What We Built

Pitched overboard together, what could we do

But claw and climb against each other for air

Dancing our drowning dance, greedy and gasping

To sink and breach and sink

Then our skin turned to sponge

Our fingernails flaked off, and losing our purchase

We fizzled into spittle and floated like flotsam

Across indifferent tides

The Coast Guard never came, and why would they?

From up high we only looked like waves

Crashing against each other again and again

While on the beach they called our screams soothing

And each hour a hundred years passed

And each year we slipped further into each other

Until we were one thing and that thing became rooted

Improbable pearl, into a great stone we grew

Now we rise from the surf, and the waves part in deference

Little girls on the shore shape sand into our likeness

And it’s starting to feel like it means something, like it matters

When they spot this sculpture carved and polished by pain

Point it out to their mommies and ask them our name

I never wore an ethnic dress

I never marched in a nationality parade
or drew a family tree, or said these are his
eyes, her mouth, it runs in the family.
I looked for myself in strangers, stood
in a grocery aisle surveying the slope
of a woman’s nose, the color of her hair.

I never felt hurt by a racist joke, never visited
a concentration camp or a burial mound
clutching my chest, the old oppressed
blood still beating on. I never got a letter
the way my sister got a letter, never analyzed
the handwriting, questioning the love
in the scribbled love.

I only ever whispered I hate to my parents
who weren’t there to hear me. I only ever
screamed I love to my family that is, cried
with my family that is, camped in the backyard,
built birthday cakes in the sand, watched
thunderstorms from the patio huddled
together with my family that is. And I learned
more each year, what that word means.
But I never wore an ethnic dress.

 

Published in Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University, 2017.

In the Dream Where My Mother Dies and I’m Sent to Live With Her Ghost

In the dream where my mother dies
and I’m sent to live with her ghost
my mother wears only one sweater
and it’s not even my favorite.

I want to buy a new sweater for my new ghost
mother but she says what’s the point. No one
is going to see her anyway. No one but me.

Besides, she’s lost her love of shopping. She floats
indifferent through the food court of our favorite
mall, slipping through the cracks in clearance
racks, she lets the coupons I’ve clipped arc
like feathers as they filter through
her foggy hands.

I try to show her photos of my father or
photos of vacations or photos of my son smiling
at the zoo. The ghost of my mother sighs and
says she’s forgotten all these things. She
only wants to sit at the window and watch
our old oak tree abandon its leaves.

In the dream where my mother dies
and I’m sent to live with her ghost
there’s a deep sadness always in my throat.
It clings there like a pad of rich cream I can’t
seem to swallow down. It’s the sadness
of an older sadness
awakening.

I stand behind my ghost mother at the window.
In its reflection I watch her cloudy ghost eyes
and realize it was the same way
with my grandfather. The reaching for a hand
I could never seem to clasp, the soul rising from
the body like steam from asphalt after a summer rain,
no way to trap it, no way
to convince it to stay.

But my ghost mother won’t hear it. It’s not the same,
completely different, she says. My grandfather
became a ghost first and died
so many, too many, years later.

Watching Episodes of ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive’ in Reverse

We like tears sucked into ducts, the way
waterfalls look running upwards. Viewed in reverse
the sea ejaculates helicopters and lightning.
Bears appear with limbs in loose jaws, healing
hikers and tidying campsites. A ribcage coughs up
buckshot. The mountain inhales its shelf of snow.
We like the hour condensed, flares asleep
in their nests, lifejackets stowed safely overhead.
We like to watch the ice beards melt, the sallow
eyes give up their yellow. Everyone grows handsome
and hopeful. We think it better to end at the beginning,
husband kissing wife hello, child tangled into arms.
We think love can exist independent of shipwrecks
and shark attacks or just that it can be enough,
just that you shouldn’t have to earn it.

———–

Published in Night Train 2011.

Neha

What a shame it is that beautiful women
must do everything beautifully. Against
a wall at some house party, this one goes
down slow. The man who slides in to sit beside
her looks and sees how blue light nestles
a crescent moon into the cupid’s bow
of her lips. He looks and sees her negative
space, dreaming himself big enough to fill it.
He thinks himself very clever, doesn’t notice
the color draining from her the longer he talks.
Two hours later she’ll collapse alone.
Three hours later she’ll wake up, this writer separated
by three feet and a hospital curtain.
Close enough to hear her mumble to the nurses
as they undress her like a doll.
My name is Neha. I’m going to be a doctor. You will,
I think, because I still want to be things too, despite myself.
What a shame it is that beautiful women are always bleeding,
but inwards. Somewhere so deep that even love
can’t tie a tourniquet.

Lackluster Apocalypse

Someone put their fist through the radio
and all weekend it played only Creed.
I tried to shrug it off, drove reckless
through the stars and woke up blanketed
in parking tickets. The Bible in my hotel
bathtub was stuffed with subscription cards.
My high school enemies kept inviting me
to the seafood buffet and all my sweaters
made me look like Dr Huxtable.
Pestilence. It was in the yellow yarn
and the crab Rangoon. I jogged
to the strip mall, but they were out
of priests or kaleidoscopes so I had
to keep looking through my own eyes.
I took myself to the half-price matinee
and threw popcorn at the screen
like a trained ape. The kernels stuck like
boils to the steel asses of celebrities.
Pestilence, I yelled to all the flapping seats,
Pestilence!

Published in The Oakland Review 2008.

Wake

for John Chir

The last woman at your empty grave
is grounding rosaries into the wind, is
stitching a history onto rice paper leaves, is
repeating your name and repeating
your name, is waiting for an echo.
The last woman at your empty
grave is interviewing the dark,
is carving memories between falling
stars, is clawing and re-clawing
the dirt, is searching the trees for
a witness. When the breeze traps
itself in the burrows of her scars,
the last woman at your empty grave
hears only carousel music. When
the marble ribbon of your name
unfurls itself, she shakes like a flame.
The rest of us are wearing party
hats, crouched in a darkened room
waiting to yell surprise for you
when you finally arrive. You are not
with the last woman at your empty
grave. You are in the room with us
wearing a hat. You are huddled
in the smallest corner, reaching out
and losing your hand in the dark.

Published in Open Thread 2010.

Legacy

I know how to disappear.
I learned it from my mother
who learned it from her mother
and my great grandmother
who went poof! one night
right in the middle of dinner.
After that, my grandmother went,
in between white sheets hanging
on a line in the yard, poof!
Then my mother as she held me
in the hospital, leaving me squirming
on her flattened gown. Even as a baby,
I could see how it was done.
At home, I would catch the men
standing outside at night with their palms
turned upwards. Once a cousin brought home
a magic kit and everyone howled for days.
When I left, they watched me with binoculars,
the horizon dotted with reflecting eyes.
Here, no one believes me. They laugh
at me at dinner parties, spilling their drinks.
They tell me to prove it, and I would.
But it’s the kind of trick you can only do once.

Published in Open Thread 2009.

After Hours

I watched the peaks of your egg-carton spine
writhe against the loose blue hospital knot
at your neck where the cotton fell away
after everyone else had gone.
I pressed my purpled feet, with yours,
against that ancient wooden bed frame.
Above us, in muted ecstasy
the history channel’s Indian women danced.
I envied their clasped gold-dusted hands,
remembering the pastor who hours before
had appeared at your bedside, Bible gleaming,
with that assured smile all believers own.
I wished for a painted elephant or glowing saint
to process through that stagnant and weary room;
to drape your shrunken neck with flowers and turn
your restless ageless moans to hymns.
We played the tape your father had left;
listened to man-made rain and unnamed birds.
Behind the thunder, I started to cry
realizing we’d have the charge
of manufacturing our own happiness
from now on.

Published in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette 2006.

Not in a Ha-Ha Way

If you wake up late for your job at the mill
screaming until you wake the house, tell
my sister that you need your time card
need your hard hat, need the number of
that electrician and then next week you
are in Korea, having downed your plane
and are screaming about bananas, seeing
them again for the first time as they grow,
upside down and then you are in a prison,
your leg caught on the bars of your bed,
calling my mother a bastard, calling my father
a bastard, asking where the other bastards are
so you can call them too, saying you were never
any good or I’ve never seen you before or you bitch
you bitch you’re trying to kill me, then one day you are
at the table eating a grilled cheese and when we ask what it is
if you say a desk, then I am sorry but we laugh.

 

Published in OH NO 2011.