Our poetry editor, Joe Pan, has selected a poem by Cathy Linh Che for his series that brings original poetry to the screens of Hyperallergic readers.
* * *
— after photographs in the Peabody Essex Museum
I once was a child who wore a star
on my forehead. I held my mother’s hand
in a new country, the chaparral dry,
a landscape dusty and barren. I wore white
socks and brown-strapped sandals, imagined
Vietnam a country of belonging.
Then America was a heart-shaped
tattoo. My identity a checkbox.
My mother saying thiên đàng, my
father saying sướng quá. My country
a silver headdress against a red backdrop.
One wore a hand-me-down waistcoat,
the other a vest burst open. Smile.
Say cheese. But my older brother
could only part his lips. My younger
grinned into a future of silver coins
jangling like keys in his pocket.
My mother tucks flowers
into her hair, nature objects
of a funeral. This one
for Freddie Gray,
10,000 more for the dead
in Nepal. In the mirror
she is crowned by fragility.
My sister was born in Vietnam.
She died three hours later. I don’t
know her name. My mother wears
a sackcloth dress in mourning.
My sister is another flower my mother
wears, this one pinned inside her dress,
its small white mouth suckling
at her breast.
A photographer strips a woman
of her top and sits her on a rock.
A garland interwoven with the long
metal shells of bullets hangs mid-breast,
as if she is a museum object,
In a family of men, only one
has not threatened, choked,
or molested me in a bathroom.
My younger brother cried
elephant tears when chased
around the house by a terrifying
machine, a vacuum cleaner,
ghosts made audible.
A fight is a kind of dance.
My father advised my mother,
To marry me is to suffer.
Love called his bluff. It wasn’t
a bluff, turns out. He asked,
You would leave me? She answered
emphatically, Yes, and for a while
he quietly changed.
To show scale, a human
stands in front of a boulder.
Magma fiery, then cooled,
then heated again in a desert
where a figure in all black
blends into the shadows, into
the absence of light.
San Francisco is a porthole
into human history. The structures
gutted, the residents pushed out.
A boomtown, a place
for the wealthy, venture capitalists,
programmers in gleaming condos
with glass facades.
In the bay, sailboats, a galleon,
boats of leisure. My parents
escaped in a smaller vessel.
My father hooked fishing lines
to the back. They ate rice
and fish over small lit canisters
Barely perceptible, the double
lives of couples. Parallel trains.
Say, one escape attempt became two.
Say, my mother, petrified, died at sea.
She and her garland of mourning.
Her black bonnet. My father’s ghosted
uniform, his severe hands,
their tenderness like switchblades.
My mother’s sister wished me
a happy birthday today. She told me,
Bring home a husband the next time
you visit. The one they loved I let go,
inauspiciously. Today he texted me happiness.
I am not the end of my maternal bloodline—
but I could be, in America.
Some days I imagine home
as a structure with thatched eaves.
Some days home is a craftsman
somewhere on the West Coast—
in the dusty hills of Highland Park,
in the polished damp of Seattle.
My mother sewed me a sail
and said, Go into the wind.
She like Penelope weaving,
unraveling, biding time. I
like Odysseus, bewitched
by the maddening call,
Like a corona of light,
a feathered headdress signifies
flight and power.
What is history
but that which we make ourselves,
together, as birds.
At a distance, a boomtown
is just a series of structures.
Interior spaces with windows
through which we glimpse
our worlds. The sun on the sea
a light which burns onto old paper
My mother has removed the flowers
from her hair, placed them on a station wagon
for my wedding day. She has removed her
veil. It is a plastic sheet protecting
a rusting car on the streets of Salem,
or Baltimore. It is a vehicle I may never climb into,
though the remnants I will collect as pictures
in my human document.
* * *
Cathy Linh Che is the author of the poetry collection, Split (Alice James Books, 2014), winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America.