastness of the sea, or the ocean’s dark depths—it also can take on the shape of its container, even a small glass. This idea perhaps reflects the paradox of the orphan, whose own history contains elements of unlimited, unknowable possibility and mystery, but whose current reality might also be constrained by adoptive family and adoptive name. 

To make sense of abandonment perhaps requires a shared fantasy of “limitless possibility” that the adoption triad maintains—the promise that a child will have a better future, a better life, separated from her family of birth. No one can predict the future of course, and the idea of what constitutes a better life carries its own embedded biases and assumptions. In the current crisis along the United States border with Mexico, it is difficult to overlook the irony that the United States, which for decades has been the country that “receives” the highest number of international adoptees per year, is now separating families who are trying to give their children the limitless possibility that this country promises. 

Abandoning one’s child or one’s homeland requires a steadfast devotion to a hoped-for outcome that cannot yet be proven or demonstrated. It seems fitting that Roxas-Chua 姚’s poems often take on the quality of incantation or prayer, which calls to mind a fidelity to what cannot be seen or known, and harkens back to the devotional element of dedication. 

From “Lacuna:” 

Here is a list of all the names I wish I had, here are my shoes.

Here is the wolf I have taught to speak, here is his sister. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Here is a nail I crucified my doubt with, here is his twin brother.

Here is the stem I drink water from, here is my tongue.

The anaphora calls to mind the presentation of “Prayers of the Faithful” from Catholic mass, and certainly the reference to crucifixion suggests an association with Christian faith. Similarly, in “A Beast in the Chapel” the repetition of the phrase “Several times” follows the same rhythmic pattern as the “Blessed be” of the Beatitudes. Religious faith and tradition are referenced throughout, from the “chapel” through titles such as “A Found Novena,” “Good Friday,” “Confessional,” and others. The sense of prayer and devotional incantation is carried throughout the book. 

Devotion operates in this faith-based sense, but also in relation to familial context—as in “Egg Brooding,” which opens with the following stanza:

An octopus, miles deep in a bay

covers her eggs for four years,

I don’t know of such dedication

from anything living. 

The association we make is that of the devotion of the mother to the child, and the poem later reveals how the speaker

came out of a woman

who was nineteen in the Philippines,

And how she left me in the cradle

of a tree limb, unwrapped. 


Sam Roxas-Chua 姚, FATHERLING. Sumi-e and squid ink, 8˝ × 11.5˝. Reprinted from Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Asemic Writing, copyright © 2017 Sam Roxas-Chua 姚,
by permission of Orison Books, Inc. _________________________________________________________________________________
Sam Roxas-Chua 姚, DESIDERATA. Microscope slides with asemic writing. Reprinted from Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Asemic Writing, copyright © 2017 Sam Roxas-Chua 姚, by permission of Orison Books, Inc.


What is the opposite of to leave, to abandon? One answer might be: to stay, to accompany, to travel with. I like to imagine Roxas-Chua 姚, with a rather literal interpretation of his author’s dedication—offering his own dedication to his practice, and the work that results from it, as a means of keeping company with and for those “abandoned at birth.” He attempts this not only through the poems in Saying Your Name, but also through his volume of asemic writings, Echolalia in Script, which was published in the same month, and which Roxas-Chua 姚 refers to as “brothers and sisters” to the poems. 

Asemic is “the absence of logical comprehension,” he tells us in his introduction, “just a writhe of ink or brush strokes where mind and reason are absent of any association and no meaning.” Asemic writing is an attempt to capture feelings that are not easily expressed in language—a “deep, innate sentiment that everyday language doesn’t have the words for.”

 Before we learn to speak, our experiences of the world are imprinted in our bodies; what we cannot express through language we attempt through movement and gesture. This bodily knowledge is, I think, some of what Roxas-Chua 姚 accomplishes in the complex and evocative images collected in Ecolalia in Script. One of them, FATHERLING, has the phrase “where I saw my father” written beneath it: a large dark silhouette resembling an elongated jellyfish dissolves into fragile tendrils that float and reach down toward the bottom of the frame. The next is a version of the first—more elongated, with more tendrils, but having the same color patterns, the same overall shape, and beneath it the phrase “carrying my mother.” I am struck by how these images hearken back to the poems in Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater, not only referencing the quality of fluidity, their capacities for transformation, but also attempting to link mother, father, and speaker together—if only through the images and gestures on the page. 

Many of the images are composed of scribbled lines that might at first glance be mistaken for handwritten language—perhaps in an ancient text we once knew but can no longer decipher. Patterns of circles and curves appear frequently, lending the images a sense of cyclical regeneration, of continuity. 

In DESIDERATA, accompanied by the words “This is the birth of ego,” it appears as though the strokes and lines are made on panes of glass, which are then arranged sculpturally, suggesting multiple layers, through which some of the markings are obscured, others amplified by their placement. Through and between the layers are spaces, gaps, which call to mind the lacunae of the poems. The overall effect is of what might be an incomplete shape, but the shape is not without its richness and complexity, its own integrity.

In the wake of such trauma as the severance of family bonds—abandonment in the case of orphans, enforced separation in the case of the two thousand migrant children—one can hope that over time the traumatized child can develop language—through word or gesture—to express the experience of loss, to articulate the grief of rupture, so that some new knowledge or meaning might emerge from the wreckage. Through these two lyrical and haunting books, Roxas-Chua 姚 claims space for this kind of expression, drawing from his own complicated, fragmented experiences to shape a new kind of language—one that does not deny the fissures, but transcends them.


An essay-review of Sam Roxas-Chua 姚’s Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater (Fruita, CO: Lithic Press, 2017. 96 pp. $17.00, paper) and Echolalia in Script: A Collection of Asemic Writing (Asheville, NC: Orison Books, 2017. 104 pp. $20.00, paper).


Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018) and the forthcoming The Fish & The Dove (Noemi Press, 2020). Awarded fellowships from the Rhode Island Foundation and the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, she holds an MFA from Brown University and now teaches there in the Nonfiction Writing Program.