excerpts from forth-coming work
There’s an Art to Everything
after Carl Phillips/ after Kelechi Nwankwoala/ after Brandon Som/
There’s an art to everything: How
my spine carries the way
my grandmother kneeled head-first
in the Nanjing dirt. My name
is the song my mother sang to me
when she was dying of thirst –
do you love me?
do you love me?
We carried everything
on our backs and asked
our bodies to sing.
I believe all the stories
of who I was: a boat to
New York burning into the asphalt
horizon, my mother afraid
of the most beautiful
part of her body. A centuries-old
bell in Trinity Church rings and sings
the same song my mother
did when she first saw her
hometown books burnt –
do you love me
do you love me?
I know my mother
does not hear her paper name,
a soft displacement
in her voice, sing.
There are some who do not realize
she is Orpheus. But I have heard
her in this debt
of language, in the aviary
of her scarred body.
“Idyll” is forthcoming in Best Teen Writing 2016
She taught me to arrange the fake bones
in a perfect circle, five year-old fingers
cradling calcium as if only circles would trap the
moon by white.
This was the summer all the girls in
my class claimed they saw the same ghost,
the summer of burning tea leaves,
the summer we listened to bleating radios
sing of panacea. Penumbra summer and her
brother held a 9mm Rueger to the chest,
pointed and pulled as sliding
a quarter into the Ruby Diner’s gumball machine.
Perfect blue, man-made sky, the jukebox
in the parlor singing staticky Sex Pistols
and the salt on the fries so sweet, so sticky.
By September, the black girl’s seat was
beneath Ms. Koken’s class confederate
flag and she called it nostalgia.
and years later, I lay still beneath the
same willow on the hill’s skull,
the roots now, protruding as a split in
the lip - and here we buried her
brother beneath, the dogs ripped
the skirt off the black girl beneath,
searching for him and her in the birds that
fly tethered to this small town’s starred, striped sky.
Somebody once explained to me the ruthless grip on all
our necks and yet still,
I have not learned to control my caked nails
digging through these roots
searching for the apple of Eve -
into the center of the earth,
learning to sink.
Here, kneel with me,
I’ve come to apologize to the dirt.
Runner-up for the Patricia Grodd Young Poets Prize from the Kenyon Review
First published in the Kenyon Review Fall 2017 issue
Nanjing, China - 1966, Cultural Revolution
Peony petals lace the Nanjing streets, ripped in pink dissolve,
And here, my soldier spits the wad of dope from his mouth mindlessly.
And here, he holds the hem of her honeyblue cheongsam silk, counts
the hooks and trails perfect circles as a prophet down her neck. Listen: then soften.
And this is where sin blooms: no wind, no songs,
red trees, no roots.
And this is where names run and rot (the forest renders all things nameless).
And this is where lovers come to sleep, where my soldier, my father,
holds my forbidden mother’s chapped lips,
and she pulls
her blue dress
his black hair
their bodies: two pale trees by moonlight.
My mother used to run like this screaming things only birds loved.
all things the women have abandoned over the years.
Nanjing and my mother drinks amnesia like red wine,
replaces reality with ritalin:
Give her a marker
and she’ll draw you god.
Give her a willow
and she’ll make you a crown.
Give her a bible and
she’ll make you a mirror.
there’s a willow tree across the Yangtze River from my home that will sing you half-curses, half-lullabies.
and a boy who joined the red guards at school told me that my father died underneath
her branches a hundred months before,
the long rope-like-leaves around his neck, nature’s noose.
And he takes me there tonight. Here is your father, the boy shows me, digging bare
nails into raw mulch and pulling something half-human half-deity from between trees roots:
And his eyes were open, perfect circles traced a million times over
opened, arid, dry: no tears for a dead man’s repose.
And the noose cracked his adam’s apple, a thousand year’s revenge from Eden.
And the plaque was foam from the Yangtze River.
And the jade cross around his wrist caught what little light stolen from the moon.
And his skin was so, so soft, so smooth, touching it made our five-year-old hands weak skin feel human.
And his lips are forever ripped apart into a smile.
And so the boy took me home into
the long dark night, our small bare feet skipping, fingers interlaced and arms swinging,
And we laughed and sang songs - the east is red the east is red
Listen: my father’s head is swinging from the tree,
singing songs of lost gods and how good men become good soldiers and blind deities.