Search Engine: Notes from the North Korean-Chinese-Russian Border

By which a strip of land became a hole in time
            —Durs Grünbein

Grandfather I cannot find,
flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,
what country do you belong to:

where is your body buried,
where did your soul go
when the road led nowhere?

Grandfather I’ll never know,
the moment father last saw you
rips open a wormhole

that has no end: the hours
became years, the years
forever: and on the other side

lies a memory of a memory
or a dream of a dream of a dream
of another life, where what happened

never happened, what cannot come true
comes true: and neither erases
the other, or the other others,

world after world, to infinity—
If only I could cross the border
and find you there,

find you anywhere,
as if you could tell me who he is, or was, 
or might have become: 

no bloodshot eyes, or broken
bottles, or praying with cracked lips
because the past is past and was is not is

Grandfather, stranger,
give me back my father—
or not back, not back, give me the father

I might have had:                                 
there, in the country that no longer exists,
on the other side of the war—

Fugue

Out of albumen and blood, out of amniotic brine,
placental sea-swell, trough, salt-spume and foam,
 
you came to us infinitely far, little traveler, from the other world—
skull-keel and heel-hull socketed to pelvic cradle,
 
rib-rigging, bowsprit-spine, driftwood-bone,
the ship of you scudding wave after wave of what-might-never-have-been.
 
Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return: 
may I never forget when we first saw you, there on the other side,
 
still fish-gilled, water-lunged,
your eelgrass-hair and seahorse-skeleton floating in the sonogram screen
 
like a ghost from tomorrow,
moth-breath quicksilver in snowy pixels, fists in sleep-twitch,
 
not yet alive but not not, 
you who were and were not,
 
a thunder of bloodbeats sutured in green jags on the ultrasound machine
like hooves galloping from eternity to time,
 
feet kicking bone-creel and womb-wall,
while we waited, never to waken in that world again, 
 
the world without the shadow of your death,
with no you or not-you, no is or was or might-have-been or never-were.
 
May I never forget when we first saw you in your afterlife
which was life,
 
soaked otter-pelt and swan-down crowning,
face cauled in blood and mucus-mud, eyes soldered shut,
 
wet birth-cord rooting you from one world to the next,
you who might not have lived, might never have been born, like all the others,
 
as we looked at every pock and crook of your skull,
every clotted hair, seal-slick on your blue-black scalp,
 
every lash, every nail, every pore, every breath,
with so much wonder that wonder is not the word—

Monologue for an Onion

I don't mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion--pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping. Idiot.
Is this the way you go through life, your mind
A stopless knife, driven by your fantasy of truth,

Of lasting union--slashing away skin after skin
From things, ruin and tears your only signs
Of progress? Enough is enough.

You must not grieve that the world is glimpsed
Through veils. How else can it be seen?
How will you rip away the veil of the eye, the veil

That you are, you who want to grasp the heart
Of things, hungry to know where meaning
Lies. Taste what you hold in your hands: onion-juice,

Yellow peels, my stinging shreds. You are the one
In pieces. Whatever you meant to love, in meaning to
You changed yourself: you are not who you are,

Your soul cut moment to moment by a blade
Of fresh desire, the ground sown with abandoned skins.
And at your inmost circle, what? A core that is

Not one. Poor fool, you are divided at the heart,
Lost in its maze of chambers, blood, and love,
A heart that will one day beat you to death.

Related Poems

in puerto rico we inherit your wars

maldita sea we fight them and what did you give us

under the church in mayagüez there are taíno bones
the father knows it
all the fathers

he said take this ribbon and measure the church dimensions
tell me if it's worth
destroying faith for some bones

what i saw when i walked around with my ribbon
were old women praying to papito dios
with tears of faith for his creatures
malformed by desire
            airs of bettering what isn't enough
i saw the faces of saints some sweet and others
as arbitrary as abstinence 
more than anything i saw the gold the cruelty

i went back to the father after covering the church
with the ribbon the scene of a crime
and bendito i didn't ask for forgiveness
nor could i explain
            the newfound hate


en puerto rico heredamos tus guerras

maldita sea las peleamos y qué nos diste

debajo de la iglesia de mayagüez hay huesos de taíno
y el padre lo sabe
todos los padres

dijo toma la cinta y mide las dimensiones de la iglesia
dime si vale la pena
por unos huesos destruir la fe

lo que vi cuando caminaba con mi cinta
eran viejitas sentadas rezándole a papito dios
con lágrimas de fe por sus criaturas
malformadas por el deseo
                       aires de mejorar lo que no basta
vi las caras de santos algunos dulces y otros
tan abitrarios como la abstinencia
más que todo vi el oro la crueldad

volví al padre tras cubrir la iglesia con la cinta
la escena de una crimen
y bendito no le pedí perdón

Kissing in Vietnamese

My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
falling apart.

Care

My 16-month old daughter wakes from her nap
and cries. I pick her up, press her against my chest

and rub her back until my palm warms
like an old family quilt. “Daddy’s here, daddy’s here,”

I whisper. Here is the island of Oʻahu, 8,500 miles
from Syria. But what if Pacific trade winds suddenly

became helicopters? Flames, nails, and shrapnel
indiscriminately barreling towards us? What if shadows

cast against our windows aren’t plumeria
tree branches, but soldiers and terrorists marching

in heat? Would we reach the desperate boats of
the Mediterranean in time? If we did, could I straighten

my legs into a mast, balanced against the pull and drift
of the current? “Daddy’s here, daddy’s here,” I

whisper. But am I strong enough to carry her across
the razor wires of sovereign borders and ethnic

hatred? Am I strong enough to plead: “please, help
us, please, just let us pass, please, we aren’t

suicide bombs.” Am I strong enough to keep walking
even after my feet crack like Halaby pepper fields after

five years of drought, after this drought of humanity.
Trains and buses rock back and forth to detention centers.

Yet what if we didn’t make landfall? What if here
capsized? Could you inflate your body into a buoy

to hold your child above rising waters? “Daddy’s
here, daddy’s here,” I whisper. Drowning is

the last lullaby of the sea. I lay my daughter
onto bed, her breath finally as calm as low tide.

To all the parents who brave the crossing: you and your
children matter. I hope your love will teach the nations

that emit the most carbon and violence that they should,
instead, remit the most compassion. I hope, soon,

the only difference between a legal refugee and
an illegal migrant will be how willing

we are to open our homes, offer refuge, and
carry each other towards the horizon of care.