My Father’s Accent

A boy, prettier than me, who loved me because
my vocabulary and because my orange pills, once asked me
to translate my father’s English.

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This poem wants me to translate it too.
Idiot poem, idiot hands for writing it

an accent isn’t sound.
Only those to whom it seems alien
would flatten an accent to sound.

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My poem grew up here, sitting in this American chair
staring out at this lifeless American snow. 

Black grass dying up out of this snow,
through a rabbit’s

long tracks, like a ghost
sitting upright
saying oh.

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But even that’s a lie.

Just black grass, blue snow.
I can’t write this

without trying to make it
beautiful. Submission, resistance, surrender.

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On first
inspecting Adam, the devil entered his lips,

Watch: the devil enters Adam’s lips
crawls through his throat through his guts
to finally emerge out his anus.

He’s all hollow! the devil giggles.
He knows his job will be easy, a human just one long desperation
to be filled.

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My father’s white undershirt peeking out
through his collar. My father’s hand slicing skin, gristle,
from a chicken carcass I hold still against the cutting board.

Sometimes he bites his bottom lip to suppress
what must be
rage. It must be rage

because it makes no sound. My vast
terror at what I can’t hear,

at my ignorance, is untranslatable.
My father speaks in perfect English.

The Perfect Poem

In god’s gleaming empire, herds of triceratops
lunge up on their hind legs to somersault
around the plains. The angels lie in the sun
using straight pins to eat hollyhocks. Mostly
they just rub their bellies and hum quietly

to themselves, but the few sentences
they do utter come out as perfect poems.
Here on earth we blather constantly, and
all we say is divided between combat
and seduction. Combat: I understand you perfectly. 
Seduction: Next time don’t say so out loud.
Here the perfect poem eats its siblings

in the womb like a sand shark or a star turning
black hole, then saunters into the world
daring us to stay mad. We know most of our
universe is missing. The perfect poem knows
where it went. The perfect poem is no bigger
than a bear. Its birthday hat comes with
a black veil which prattles on and on about

comet ash and the ten thousand buds of
the tongue. Like people and crows, the
perfect poem can remember faces and hold
grudges. It keeps its promises. The perfect
poem is not gold or lead or a garden gate
locked shut or a sail slapping in a storm.
The perfect poem is its own favorite toy.

It is not a state of mind or a kind of doubt
or a good or bad habit or a flower of any
color. It will not be available to answer
questions. The perfect poem is light as dust
on a bat’s wing, lonely as a single flea.

Ways to Harm a Thing

Throw scissors at it. 
Fill it with straw 
and set it on fire, or set it 
off for the colonies with only 
some books and dinner-
plates and a stuffed bear 
named Friend Bear for me 
to lose in New Jersey. 
Did I say me? Things 
have been getting
less and less hypothetical 
since I unhitched myself 
from your bedpost. Everyone 
I love is too modern 
to be caught
grieving. In order 
to be consumed 
first you need to be consumable, 
but there is not a single 
part of you I could fit 
in my mouth. In a dream
I pull back your foreskin
and reveal a fat vase 
stuffed with crow 
feathers. This seems a faithful
translation of the real thing. Another 
way to harm something is to 
melt its fusebox, 
make it learn to live
in the dark. I still want
to suck the bones out 
from your hands,
plant them like the seeds
we found in an antique 
textbook, though those 
never sprouted and may not 
have even been seeds. 
When I was a sailor I found 
a sunken ziggurat, spent 
weeks diving through room 
after room discovering
this or that sacred 
shroud. One way to bury
something is to bury it 
forever. When I was water
you poured me out
over the dirt.  

What Seems Like Joy

how much history is enough history     before we can agree
to flee our daycares      to wash everything away and start over
leaving laptops to be lost in the wet along with housecats and Christ’s
own mother      even a lobster climbs away from its shell a few
times a life      but every time I open my eyes I find
I am still inside myself     each epiphany dull and familiar
oh now I am barefoot       oh now I am lighting the wrong end
of a cigarette     I just want to be shaken new like a flag whipping
away its dust     want to pull out each of my teeth
and replace them with jewels     I’m told what seems like joy
is often joy     that the soul lives in the throat plinking
like a copper bell       I’ve been so young for so many years
it’s all starting to jumble together     joy jeweling copper   
its plink      a throat    sometimes I feel beautiful and near dying
like a feather on an arrow shot through a neck     other times
I feel tasked only with my own soreness      like a scab on the roof
of a mouth      my father believed in gardens      delighting
at burying each thing in its potential for growth     some years
the soil was so hard the water seeped down slower than the green
seeped up     still he’d say if you’re not happy in your own yard
you won’t be happy anywhere      I’ve never had a yard but I’ve had apartments
where water pipes burst above my head      where I’ve scrubbed
a lover’s blood from the kitchen tile       such cleaning
takes so much time you expect there to be confetti at the end    
what we’ll need in the next life      toothpaste      party hats
and animal bones      every day people charge out of this world    
squealing       good-bye human behavior!      so long acres
of germless chrome!      it seems gaudy for them to be so cavalier
with their bliss      while I’m still here lurching into my labor
hanging by my hair from the roof of a chapel      churchlight thickening
around me     or wandering into the woods to pull apart eggshells     emptying
them in the dirt      then sewing them back together to dry in the sun

Related Poems

Closet Space

I know I’m godless when
my thirst converts water                into wasps, my country a carpet
                                                            I finger for crumbs. A country
my grandmother breeds
dogs instead of daughters             because only one can be called
                                                            home. I am trained to lose accents,
to keep a pregnancy
or cancel it out with                       another man. My tongue is
                                                            a twin, one translating
the other’s silence. Here
is my lung’s list of needs:               how to hold water
                                                            like a woman & not
drown. I want men
to stop writing &                            become mothers. I promise this
                                                            is the last time I call my mother
to hear her voice
beside mine. I want                        the privilege of a history
                                                            to hand back unworn
to grow out of
my mother’s touch                         like a dress from
                                                            childhood. Every time
I flirt with girls, I say
I know my way around                   a wound. I say let’s bang
                                                            open like doors, answer to
god. I unpin from
my skin, leave it to                          age in my closet & swing
                                                            from the dark, a wrecking
ball gown. In the closet
urns of ashes:                                   we cremated my grandfather
                                                            on a stovetop, stirred
every nation we tried
to bury him in was                          a war past calling itself
                                                            one. I stay closeted with
him, his scent echoing
in the urn, weeks-old                     ginger & leeks, leaks
                                                            of light where his bones halved
& healed. With small
hands, I puzzled                              him back together. I hid from
                                                            his shadow in closets
his feet like a chicken’s,
jellied bone & meatless.                His favorite food was chicken
                                                            feet, bones shallow in the meat
When he got dementia,
he flirted with my mother              he mouthed for my breasts
                                                            like an infant
We poured milk
into his eyeholes                             until he saw everything
                                                            neck-deep in white
the Chinese color
of mourning, bad                             luck, though the doctor
                                                            says everything is
genetics. I lock myself in
the smallest rooms that fit             in my mind, my grandfather’s:
                                                            a house we hired back from
fire. So I’ll forever
have a mother, I become                a daughter who goes by god. I urn
                                                            my ghosts, know each by a name
my own.

Ode to Richmond Hill

then the drunk teen scatters
a cascade of copper on cement,
the old Uncle yells, eyes silver
eyes in disbelief, Pick up yuh
paisa, na man! no worry
on this slate day youths dem
speak no Hindi to know paisa
means money, a taxi speeds 
by blaring chutney remix
Kaise Bani and you remember
your Aji dropping her rum
at Aunty’s party to jump up
and your mother’s awkward Hindi—
you bit your fingers with each roti
she rolled, each mantra she taught you
floods your throat in front
of this puja shop on 127th and Liberty
front strung with plastic marigolds,
a replica strung of polypropylene
like you are now and not like
long time when Par-Aja came
from India, you are a forgery
that will one day burn
not on a pyre but in an incinerator,
not on a riverbank, but
in a crematorium, your prayers
in Hindi accented in English alveolars
neither devas nor prophets
recognize as supplication
but on Liberty Avenue
in the waft of a spliff drag,
and sandalwood a coolie Uncle
in a kurta mouths Marley
as you walk by
you start to sing praise
to Queens where you are
Chandra’s son or so
and so’s buddy ke pickni,
where you wipe oil from doubles
on your jeans and cuss up
the car that backs into stacked crates
of strawberries, to where you
return after three years
and Richmond Hill opens
its coolie arms pulls you close
and in your ear whispers
dis time na long time.

Learning Late Letters

translated from Vietnamese by the author

The dead don't let us go, I say to my friend Sirius, putting my father's letters in a drawer. It is the plight of Mezentius that I endure, attached to a dead man, hand in hand, mouth in mouth, in a sad embrace. The letters stopped arriving from the country of my childhood. The man who wrote them died a solitary death and was buried at the edge of a stream. But he is there, his skin touches my skin, my breath gives life to his lips. He is there, I say to Sirius, when I speak to you, when I eat, when I sleep, when I take a walk. It seems to me that I am dead, whereas my father, the dead man who refuses to leave me in peace, overflows with life. He possesses me, sucks my blood, gnaws my bones, feeds on my thoughts. 1

 

“Die fresh. Die withered.
Die sore. Die throbbing.
Die hard.  Die standing up.
Die lying down. Die
nightwise. Die more. Die
horrified. Die gradual. Die
corroding. Die squashed.
Die choking. Die fainting.
Die everything. Die all.
Die falling. Die swooning.
Die tense. Die loose. Die
now. Die spinning. Die
quashed. Die quelled. Die
rotting. Die crushed. Die
everyone. Die clean. Die
raw. Die bruised. Die
sitting. Die morningwise.
Die afternoonwise. Die
departing. Die undoing.”2
 

In the last letter, the dying man taught me a lesson of 36 deadly tricks. He called them the 36 documentations of secret agencies, 36 spells of horror, 36 faces of vanity, 36 tactics of being deadly, 36 stratagems of dying. All night long, I chant his weird song over and over like a crazy heart. Dripping drops of time, the tune flies far from the propaganda of a human life. When Sirius asks why I keep murmuring the lines, I say, It helps me learn my fathertongue, glide into my childhood siesta, melt into my red hot girdle of earth. The letters of the dead burn me, urge me to speak to them, speak them, have them speak me, even in my sleep. Every dream is a chamber where the language drills, like vital winds, hum me anew, blowing me closer to the waters where my father lies. Every night he still sleeptalks his fatal rhythm through my broken tongue.

1 Linda Lê, Thư Chết, trans. Bùi Thu Thuỷ (Hà Nội: NXB Văn Học, Nhã Nam, 2013), 7.
2 Trần Dần, Những Ngã Tư và Những Cột Đèn (Hà Nội: NXB Hội Nhà Văn, Nhã Nam, 2017), 259.

 

Chant Chữ Chết

Người chết không buông tha chúng ta, tôi vừa nói với anh bạn Sirius vừa xếp những lá thư của cha tôi vào ngăn kéo. Đó là nhục hình Mézence mà tôi phải chịu, tức là bị buộc vào một người chết, tay áp tay, miệng kề miệng, trong một nụ hôn buồn. Những lá thư đã ngừng đến từ đất nước của tuổi thơ tôi. Người viết thư đã chết, một cái chết cô đơn, và được chôn bên bờ nước. Nhưng người vẫn đây, da người chạm da tôi, hơi thở tôi thổi sống làn môi ấy. Tôi bảo Sirius, Người ở đây này, khi tôi đang nói chuyện với anh, khi tôi ăn, khi tôi ngủ, khi tôi dạo chơi. Dường như tôi mới chính là người chết, còn cha tôi, người chết không để tôi yên ấy, lại đang ngập tràn sự sống. Người ám tôi, hút máu tôi, gặm xương tôi, ngốn suy nghĩ tôi. 1

“Chết tươi. Chết
héo. Chết đau.
Chết điếng. Chết
cứng. Chêt đứng.
Chết nằm. Chết
đêm. Chết thêm.
Chết khiếp. Chết
dần. Chết mòn.
Chết toi. Chết
ngóp. Chết ngất.
Chết tất. Chết cả.
Chết lử. Chết lả.
Chết đứ. Chết đừ.
Chết ngay. Chết
quay. Chết ngỏm.
Chết ngoẻo. Chết
thối. Chết nát.
Chết hết. Chết
sạch. Chết tái.
Chết tím. Chết
ngồi. Chết sáng.
Chết chiều. Chết
bỏ. Chết dở.”2

 

Trong thư cuối, người dạy tôi tổng cộng 36 kế chết người. Người dặn đây là 36 tài liệu công tác nguỵ quân nguỵ quyền, 36 phép rùng rợn, 36 vẻ phù hoa, 36 món chết người, 36 món chết. Suốt đêm, tôi niệm bài ca quỷ ám của người, tụng đi tụng lại như một trái tim điên. Chảy ròng những giọt đồng hồ, giai điệu người bay xa kiếp giáo lý. Khi Sirius hỏi sao tôi cứ lẩm nhẩm lời người, tôi đáp, Để tôi học tiếng cha tôi, dạt vào giấc trưa tuổi thơ tôi, tan vào đất đỏ nhiệt đới tôi. Chữ người chết nung tôi, thúc tôi nói với họ, nói họ, rồi họ nói tôi, cả khi tôi ngủ. Mỗi giấc mơ là một căn phòng nơi những bài luyện chữ, như gió thổi, ngân tôi, tái thiết tôi, mang tôi cận kề con nước nơi cha tôi nằm. Hằng đêm người vẫn nói mớ một thứ phách nhịp chết người thấm xuyên lưỡi vỡ tôi.

1 Linda Lê, Thư Chết, Bùi Thu Thuỷ dịch (Hà Nội: NXB Văn Học, Nhã Nam, 2013), 7.
2 Trần Dần, Những Ngã Tư và Những Cột Đèn (Hà Nội: NXB Hội Nhà Văn, Nhã Nam, 2017), 259.