I Am the Whole Defense

- 1981-

Mid-1700s, Southwestern China

Lightning is the creature who carries a knife.

Two months now,
The rains hold watch.

Statues bury in teak
Smeared with old egret’s blood.

I feel the pulse of this inferno,
Tested by the hour to know

That even torches must not waver.

In the garrison, I teach boulders
To trickle from the cliff.

My fallen grow parchment from their hair,

Calligraphy descends
From their lips.

Infantry attack
But my musket knows.

They scale the sides
Yet I tear the rocks.

I am not wife, but my name is Widow.

Let them arrive 
To my ready door,
The earth I’ve already dug.

More by Mai Der Vang

Water Grave

We cross under
the midnight shield
and learn that bullets

can curse the air.
A symposium
of endangered stars

evicts itself to
the water. Another
convoy leaves the kiln.

The crowded dead
turn into the earth’s
unfolded bed sheet.

We drift near banks,
creatures of the Mekong,
heads bobbing like

ghosts without bodies,
toward the farthest shore.
With every treading

soak, the wading leg,
we beg ourselves to live,
to float the mortared

cartilage and burial
tissue in this river yard
of amputated hearts.

Yellow Rain

First, the sting
in your nose.

Then in your eyes,
a furnace flared

To hollow
your face.

Flies above
your empty sockets.

Maggots made
your split skin.

Another cow dies
from breathing

as you swallowed
from the same air.

How many days before
it wintered you gray

in this wilderness turned
makeshift-graveyard.

How many hours
before the lesions,

before your vomit
hardens the earthen

floor. Somewhere
a house ages cold,

no longer warmed
by the hearth

you once tended.
No one lights

any spirit money.
No one chants the way.

Dear Exile,

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

Related Poems

Mess Hall

Your knives tip down
in the dish rack
of the replica plantation home,
you wash hands

with soaps pressed into seahorses
and scallop shells white
to match your guest towels,
and, like an escargot fork,

you have found the dimensions
small enough to break
a man—
a wet rag,

a bullet on the back of the cup
the front
like a bishop or an armless knight
of the Ku Klux Klan

the silhouette
through your nighttime window
a quartet
plays a song you admire,

outside a ring of concertina wire
circles around a small collapse.
America, ignore the window and look at your lap:
even your dinner napkins are on fire.