Published on Academy of American Poets (

I Am the Whole Defense

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.


Copyright © 2016 by Mai Der Vang. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 26, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“This poem was inspired by an anecdote from A Historical, Geographical, and Philosophical View of the Chinese Empire, published in 1795 by W. Winterbotham, in reference to a Hmong woman who defended a fort by herself after Chinese enemy troops killed all the soldiers, including her husband: ‘[T]hey were conducted into the fort where she had remained alone, and of which she had been the whole defense; sometimes firing her musket, at others tearing off fragments from the rock, which she rolled down on the soldiers who in vain attempted to climb it.’”
—Mai Der Vang


Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang's debut poetry collection, Afterland, was selected by Carolyn Forché as the winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets.

Date Published: 2016-12-26

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