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.

More by Cathy Linh Che

Burial


There is the rain, the odor of fresh earth, and you, 
        grandmother, 
	in a box. I bury the distance, 22 years of not meeting you 
		and your ruined hands. 

I bury your hair, parted to the side and pinned back, 
        	your áo dài of crushed velvet, 
		the implements you used to farm, 

the stroke which claimed your right side,
	the land you gave up when you remarried, 
		your grief over my grandfather's passing, 
		
the war that evaporated your father's leg, 
	the war that crushed your bowls, 
		your childhood home razed 

by the rutted wheels 
	of an American tank—
		I bury it all.

You learned that nothing stays in this life, 
	not your daughter, not your uncle,
		not even the dignity of leaving this world

with your pants on. The bed sores on your hips
	were clean and sunken in. What did I know, child 
		who heard you speak only once, 

and when we met for the first time,
	tears watered the side of your face.
		I held your hand and said,

bà ngoại, bà ngoại,

Ten years later, I returned. 
	 It rained on your gravesite.
		In the picture above your tomb, 
		
you looked just like my mother. 
	We lit the joss sticks and planted them. 
		We kept the encroaching grass at bay.

Related Poems

Cruel Cogito

How joyous!, 
passing this time alone 
with your father, how bright his golden laugh 
which drew you to laugh yourself uncontrolled, 
how sweet the happy hour oysters you two pry and eat, 
piling wobbling shells that glisten on the table
while the pianist plays by the kitchen doors. 
You find yourself reminded of what you wrote 
in the eulogy: that you two would still possess 
a relationship even though 
he was dead, that you could still 
go and speak with him 
when you dreamed

and so you see the seat opposite from you seats no one.