Published on Academy of American Poets (

While looking at photo albums

Christmas Eve, 2016

Before everyone died – in my family – first definition I learned was – my mother’s maiden name, ULANDAY – which literally means – of the rain – and biology books remind us – the pouring has a pattern –  has purpose – namesake means release – for my mother meant, flee – meant leave – know exactly what parts of you – slip away – drained sediment of a body – is how a single mama feels – on the graveyard shift – only god is awake –  is where my – family banked itself – a life rooted in rosaries – like nuns in barricade – scream – People Power – one out of five – leave to a new country – the women in my family hone – in my heart – like checkpoints – which is what they know – which is like a halt  – not to be confused for – stop – which is what happened to my ma’s breath– when she went home – for the last time – I didn’t get to – hold her hand as she died – I said I tried – just translates to – I couldn’t make it – in time – I tell myself – ocean salt and tear salt – are one and the same – I press my eyes shut – cup ghost howl – cheeks splint wood worn – which is to say – learn to make myself a harbor – anyway – once I saw a pamphlet that said – what to do when your parent is dead –  I couldn’t finish reading – but I doubt it informs the audience – what will happen – which is to say – you will pour your face & hands – & smother your mother’s scream on everything – you touch – turn eyelids into oars – go, paddle to find her.


Copyright © 2019 by Kay Ulanday Barrett. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 8, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

This poem was written during a moment when grief took over, when I realized ache wasn’t solely about death, but about being in diaspora and the ways loss takes over your lineage, and how a simple mundane act of looking at photo albums can make you swell with emotion. My family is from the Philippines and survived the corruption of the U.S.-Filipino regime during martial law, which led to their forced migration to the United States. The pace of the poem succumbs to pauses and the complexity of frenetic existence. The pauses create an inextricable circuitry in which death and mourning are just every day. Consequently, photo albums are vessels, much like a time capsule. What happens when you are the only one left alive with the archive, the memories, the origin story?Kay Ulanday Barrett


Kay Ulanday Barrett

Kay Ulanday Barrett is the author of When The Chant Comes (Topside Press, 2016).

Date Published: 2019-01-08

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