Rosha Yaghmai, “Silicone (Book of Kings, p.69)” (2018) (detail), silicone, eyeshadow, earth pigments, digital print on silk, tulle, organza, nylon. On view in Made in LA at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. (photo by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

Light Perception

People say        Vietnamese sounds ugly    and I know

what they really mean              is their ears      are little UFOs

that trailblaze               over secret       military bases

abducting people         from their homes         and instilling their own

language           so I understand            it is scary

to hear something        different but let me tell you      it is scarier

to recognize a sound          but not know what it means          even a rabid animal

makes it clear to you    that it has been wronged          by parasites

but me             I hear my mother give up         on English every time

she talks to me             to return to her alien    tongue

and I am not prepared             to travel into space       where the stars

spread their dust          into the abyss               which is they say quiet

the science of sound    unflinching as far as we know              but how can it be

true I have looked upwards      and I have heard the ocean      stir inside me

the way it does when I hear     Vietnamese this thing I once knew      humans are passive

forgetters and I am instinctually afraid             of growls hisses            the deep night

but the human tongue is something     else it is not a monster             it can only

bite if you teach it        it can only teach you                there is more than one way

to see a light    if you turn your head               just slightly

the glare changes its shape       there is nothing ugly at all

*   *   *

Kien Lam is a Kundiman Fellow, 2017 Best New Poet, and Indiana University MFA alumni. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from the American Poetry Review, The Nation, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles where he writes about esports. For more, follow him on Twitter @meanmisterkien.

Wendy Xu is the author of the poetry collections Phrasis (Fence, 2017), winner of the 2016 Ottoline Prize, and You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013). The recipient of a Ruth...