Los Angeles, Manila, Đà Nẵng
California drought withering the basins,
the hills ready to ignite. Oh, stupid ways
I’ve loved and unraveled myself.
I, a parched field, and not a spit of rain.
I announced to a room of strangers,
I’ve never loved anyone more.
Now he and I no longer speak.
Outside: Manila, 40 years
after my parents’ first arrival.
I deplane where they debarked.
At customs, I am given a sheet warning of MERS—
in ’75, my parents received fishermen’s lunches,
a bottle of fish sauce. They couldn’t enter
until they were vaccinated. My mother, 22,
newly emptied of a stillborn daughter.
In Đà Nẵng, my cousin has become unrecognizable
after my four year absence. His teeth, at 21,
have begun to rot. His face swollen over.
I want to shield him from his terrible life.
Tazed at 15 by the cops until he pissed himself.
So beaten in the mental institution, that family had to
bring him home. His mother always near tears
when I ask, How are you doing?
You want to know what survivorhood looks like?
It’s not romantic. The corn drying huskless
in the front yard. The ducks chasing each other in the back.
The thick arms of a woman who will carry bricks
for the rest of her life. The plainness with which
she speaks of hardship. The bricks aren’t a metaphor
for the weight she carries. Ánh, which means light,
is sick, and cannot work,
but instead goes wandering the neighborhood,
eating other people’s food, bloating
his mother’s unpayable debts.
What pleasure can be found here,
even if the love is palpable?
My mother stopped crying years ago.
What’s the use, she says, of all this leaking.
Enough to fill a drainage ditch, a reservoir?
No, just enough to wet a pillow.
What a waste of time, me pining after
a man who no longer feels for me.
Today, I would give it up. Trade mine
for theirs. They tell me that they are not hungry.
Happy is their toil. My uncles and their
browned skins, not a pinch of fat anywhere.
They work the fields and swallow
beer after beer, getting sentimental.
Whose birds have come to roost, whose pigs in the muck?
Their dog has just birthed four new pups.
Despite ourselves, time moves on.
I walked lover’s lane with my cousin.
The heart-lights reflected on the river’s black.
The locks clustered and dangling.
I should have left our names on that bridge.
My name, the names of my family, written there.
Copyright © 2016 by Cathy Linh Che. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 21, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.