Ascending, wheeling
in a gyre, the roc
spreads his wings
ninety thousand li.
Bearing the blue sky,
he looks down, surveying
the little kingdoms of Man.

—from “Dialogue Between Birds” by Mao Zedong


Grandma always spoke fondly of the shrimp
in the spring at the edge of the village.
No bigger than her smallest finger, they frothed
in the small pool—rice-paper shells
bandaged around a bit of milky gray
with long silk threads for whiskers.

Small vehicles of life in deadwater.
They moved like a great fleet of dragon-boats
from one end of the spring to another,
their legs the oars of many men.
For them, the spring was a lake—
an ocean—a continent of water. It was all
they needed to survive. There was nothing else.
No apparent food for them to feed on, as if
they sprouted from the rock itself—
a deep pact between stone and water.

And what did they think of her small net?
She often wondered what it looked like to them.
A fibrous constellation pulled out of the sky,
descending, penetrating the defenseless water with ease,
carrying them towards the edge of the unknown.
The constant pressure of water—suddenly gone:
a strange lightness unbearable.

Were they aware of body, and not-body?
of mind, and not-mind? In the air,
as blind as they had ever been.
How crisp they tasted fresh out of the water!
They tasted even better in the wok: lotus-leaf
shells blooming like rust under oil and tender iron.

Was water dark or full of light? At times, the spring glowed,
thinking itself an ocean and its inhabitants phosphorous beings.

2. (1967)

The fields heaved like a fur-thickened thing
under the midday sun. Its great, slack mouth stretched
for miles, swallowing up the men and women.
It tilled their bodies relentlessly, carving up grooves
like the deep folds of intestines.

Ma was upset again, the sadness upon her face liquid
moonlight pouring over the globe.

The badge-wearing children had come knocking at the door
again, demanding all their photographs. The colored one, too. Yes,
even the colored one had been scratched up and taken away to the fire.

Each face effaced an incision upon the heart.

It was no good to try to console her.
She couldn’t be consoled.
It was so expensive, she said.
You looked so pretty in your new dress, she said.
And the one with your grandmother—
the last one I had.

Uncle came from the city to visit, decorated
and uniformed, bringing with him
coupons for extra portions of rice and cotton.

Even that was not enough to make her smile.

Sister, he said, pull back your dark-grey hood. These things are not necessary for life or
for happiness. And the wok, too. The wok must go. Our soldiers need the iron. Our fields
have sprouted out of their blood. Our fences stacked with their bones. There are certain
rivers here, crossing the land like polluted veins, filled with the piss of dead men.

Sister, he said, I have journeyed through the primal world and seen what evil crouches
over small huts. Establish your mind on the highest cliff, where the eagle’s nest dwells.
Bring your feet to the precipice, and you will see the birds who turn from wing to wing.

Even that was not enough to make her smile.

3. (1944)

Late summer brought the cooling of bamboo mats,
and the Japanese soldiers.

It was said they came from Beijing where
the river dolphins played in the Yangzi.

What did they know of the war,
living, as they did, underwater?
Did they taste the bodies that sugared
the banks with blood? Did bullets pass
dripping brightfire through the water?
Did they feel the march of spoiled feet like a ripple—

a pulse—?

She had been warned often of what they could do,
what they had done in Nanjing:
bayoneted women in their full-moon bellies,
forced fathers to fuck their daughters,
and afterwards taken photographs—
little trophies to remember the war by.

Ba, but they look like us.
Pale-skinned and dark-eyed,
with long, straight hair like the fibers
of falling stars.

No, my daughter, they are not like us,
not like us at all, these ri ben gui.
They sail across the mirrored sea
with blood on their flags
and minds.

On the day they first came,
the stew on the fire was boiling,
boiling and boiling again.

For three weeks, the meat had fallen
away from the pig in long, fibrous strips.
and now its bones turned, uneasy,
in the pot.

Ma was sucking on a thick, yellow bone, sucking out
its spongy stuff. “There’s always something left for you
to eat,” she said, “even when all the meat is gone.”
She lapped at the bone with a little pink tongue.

In the distance, came the sound of the alarm,
a long wail, passing like a ghost through the village
with bare feet, and river hair.

Ma tugged her to her feet. Their small bones
gathered themselves quickly, running
towards the cover of the forest. Near the edge,
she turned and looked through rows of bamboo,
towards the village where the slow ones began to
fall. Her stomach growled.

She thought sadly of the soup left on the table.


In the spring, the shrimp continued to swim.
To them, it was a quiet evening: distilled with light
passing, on its way through the universe.



Copyright © 2015 by Wendy Chen. Used with permission of the author.

In Greek, amphibian means 
“on both sides of life.”

As in: amphibians live 
on land and in water.

As in: immigrants leave 
lands and cross waters.

While amphibians lay 
shell-less eggs,

immigrants give birth 
to Americans.

In water, gilled tadpoles 
sprout limbs. On land

amphibians develop lungs.
Immigrants develop lungs.

Breathe in pine, fuel
and cold atmosphere.

Amphibians’ damp
skin oxygenates. 

Immigrants toil 
and slumber deathly.

Their colors brighten.
They camouflage.

They’ve been known to fall 
out of the sky.

Completely at home
in the rain.

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph O. Legaspi. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

“Remember.” Copyright © 1983 by Joy Harjo from She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
falling apart.

Copyright © 2014 by Ocean Vuong. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database

Let's ask a poet with no way of knowing.
Someone who can give us an answer,
another duplicity to help double the world.

What kind of poetry is all question, anyway?
Each question leads to an iceburn,
a snownova, a single bed spinning in space.

Poet, Decide! I am lonely with questions.
What is snow? What isn't?
Do you see how it is for me.

Melt yourself to make yourself more clear
for the next observer.
I could barely see you anyway.

A blizzard I understand better,
the secrets of many revealed as one,
becoming another on my only head.

It's true that snow takes on gold from sunset
and red from rearlights. But that's occasional.
What is constant is white,

or is that only sight, a reflection of eyewhites
and light? Because snow reflects only itself,
self upon self upon self,

is a blanket used for smothering, for sleeping.
For not seeing the naked, flawed body.
Concealing it from the lover curious, ever curious!

Who won't stop looking.
White for privacy.
Millions of privacies to bless us with snow.

Don't we melt it?
Aren't we human dark with sugar hot to melt it?
Anyway, the question—

if a dream is a construction then what
is not a construction? If a bank of snow
is an obstruction, then what is not a bank of snow?

A winter vault of valuable crystals
convertible for use only by a zen
sun laughing at us.

Oh Materialists! Thinking matter matters.
If we dream of snow, of banks and blankets
to keep our treasure safe forever,

what world is made, that made us that we keep
making and making to replace the dreaming at last.
To stop the terrible dreaming.

From Human Dark with Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy. Published by Copper Canyon Press, 2008. Copyright © Brenda Shaughnessy. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved.

Yellow-oatmeal flowers of the windmill palms 
like brains lashed to fans-
even they think of cool paradise, 

Not this sterile air-conditioned chill 
or the Arizona hell in which they sway becomingly. 
Every time I return to Phoenix I see these palms 

as a child’s height marks on a kitchen wall, 
taller now than the yuccas they were planted with, 
taller than the Texas sage trimmed

to a perfect gray-green globe with pointillist 
lavender blooms, taller than I, 
who stopped growing years ago and commenced instead 

my slow, almost imperceptible slouch 
to my parents’ old age:
Father’s painful bend- really a bending of a bend- 

to pick up the paper at the end of the sidewalk; 
Mother, just released from Good Samaritan, 
curled sideways on a sofa watching the soaps, 

an unwanted tear inching down 
at the plight of some hapless Hilary or Tiffany. 
How she’d rail against television as a waste of time! 

Now, with one arthritis-mangled hand, 
she aims the remote control at the set
and flicks it off in triumph, turning to me

as I turn to the trees framed in the Arcadia door.
Her smile of affection melts into the back of my head, 
a throb that presses me forward, 

hand pressed to glass. I feel the desert heat
and see the beautiful shudders of the palms in the yard 
and wonder why I despised this place so, 

why I moved from city to temperate city, anywhere 
without palms and cactus trees. 
I found no paradise, as my parents know,

but neither did they, with their eager sprinklers 
and scrawny desert plants pumped up to artificial splendor, 
and their lives sighing away, exhaling slowly, 

the man and woman 
who teach me now as they could not before 
to prefer real hell to any imaginary paradise. 

Copyright © 2005 David Woo. Used with permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.