When I get to where I’m going
I want the death of my children explained to me.

                                                       —Lucille Clifton

They meet over tea and potato chips.
Brown and buttermilk women,
hipped and hardened,
legs uncrossed but proper
still in their smiles;
smiles that carry a sadness in faint creases.
A sadness they will never be without.

One asks the other,
“What do they call a woman who has lost a child?”

The other sighs between sips of lukewarm tea.
There is no name for us.

“No name? But there has to be a name for us.
We must have something to call ourselves.”

Surely, history by now and all the women
who carry their babies’ ghosts on their backs,
mothers who wake up screaming,
women wide awake in their nightmares,
mothers still expected to be mothers and human,
women who stand under hot showers weeping,
mothers who wish they could drown standing up,
women who can still smell them—hear them,
the scent and symphony of their children,
deep down in the good earth.

“Surely, history has not forgotten to name us?”

No woman wants to bear
whatever could be the name for this grief.
Even if she must bear the grief for all her days,
it would be far too painful to be called by that name.

“I’ve lost two, you know.”
Me too.
“I was angry at God, you know.”
Me too.
“I stopped praying but only for a little while,
and then I had no choice. I had to pray again.
I had to call out to something that was no longer there.
I had to believe God knew where it was.”

“I fear death no longer. It has taken everything.
But should I be? Should I be afraid of what death has taken?
That it took and left no name?”

The other who sighs between sips of lukewarm tea
leans over and kisses the cheek of the one still with questions.
She whispers…

No, you don’t have to be afraid.
Death is no more scary than the lives we have lived
without our babies, bound to this grief
with no name.

Copyright © 2019 by Parneshia Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 22, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
     ⁠The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
     With large and sinewy hands,
And the muscles of his brawny arms
     Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long;
     His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
     He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
     For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
     You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
     With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
     When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from school
     Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
     And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
     Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church,
     And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
     He hears his daughter's voice
Singing in the village choir,
     And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother's voice
     Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
     How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
     A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing,
     Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
     Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
     Has earned a night's repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
     For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
     Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
     Each burning deed and thought.

This poem is in the public domain.

Anyone who makes tasty food has to be a good person,
            because think of all the love that goes into cooking:
salt and pepper, sprinkle a little extra cheese, and pop open a bottle

            of Syrah, or if we’re eating at my parents’ in Las Vegas,
we’re drinking Tsingtao beer, my father’s favorite, and he adds more
            bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms and baby corn,

and fun fact: When I was a baby, I’d eat only corn and carrot-flavored
            mush, and now, my dad adds more to the Buddha’s Delight,
a vegetarian dish from China, and I think about my aunt

            in Hong Kong, who, once a year, buys fish from restaurants,
only to release them back into the sea—eat tofu,
            save a life—but back to the dinner scene in Vegas,

my mom is making her Cantonese lobster, extra garlic and ginger,
            and I grew up licking lobster shells for their sauce,
I grew up waking up during summer vacations

            to my mother wearing a headband, warding off the grease
from cooking crabs and shrimps, heads intact, and there’s something, just something
            about my parents’ cooking that makes me feel

a little more like a Chinese girl, because I don’t live in Hong Kong,
            and unlike my cousins, my daily stop isn’t Bowring Street Station,
where I could pick up fresh mango cake before it’s sold out,

            or what about chocolate mousse cake in the shape of a bunny
or mini–dome cakes shaped like cows and pigs
            or cakes shaped like watermelons and shikwasa and citrus mikans,

and who wouldn’t want custard egg tarts or hot dogs
            wrapped in sweet bread or sesame balls, washing it all down
with cream soda, and I feel like that little Chinese girl

            in Kowloon again, getting picked up by my grandpa
after preschool, ready to go junk shopping, and I’d come home
            with shrimp crackers and a toy turtle aquarium and a snowman

painting and a dozen roses, and no, I don’t even like flowers anymore,
            but there’s something, just something about thrifting
with my grandpa now at age twenty-eight that makes me feel

            so Chinese Girl, the way he bargains in the stalls,
asking for the best, “How much for that Murakami-era Louis Vuitton belt?”
            or “What about this vintage Armani?”

and it’s like that look he gives me at dim sum, after the sampler
            of shumai and har gow and chicken feet and char siu bao comes,
and he tells me to eat everything, watches me chow down on

            Chinese ravioli, and that face of his freezes in the moment:
“Eat more, eat more, eat more. Are you happy?”
            And oh, Grandpa, I’m so happy I could eat forever.

Copyright © 2019 Dorothy Chan. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2019.

There were lemons growing old in a clay bowl,
A dozen injured pots that wobbled on the stove,
White countertops with stains like continents

Mamá hid with doilies and patches of an old stole.
A small cabinet stowed vials and jars, her trove
Of ground spices, dry herbs, heirloom condiments

To enchant croquettes, hors d’oeuvres, fillets of sole
Biscay style. With rasp, spoon, and pestle, she strove
To please Papá who scorned those recherché scents

Of haute cuisine, so she fricasseed oxtail in a soul-
Ful red sauce, boiled ham hocks, cooked tripe with cloves
Of garlic—simple, brawny, no buttery ornaments

To rouse his anger; but on Sundays she’d cajole
Papá with sautés, gratins, and soufflés that drove
Him to beg for seconds, thirds, his taste buds in ferment.

Copyright © 2019 Orlando Ricardo Menes. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Winter 2019.

Translated by Christian Gullette

What’s in a name? she asks,

with her blonde hair,
ponytail,
and blue-eyed gaze,

her memories of summer cottages,

rhyming clues for Christmas gifts and debates over Finland’s
official languages.
“What’s in a name?”

She says
we ought to take my mother’s name
and pave the way for the future.

To show the name belongs
on book covers
and voting ballots.

And not just on the sign above an ethnic restaurant.

Easy for her to say, my mother says.

“She doesn’t bear the burden of the name like you do.
For her, the name is a sign of goodness,
of virtue,
a silk ribbon that leaves no trace 
when she removes it.”
 
I say change is always painful,
someone has to be the first.

Then it’ll have to be someone else, she says.

Can’t the name be one of my virtues? I ask.

She says,
You’ll just be their monkey.

Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Words Without Borders. From White Monkey © Adrian Perera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Christian Gullette. All rights reserved.

Even this freckle testifies to the strength
of second thoughts. My family

is a poem, the clear expression of
mixed feelings, and your emergent

system at five years old fires
like the shoal of neon tetra kept

in the depths of a ten gallon
darkness. As for infinity, it’s there,

haggling with contradiction,
asking each question but one.

You will find for a while there
you held the exquisite to daylight

before setting it down on the baize,
conquering.

Sometimes it will feel like
the entire body consists of flames;

and sometimes concrete;
sometimes collapsing like a waterfall

or steady as a lake of evening lapping,
the midges clouding the surface.

Sometimes it will feel like air
just before the air itself

turns to snow. The solution is
a solution, by which I mean

lots of things dissolving to one.

Copyright © 2019 by Nick Laird. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 30, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

I am white       where it matters        in front of the
camera     I am an egg             a cobweb          when
my mother calls        me Haloul       I pretend not
to hear                here I am a résumé                 doll
gown of paper            checklist             piss in a cup
I was afraid          of my body                        but not
anymore           now there’s respect              this bitch
pantyless                      humming           louder than
the                    machine            I am white         when
asked to be                   storyboarding             my own
grandmother      into a                         poem           here I am
meet cute           between              egg &           song

Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 14, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets

Music—died on August 7, 2015. I made
a video with old pictures and music for
the   funeral.    I   picked   Hallelujah   in
acapella. Because  they  weren’t  really
singing, but  actually crying.  When  my
children    came    into    the    room,    I
pretended   I   was   writing.   Instead   I
looked at my mother’s old photos.  The
fabric  patterns  on  all  her  shirts.  The
way she held her hands together at the
front of her body.   In each picture,  the
small brown purse  that now sits under
my desk.   At the funeral, my brother-in-
law    kept   turning   the   music    down. 
When  he  wasn’t  looking,  I  turned  the
music  up.    Because  I  wanted  these
people  to  feel  what  I  felt.    When  I
wasn’t   looking,    he   turned   it   down
again.   At the end of the day, someone
took  the  monitor  and  speakers  away. 
But the music was still there.  This was
my first understanding of grief.

Copyright © 2017 by Victoria Chang. Originally published in New England Review. Used with the permission of the poet.

Anyone who makes tasty food has to be a good person,
            because think of all the love that goes into cooking:
salt and pepper, sprinkle a little extra cheese, and pop open a bottle

            of Syrah, or if we’re eating at my parents’ in Las Vegas,
we’re drinking Tsingtao beer, my father’s favorite, and he adds more
            bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms and baby corn,

and fun fact: When I was a baby, I’d eat only corn and carrot-flavored
            mush, and now, my dad adds more to the Buddha’s Delight,
a vegetarian dish from China, and I think about my aunt

            in Hong Kong, who, once a year, buys fish from restaurants,
only to release them back into the sea—eat tofu,
            save a life—but back to the dinner scene in Vegas,

my mom is making her Cantonese lobster, extra garlic and ginger,
            and I grew up licking lobster shells for their sauce,
I grew up waking up during summer vacations

            to my mother wearing a headband, warding off the grease
from cooking crabs and shrimps, heads intact, and there’s something, just something
            about my parents’ cooking that makes me feel

a little more like a Chinese girl, because I don’t live in Hong Kong,
            and unlike my cousins, my daily stop isn’t Bowring Street Station,
where I could pick up fresh mango cake before it’s sold out,

            or what about chocolate mousse cake in the shape of a bunny
or mini–dome cakes shaped like cows and pigs
            or cakes shaped like watermelons and shikwasa and citrus mikans,

and who wouldn’t want custard egg tarts or hot dogs
            wrapped in sweet bread or sesame balls, washing it all down
with cream soda, and I feel like that little Chinese girl

            in Kowloon again, getting picked up by my grandpa
after preschool, ready to go junk shopping, and I’d come home
            with shrimp crackers and a toy turtle aquarium and a snowman

painting and a dozen roses, and no, I don’t even like flowers anymore,
            but there’s something, just something about thrifting
with my grandpa now at age twenty-eight that makes me feel

            so Chinese Girl, the way he bargains in the stalls,
asking for the best, “How much for that Murakami-era Louis Vuitton belt?”
            or “What about this vintage Armani?”

and it’s like that look he gives me at dim sum, after the sampler
            of shumai and har gow and chicken feet and char siu bao comes,
and he tells me to eat everything, watches me chow down on

            Chinese ravioli, and that face of his freezes in the moment:
“Eat more, eat more, eat more. Are you happy?”
            And oh, Grandpa, I’m so happy I could eat forever.

Copyright © 2019 Dorothy Chan. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2019.

           for Andrew Periale

The sparrows in the gutter knew you
And hopped out of your way.
The trash being blown about
By the wind gusting did as well.

A few scenes from your life
Were about to be performed
By a puppet theater in the park,
When it started to rain hard,

Making the great trees panic
Along with mothers and children,
Who ran shrieking for cover
Wherever they could find it,

Except for you, already seated
In a long row of empty chairs,
Waiting for your angry stepfather
To step out from behind a curtain.

Copyright © 2019 Charles Simic. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Winter 2019.

They say Satan teased Sarah while
her husband tied their son up on a mountain.
It's an old story: a man tests the limits of religion
while the devil’s on a mission to a woman.

The devil said He's dead! Oh wait! He's not!
Sarah heard a gunshot
and did the only thing she could.
She reached beyond herself and died.

Meanwhile Isaac sees a frenzy
on the face of a patriarch,
and an angel's screaming out a name
and everything's going dark. Afterwards,

they never spoke again. One went
his way and the other went another.
Isaac's mother dead, he followed Hagar
to the desert. Hagar married Abraham

but Isaac stayed away, didn't even send a
text. He pulled the blinds down, tried to rest.
Then his father died, so God blessed Isaac, Isaac
never quite recovered from the loss.

Then Rebecca came along and saw it all.
She'd studied Freud, so knew her boys would
tell stories that their father couldn't bear.
She tore her hair out, then devised a plan.

 

But even she was foiled; her boys grew up.
Her boys forgot the fights of childhood, spat out
bitter herbs, and limped towards each other
when the Angel settled down at last.

There may not be a God or a Sarah.
There may not be a garden or a man who
ordered soup up to his room.
There may not be a mountain.

But there’s always been a woman with the truth.
But there's always been a brother full of shame.
There’s always been a story, and there’s
always been a devil in the details.

“Family Tree” Originally published in Seminary Ridge Review. Copyright © 2017 by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Reprinted with the permission of the poet.

They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases
full of spices and cassettes. In airports,

they line themselves up like wine bottles.
The new city twinkles beneath an onion moon.

Birds mistake the pebbles of glass on the
black asphalt for bread crumbs.

          *

If I drink, I tell stories about the women I know.
They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.

When I was a child I watched my aunt throw a halo
of spaghetti at my mother. Now I’m older than they were.

          *

In an old-new year, my cousin shouts ana bint Beirut
at the sleeping houses. She clatters up the stairs.

I never remember to tell her anything. Not the dream
where I can’t yell loud enough for her to stop running.

And the train comes. And the amar layers the stones
like lichen. How the best night of my life was the one

she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed,
and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.

          *

It’s raining in two cities at once. The Vendôme plaza
fills with water and the dream, the fountain, the moon

explodes open, so that Layal, Beirut’s last daughter,
can walk through the exit wound.

from The Twenty-Ninth Year: Poems by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

1.  
Now that I can, I am afraid to become a citizen.
I don’t want to become anything because I’m afraid of being seen. 

I am arriving, and departing, 
and later I will punish myself for looking over 
at the person sitting next to me on the plane, checking their screen 
and reading their email. For now there is no punishment.
Today I have realized everyone is just as boring as me. 
Everyone in TSA had enormous hands. 
I still refuse to travel with my green card.


2. 
It is my mother’s birthday and I bought her merchandise from a school 
I didn’t attend but only visited. She, too, understands the value of cultural capital.  

Today I am wounded. I like to say wounded instead of sad. Sadness is reserved
for days when I can actually make money from what I do. 
My mother raised me to make sure nothing I ever did I did for free. 


3.
When I land, Northern California is burning. 
We keep a suitcase near the door just in case.  
A man calls me three different names before giving up
and asks if my son has begun coughing yet.  
Beneath all that ash, no one seems bothered if you cry in public. 

Sitting around a circle of grateful alcoholics, some of whom will leave 
the room towards a clear portrait of their ruin,
which can either mean they will or will never return, 
a man tells me I have been selfish, and I admit I have. 
Sometimes I want every goddamn piece of the pie. 
A woman pulls aside her mask to smoke and says 
she’s going to look up what temperature 
teeth begin to melt, the implication being that if teeth melted, 
they won’t be able to identify her parents who are still missing in Paradise.

When I pray, I don’t know who I am talking to yet.
I take the eucharist in my mouth for the first time 
since changing religions and it is not as holy as I imagined. 


4. 
How easy. How effortless. This breath. 
I’m here. I’m here. I’m right here. I want to say.
I wish things were simple, like taking just one drink
and not another, like not burning in a fire, 
like letting things be good without being holy.
I wouldn’t have to pretend to try
to resume the bounty of this blossom.  

Copyright © 2019 Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. This poem was originally published in Quarterly West. Used with permission of the author.

In the room almost filled with our bed,
the small bedroom, the king-sized bed high up
and on casters so sometimes we would roll,
in the room in the corner of the corner
apartment on top of a hill so the bed would roll,
we felt as if we might break off and drift,
float, and become our own continent.
When your mother first entered our apartment
she went straight to that room and libated our bed
with water from your homeland. Soon she saw
in my cheeks the fire and poppy stain,
and soon thereafter on that bed came the boy.
Then months, then the morning I cracked first one
then two then three eggs in a white bowl
and all had double yolks, and your mother
(now our mother) read the signs. Signs everywhere,
signs rampant, a season of signs and a vial
of white dirt brought across three continents
to the enormous white bed that rolled
and now held three, and soon held four,
four on the bed, two boys, one man, and me,
our mother reading all signs and blessing our bed,
blessing our bed filled with babies, blessing our bed
through her frailty, blessing us and our bed,
blessing us and our bed.

                                           She began to dream
of childhood flowers, her long-gone parents.
I told her my dream in a waiting room:
a photographer photographed women,
said her portraits revealed their truest selves.
She snapped my picture, peeled back the paper,
and there was my son’s face, my first son, my self.
Mamma loved that dream so I told it again.
And soon she crossed over to her parents,
sisters, one son (War took that son.
We destroy one another), and women came
by twos and tens wrapped in her same fine white
bearing huge pans of stew, round breads, homemade wines,
and men came in suits with their ravaged faces
and together they cried and cried and cried
and keened and cried and the sound
was a live hive swelling and growing,
all the water in the world, all the salt, all the wails,
and the sound grew too big for the building and finally
lifted what needed to be lifted from the casket and we quieted
and watched it waft up and away like feather, like ash.
Daughter, she said, when her journey began, You are a mother now,
and you have to take care of the world.

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.

was never officially charged           though she considered her son’s
         wife prime suspect                Rita            my great-grandmother’s
name         never trusted her daughter-in-law                    & maybe
rightfully so          Mamachela’s hazel eyes & light skin       as myth goes
         two reasons a man would let his            Trojan horse loose
         though in this case      after the third child died        she left
my grandfather Jorge         to raise four more            found another
home with a soldier       a newfound pariah status               which is why
         when I took a drama class at the University of Chicago
         & we were studying Ibsen’s A Doll’s House      the renowned
British actor who co-taught the course           was appalled when I said
         Nora still had a future to look forward to                  even in the 19th
century         surely white feminism               never met the Latinas in my family

                                                                                                             & few
things match the warmth of an egg                right after it’s been laid
         During summer        eggshells babble                    on the ground
         the evidence of a predator’s mischief                     a branch-buttressed
nest’s disposal      or a bird content with gravity’s assignment                 A man  
was jailed four times          for stealing 700 rare wild bird eggs:
         osprey               golden eagle            red kites            peregrine falcons               merlins  
         redwings  avocet In his residence / maps climbing
equipment    camouflage clothes   miniscule holes drilled
on the shells Thou shalt not steal Thou shalt not covet
         thy neighbor’s wife    Not the contents        but the collectible casings
         How do you return  everything you’ve stolen
from us?

Control the thing      you most love      at the root of your addiction
         Folks camped outside Rita’s house           to have their tarot cards
read     before she aged & forgot      who she was        forgot how to bathe
         reeked of piss        chicken manure       eau de cologne               To schedule
a consultation           men rolled from under cars           stars in their own
Cantinflas films       greasy hair         crème fraiche in the corners
of their mouths   the women gossiped incredulously        after flattening
corn on clay ovens for their patrones                     matriarching all the ways
         we’d outlast the policies of the rich

                                                              The thefts of Rita’s
favorite hen’s brown eggs   the source of fantastical tales
         populated by ghostly       headless horsemen          who abducted
children if they ran            away from home       or women
         pregnant with black-magicked frogs         or that man with a limp
deemed hideous        from false accruement           During sessions
         I’d climb the long vines                of Rita’s backyard tree
         swing eight feet from the ground                with the visitors’ children
         one of us would plunge        rip a new skirt           a striped shirt
passed down three generations     Our mothers would scare us
by paying my great-grandmother handsomely       for a remedy
         to exile our demons       once and for all               Leave them alone 
she'd yell at them               They're just kids! 

                                                        Years later I think about
Rita’s backyard       the trees that once swiveled      their branches
near the ground        It’s none of your business what I do with my life
         I hear Rita say— daughter of an indigenous woman
         & a man who          like most men in my family          left his breath
on everything        we call mirror     or past            a man who tried
to rape Mamachela his         daughter-in-law         some say he did
         Rita—        who bought land           with her own savings           a rare feat
for a woman in those days      in a country where women
         with the simple dyeing of their hair can get mistaken
with a gang’s affiliation     lose their heads          Rita—   who lost
most of that land to the government            on which Tegucigalpa’s
airport was built

                              which means that in the lines          of my wide
nose      my plump ears        my dense lips          i bear the burden
         of every arrival             every departure             my great-grandmother
         who resisted losing her memory                but lost it anyway
         as her son lost his       kicked in the bath        spat out the spoon
concocted spells so potent       indigenous secrets      mixed
with loss           which sojourn parallel            the strength of a thousand
stolen acres in her         the rest of us are still trying            to figure out
why she shakes our houses at night           when we all stood there
         in silence       watching her track the bandit’s clues          not knowing
         all of us were stealing her eggs          all of us hungering for love 

 

Copyright © 2018 Roy G. Guzmán. This poem originally appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review. Used with permission of the author.

 

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
     And he said:
     Your children are not your children.
     They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
     They come through you but not from you,
     And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

     You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
     For they have their own thoughts.
     You may house their bodies but not their souls,
     For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
     You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
     For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
     You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
     The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
     Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
     For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

From The Prophet (Knopf, 1923). This poem is in the public domain.