she ambles toward El Norte she remembers as she steps
wasps & spiders webbed in between the corn in Fowler
her mamá Concha’s story the fire she fanned to clear
the path through the thick burned stalks all this
she almost-touches the blueberries in Skagit Washington
& the line of men wrapped as cocoons and dark as amber
flecked honey at the line the only store in Firebaugh where
you can cash your check shirts twisted & whispered & upright
down in Illinois in Cobden you go through the back door
of Darden's bar to buy drinks for the foreman El Cuadrado
María’s coming home after returning to Atizapán de Zaragoza
where she works at la Tortillería next to la Señora Muñóz
it is an abyss smoked & metal flat and deep with nixtamal
“Good pay in South Georgia” she says “I’ll work the
cucumbers” feet in water skin see-through peels & peels
off & off then on Saturday bussed to Walmart bussed back
to camp season after season the crossing higher alone
or with groups of three the coyote says “I am leaving you
here at the bottom of this mountain you Indians know how
to climb” she remembers Guadalupe Ríos say from the edge
of Santa María Corte in Nayarít “Nosotros los Peyoteros
sabemos caminar We know how to walk” María de la Luz
with an address in her net-bag her son who was taken many
years ago 1346 D St. San Diego will she recognize Juan
is the street still there who is he now who am I now who
will he remember you this ancient trail of grandmothers &
deportadas “I know how to walk” María de la Luz prays
as she ascends the black mountain as she moves her body
tiny as she listens to the sudden rush of things fall among
thorns & hisses María de la Luz notices a band of light
Copyright © 2017 Juan Felipe Herrera. Used with permission of the author. Published in Poem-a-Day on March 20, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
Never step back Never a last
Scent of plumeria
When my parents left
You knew it was for good
It’s a herd of horses never
To reclaim their steppes
You became a moth hanging
Down from the sun
Old river Calling to my mother
Kept spilling out of her lungs
Ridgeline vista closed
Into the locket of their gaze
It’s the Siberian crane
Forbidden to fly back after winter
You marbled my father’s face
Floated him as stone over the sea
Further Every minute
Emptying his child years to the land
You crawled back in your bomb
It’s when the banyan must leave
Relearn to cathedral its roots
From Afterland, published by Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2017 Mai Der Vang. Used with permission of Graywolf Press.
I like to say we left at first light
with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
around Piano Island, a place I never read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
says they took me to, & that I loved.
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?
They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,
& I say Yes it’s coming back, I say Of course,
when it’s No not at all, because when I last saw them
I was three, & the China of my first three years
is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,
my dream before I knew the word “dream,”
my father’s martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste
of history. I like to say we left at first light,
we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous
kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,
& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say
we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,
who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.
I don’t like to say, I don’t remember crying.
No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don’t remember
feeling bad, leaving China.
I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off
on some secret adventure, while the others were
still sleeping, still blanketed, warm
in their memories of us.
What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me
for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
too male for crying. When my father said Get out,
never come back, I cried & ran, threw myself into night.
Then returned, at first light, I don’t remember exactly
why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims
my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright
to see what had happened, reaching toward me with her hands,
& I wanted to say No. Don’t touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left
unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,
my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,
before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.
I’m not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me
is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.
It’s been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,
her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has trouble
recalling who, why. I feel awful, my mother says,
not going back at once to see her. But too much is happening here.
Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
least forgivable English word.
What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?
How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is
my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,
English-to-English) mother’s voice? She might say:
We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,
in early spring. Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.
It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass
& metal of the airport—scent of my mother’s just-washed hair,
of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride over,
how I did not know those flowers were already
memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the plane,
the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names
I once knew, & my mother’s long black hair—so impossible now.
Why did I never consider how different spring could smell, feel,
elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost
country. First & deepest severance that should have
prepared me for all others.
From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen, published by BOA Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Chen Chen. Used with permission of BOA Editions.
Friends describe my DISPOSITION
as stoic. Like a dead fish, an ex said. DISTANCE
is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON,
one who cried in bedrooms and airports. Once I bawled so hard at the border, even the man with the stamps and holster said Don’t cry. You’ll be home soon. My DISTRIBUTION
over the globe debated and set to quota. A nation can only handle so many of me. DITCHING
class, I break into my friend’s dad’s mansion and swim in the Beverly Hills pool in a borrowed T-shirt. A brief DIVERSION.
My body breaking the chlorinated surface makes it, momentarily, my house, my DIVISION
of driveway gate and alarm codes, my dress-rehearsed DOCTRINE
of pool boys and ping pong and water delivered on the backs of sequined Sparkletts trucks. Over here, DOLLY,
an agent will call out, then pat the hair at your hot black DOME.
After explaining what she will touch, backs of the hands at the breasts and buttocks, the hand goes inside my waistband and my heart goes DORMANT.
A dead fish. The last female assist I decided to hit on. My life in the American Dream is a DOWNGRADE,
a mere DRAFT
of home. Correction: it satisfies as DRAG.
It is, snarling, what I carve of it alone.
From Look by Solmaz Sharif, published by Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2016 by Solmaz Sharif. Used with permission of Graywolf Press.
Instead, let it be the echo to every footstep
drowned out by rain, cripple the air like a name
flung onto a sinking boat, splash the kapok’s bark
through rot & iron of a city trying to forget
the bones beneath its sidewalks, then through
the refugee camp sick with smoke & half-sung
hymns, a shack rusted black & lit with Bà Ngoại’s
last candle, the hogs’ faces we held in our hands
& mistook for brothers, let it enter a room illuminated
with snow, furnished only with laughter, Wonder Bread
& mayonnaise raised to cracked lips as testament
to a triumph no one recalls, let it brush the newborn’s
flushed cheek as he’s lifted in his father’s arms, wreathed
with fishgut & Marlboros, everyone cheering as another
brown gook crumbles under John Wayne’s M16, Vietnam
burning on the screen, let it slide through their ears,
clean, like a promise, before piercing the poster
of Michael Jackson glistening over the couch, into
the supermarket where a Hapa woman is ready
to believe every white man possessing her nose
is her father, may it sing, briefly, inside her mouth,
before laying her down between jars of tomato
& blue boxes of pasta, the deep-red apple rolling
from her palm, then into the prison cell
where her husband sits staring at the moon
until he’s convinced it’s the last wafer
god refused him, let it hit his jaw like a kiss
we’ve forgotten how to give one another, hissing
back to ’68, Ha Long Bay: the sky replaced
with fire, the sky only the dead
look up to, may it reach the grandfather fucking
the pregnant farmgirl in the back of his army jeep,
his blond hair flickering in napalm-blasted wind, let it pin
him down to dust where his future daughters rise,
fingers blistered with salt & Agent Orange, let them
tear open his olive fatigues, clutch that name hanging
from his neck, that name they press to their tongues
to relearn the word live, live, live—but if
for nothing else, let me weave this deathbeam
the way a blind woman stitches a flap of skin back
to her daughter’s ribs. Yes—let me believe I was born
to cock back this rifle, smooth & slick, like a true
Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain
as I lower myself between the sights—& pray
that nothing moves.
From Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, published by Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2016 by Ocean Vuong. Used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.