because my mother named me after a child     borne still

to a godmother I’ve never met     I took another way to be

known—something easier to remember          inevitable

to forget         something that rolls over the surface of thrush

     because                                                 I grew tired of saying

            no it’s pronounced…   now I’m tired of not

conjuring that ghost I honor            say it with me:        Airea

                          rhymes with sarah

sarah from the latin meaning          a “woman of high rank”

       which also means whenever I ask anyone to hold me

in their mouth             I sound like what I almost am

hear me out:                          I’m not a dee             or a river

     charging through working-class towns where union folk

cogwedge for plots                &          barely any house at all

where bosses mangle ethnic phonemes & nobody says one

    word because checks in the mail             so let’s end this

                 classist pretend where names don’t matter

& language is too heavy a lift                       my “e” is silent

like most people should be              the consonant is sonorant

              is a Black woman                  or one might say the spine

       I translate to ‘wind’ in a country known for its iron

imply “lioness of God”                                   in Jesus’ tongue

            mean “apex predator”           free of known enemy

fierce enough         to harm              or fast enough to run

                          all I’m saying is                  this:

the tongue has no wings     to flee what syllables it fears

the mouth is no womb             has no right to swallow up

                                     what it did not make

More by Airea D. Matthews

Confessions From Here

I left our window open most nights.  A man with winged ankles would visit while you slept. He'd ask about my doings, how the syrah finished, noticed the dimple on my chin when I smiled, touched the thick swell of my waist, lightly. When the wind whistled like the Northeast Corridor, he'd tongue the small of my back before leaving. After 2 most mornings. I wailed a tempest that last time. Flooded our basement. Asked him to stay or carry me over. He tucked me in the crook of his elbow and flew here. Where I am now.

When you woke the next morning, I imagine you thought it rained the night before. You called the plumber, didn't you?  To fix the basement, swollen from squalls?  Did you dig your fingernail under the blistering cinder? Check for mold? Did the walls crumble?  When you asked the children where their mother was? Did they shrug? Bounce my name between rooms? Weep into their porridge? If they beat their bare feet against the cracked tiles in the hallway, did you notice those tiny feathers sprouting from their Achilles?  Did you wrinkle your brow? Grab your shears?

Descent of the Composer

When I mention the ravages of now, I mean to say, then.
I mean to say the rough-hewn edges of time and space,
a continuum that folds back on itself in furtive attempts
to witness what was, what is, and what will be. But what

I actually mean is that time and space have rough-hewn edges.
Do I know this for sure? No, I’m no astrophysicist. I have yet
to witness what was, what is, and what will be. But what
I do know, I know well: bodies defying spatial constraint.

Do I know this for sure? No, I’m no scientist. I have yet
to prove that defiant bodies even exist as a theory; I offer
what I know. I know damn well my body craves the past tense,
a planet in chronic retrograde, searching for sun’s shadow.

As proof that defiant bodies exist in theory, I even offer
what key evidence I have: my life and Mercury’s swift orbits, or
two planets in chronic retrograde, searching for sun’s shadow.
Which is to say, two objects willfully disappearing from present         view.

Perhaps life is nothing more than swift solar orbits, or dual
folds along a continuum that collapse the end and the                          beginning,
which implies people can move in reverse, will their own                    vanishing;
or at least relive the ravages of then—right here, right now.

Temptation of the Composer

Oh Shepherd, our honeyed marriage
          bed in the meadow was too narrow
and though you herd wild things,
          you were deaf to my footsteps.
As you lay there in the dew of me, curled,
          satiated, I tiptoed backwards
toward our door under twisted reeds.
          Out where pasture led to brackish
waters and red-hot mists rose from quartz
          I lowered myself into rockpores
while rushing wings of screech owls
           seemed to sing: Welcome, Dark-Light
                                             Welcome, Wild-Love

Home

                         Home

                                                   Away

Related Poems

How I Got That Name

an essay on assimilation

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of "be," without the uncertain i-n-g
of "becoming."  Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated "Mei Ling" to "Marilyn."
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn't pronounce the "r."
She dubbed me "Numba one female offshoot"
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the "kitchen deity."
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.

*

Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we've managed to fool the experts
in education, statistic and demography—
We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the "Model Minority" is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we'll hit east;
the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn't hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of "Santa Barbara"
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a "bitch."
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!

*

Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one
may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite—
"not quite boiled, not quite cooked,"
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
too listless to fight for my people's destiny.
"To kill without resistance is not slaughter"
says the proverb.  So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.

*

So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack "the patriarch"
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G.G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everybody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed!  Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!

Poem in Which the Writer Sees Himself in an Old Textbook, 1943

They cut off our hair
& there we were
Hairless.

A photograph
In a history i skimmed
So quick
I missed

We were there
Less than elsewhere
Our hair cut
So close the scalp
Gleamed

A row of six
Pixelated moons

Blood rose
To its feet

Our hair not ours
Once separated
Like a finger
Nail

The gold
From our teeth

Our hair burned
Made upholstery
Braided for women
Down the street

There on the page
The photograph

A camp  A cage

Right angles
Impossible
Sharp as a fade
Razors in drag
Black boots & blades

I pull the image up
On my screen
Thumb the six
Bare heads
Sex organs
My face
My face

I’m alive of course
Because others died
& i’ll be survived
By no one

[amen] [amen] [amen]

My gift
To this planet
Extinction
The singed end
Of a family line

Today a man sits
Beside me
At the piano & plays
A song

My name’s in it
The one about a man
Rendered powerless
By the woman
Who takes his hair

Even here
With his breath
A flatiron
I’m standing
Between twin pillars

My arms cargo
Hardly mine

When he’s done
I take him
To bed & empty
My family
Into his darkness
Apologizing

[I’m sorry]
Again & again [i’m sorry] [i’m sorry]

Though i can’t quite say
Why

Center of the World

The meek inherit nothing.
God in his tattered coat
this morning, a quiet tongue

in my ear, begging for alms,
cold hands reaching up my skirt.
Little lamb, paupered flock,

bless my black tea with tears.
I have shorn your golden
fleece, worn vast spools

of white lace, glittering jacquard,
gilded fig leaves, jeweled dust
on my skin. Cornsilk hair

in my hems. I have milked
the stout beast of what you call America;
and wear your men across my chest

like furs. Stick-pin fox and snow
blue chinchilla: They too came
to nibble at my door,

the soft pink tangles I trap
them in. Dear watchers in the shadows,
dear thick-thighed fiends. At ease,

please. Tell the hounds who undress
me with their eyes—I have nothing
to hide. I will spread myself

wide. Here, a flash of muscle. Here,
some blood in the hunt. Now the center
of the world: my incandescent cunt.

All hail the dark blooms of amaryllis
and the wild pink Damascus,
my sweet Aphrodite unfolding

in the kink. All hail hot jasmine
in the night; thick syrup
in your mouth, forked dagger

on my tongue. Legions at my heel.
Here at the world’s red mecca,
kneel. Here Eden, here Bethlehem,

here in the cradle of Thebes,
a towering sphinx roams the garden,
her wet dawn devouring.