Belt Is Just Another Verb for Song

“Pain blesses the body back to its sinner”
            —Ocean Vuong

Handcuffs around my wrists 
lined with synthetic fur, my arms bound 

& hoisted, heavenward, as if in praise.
Once, bodies like mine were seen as a symptom

of sin, something to be prayed away;
how once, priests beat themselves to sanctify

the flesh. To put their sins to death. Now,
my clothes scatter across the floor like petals

lanced by hail. Motion stretches objects 
in the eye. A drop of rain remade, 

a needle, a blade. Mark how muscle fiber 
& piano strings both, when struck, ring. 

No music without violence or wind. 

I’ve been searching the backs of lover’s hands
for a kinder score, a pain that makes 

my pain a stranger tune. Still, my body aches 
an ugly psalm. All my bones refuse to harm

-onize. Percussion is our oldest form of song, 
wind bruised into melody. Let me say this plainly:

I want you to beat me 

into a pain that’s unfamiliar. How convenient 
this word, beat, that lives in both the kingdoms 

of brutality & song. The singer’s voice: a cry, 
a moan, god’s name broken across a blade 

of teeth. The riding crop & flog & scourge—
a wicked faith. A blood-loud devotion.  

There is no prayer to save me from my flesh. 
You can’t have the bible without the belt.

Ekphrasis on My Rapist's Wedding Dress

still as a scar through the screen's glow : perhaps this is the origin
of my obsession with the color white : searching to name this shade
color like bitten bed sheets : color like a failed dove : or split lip 

when red has ceased howling its way to the surface : perhaps the color
of fog over the river bed that morning : or the color of concrete
that bleach & blood leave behind : it hangs around her like the word

faggot in the air of the locked bedroom : like drying hemorrhage suspended
between skin & cotton : sideways on the bathroom floor : it hangs around
her like a name : that once belonged only to me : & i think maybe

most of all i am jealous : for any metaphor i can put to it : the dress
is still beautiful : pale & soft & pure : & isn't this just like my poems?
dressing a violence in something pretty & telling it to dance?

Phlebotomy, as Told by the Blood

Consider these parallel histories: An emperor once declared war on the sea, sent his men drowning toward victory, & the Red Sea is named for the dead algae blooming within it. Can you tell me the difference? Maybe I too am red for all the slaughter carried within me, bastard child of water, lake swelled with rotting fish. What are you searching for when you drag me from you? Your vein a riverbed dredged of impossible children. Cells tested for the echo of your mother’s name. Once you were carried in your mother, her belly a lake. If the child before you & all those after sunk, are you the blood or the water? A boat or the first unfinished wolf, wrenching itself from the sea? A bridge too carries bodies & the water carries it. Does this make the bridge a mother or a child? Your mother once told you that if she gave you life she could take it back. Does this make her the bridge or its necklace of nooses? The river or its surface tension? Liquor is lighter than water & so is gasoline. Both burn. Both stained-glass a surface in the sun. Common language says we drown in liquor, perhaps this means your mother is a lake beneath another’s surface. What does that make me? A bridge or a glass? Your mother’s mother? Sometimes I worry that you’ve forgotten me. Dry & sober as a boat. Your survival a matter of surface tension. Maybe you believe that you are the bridge, suspended above all your dead. Don’t forget, everything erodes. A canyon is just a river’s bastard child. Bruise deep in the dirt. All of man’s inventions topple, each bridge’s arches bullied down to cliché rust. Another history blooming the water red.

Sick4Sick

I think my lover’s cane is sexy. The way they walk
like a rainstorm stumbles slow across the landscape.
How, with fingers laced together, our boots & canes 
click in time—unsteady rhythm of a metronome’s limp 
wrist. All sway & swish, first person I ever saw walk with
a lisp. Call this our love language of unspokens: 
We share so many symptoms, the first time we thought
to hyphenate our names was, playfully, to christen
ourselves a new disorder. We trade tips on medication,
on how to weather what prescriptions make you sick 
to [maybe] make you well. We make toasts with
acetaminophen bought in bulk. Kiss in the airport 
terminal through surgical masks. Rub the knots from 
each others’ backs. We dangle FALL RISK bracelets
from our walls & call it decoration. We visit another
ER & call it a date. When we are sick, again, for months
—with a common illness that will not leave—it is not 
the doctors who care for us. We make do ourselves.
At night, long after the sky has darkened-in—something
like a three-day-bruise, littered with satellites I keep
mistaking for stars—our bodies are fever-sweat stitched. 
A chimera. Shadow-puppet of our lust. Bones bowed into 
a new beast [with two backs, six legs of metal & flesh & 
carbon fiber]. Beside my love, I find I can’t remember 
any prayers so I whisper the names of our medications 
like the names of saints. Orange bottles scattered around 
the mattress like unlit candles in the dark.

Related Poems

In the Beginning

In the beginning, there was your mouth:
soft rose, rose murmur, murmured breath, a warm

cardinal wind that drew my needle north.
Magnetic flux, the press of form to form. 

In the beginning, there was your mouth—
the trailhead, the pathhead faintly opened,

the canyon, river-carved, farther south,
and ahead: the field, the direction chosen.

In the beginning, there was your mouth,
a sky full of stars, raked or raking, clock-

wise or west, and in the close or mammoth 
matter, my heart’s red muscle, knocked and knocked.

In the beginning, there was your mouth,
And nothing since but what the earth bears out.

The Nude

translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi

My eye laps at you in lamplight
Like a white hot tongue. Longing

Draws back, then rises, tidal.

The curtain of my hair
Announces my breasts. Your lips:

A languid breeze. Like a miracle
We feast and feast and nothing is spent.

Let flesh attend to flesh, sex to sex.
O, dexterous gold watch of the universe

On which one minute can straddle
A hundred years.

The Kisser's Handbook

(The Sensitive Male Chapter)
 

Awkward and dry is love.
A moist kiss simmers as cherry pie.

A peck reddens into poppy.
Several feed like birds in your hands.

The first kiss carries history. The customary roses,
a bouquet received by two.

On the right side of her mouth, she is your mother.
On the left side, she's the sister you never had.

If delicate yet firm, a kiss can resuscitate the drowned Ophelia;
hurried and open-mouthed, moths flutter out of her body.

A kiss that glides smoothly possesses the pleasant lightness of tea.
If it smudges, prepare yourself for children.

A kiss that roams the curving of the lips,
the tongue still tracing the slopes even
without her near is a poet's muse.

When bitten on the lower lip—I am your peach—
if she’s left there biting, dangling, she'll burn the tree.

When she's sucking your lips as if through a straw
she wants you in her.

Never quite touching, sky and earth bridged
by clouds of breath, speak in recitation:

Because I am the ocean in which she cannot swim,
my lover turned into the sea.

Or cradle her in the cushions of your lips,
let her sleep in the pink.