Poem of the Week | May 14, 2013

This week we’ve dug up a fine poem, Kathy Song’s “Stamp Collecting.” This poem dates back to 1989, TMR issue 12.1. Song was born and raised in Hawaii, and after traveling and studying extensively abroad, resides there again. She is the award-winning author of several collections of poetry, including her first, Picture Bride, which won the 1982 Yale Younger Prize, and the Buddhism-informed Cloud Moving Hands (2007).

Stamp Collecting

The poorest countries
have the prettiest stamps
as if impracticality were a major export
shipped with the bananas, t-shirts and coconuts.
Take Tonga, where the tourists,
expecting a dramatic waterfall replete with birdcalls,
are taken to see the island’s peculiar mystery:
hanging bats with collapsible wings
like black umbrellas swing upside down from fruit trees.
The Tongan stamp is a fruit.
The banana stamp is scalloped like a butter-varnished seashell.
The pineapple resembles a volcano, a spout of green on top,
and the papaya, a tarnished goat skull.


They look impressive,
these stamps of countries without a thing to sell
except for what is scraped, uprooted and hulled
from their mule-scratched hills.
They believe in postcards,
in portraits of progress: the new dam;
a team of young native doctors
wearing stethoscopes like exotic ornaments;
the recently constructed “Facultad de Medicina,”
a building as lack-lustre as an American motel.


The stamps of others are predictable.
Lucky is the country that possesses indigenous beauty.
Say a tiger or a queen.
The Japanese can display to the world
their blossoms: a spray of pink on green.
Like pollen, they drift, airborne.
But pity the country that is bleak and stark.
Beauty and whimsy are discouraged as indiscreet.
Unbreakable as their climate, a monument of ice,
they issue serious statements, commemorating
factories, tramways and aeroplanes;
athletes marbled into statues.
They turn their noses upon the world, these countries,
and offer this: an unrelenting procession
of a grim, historic profile.