Poetry / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Two Poems

by Natalie Linh Bolderston


Let the first joss sticks of the day burn slowly
between your palms. Plant them like reeds in bed-soft ash

as smoke scars his photograph. Feel his name stretch out
behind the buzz of the cassette tape.

Let daylight interrupt purple grief,
paint the walls with watery prisms that fly

and catch in the folds of your orange áo dài. Shed them
with a twirl, fistfuls of cabbage whites with crooked wings.

Let your daughters cook their sticky rice, egg rolls, soup,
thirteen cups of jasmine. Notice how they look less alike these days:

some lipsticked, grey-flecked, others ageless. See the chrysanthemums,
lilies, wild roses awaken at their silk calves, the gold peeking from beneath

their sleeves. See the eldest two holding hands
and shopping bags. Let them smash the pink skull of a pomegranate, scrape

fleshed seeds into white bowls. Let red candlewax drip
onto the persimmon tower, melted sunrise.

Let your sons light their Chinese cigarettes, open the rice wine
that knocked them sideways when they were young.

Let the children tell you they love you, although they do not yet know
what this means, or why you are crying.

Let them call you Bà Ngoại, and absorb your giggle, toothy smile,
Chanel No.5. Let them ask, who is Ông Ngoại,

and why don't we remember him? (But let someone else answer.)
Let them dive into the pillows and folded sheets, run lilacs and yellows

through their fingers. Let them swing from the doorframes, not knowing
what has passed (but on no account let them chew the carpet).

Sit too far away and let yourself be pulled back. Surrender to a bowl,
a fork, accept that curtains will part. Forgive winter for coming

too early, its tail in the air before you unearthed the blankets, sweaters,
bedsocks—substitutes for a body beside a body. When you lie back

listen for the brag of the tape, his static-filled cough, the rustle
of his yellow shirts, boxed and suitcased like last year's daffodils.


Sun has burned a hole
in the grey veil of sky.
Half-disguised by trees
the mountain glowers,
remembers everything.

We slip through the valley
in a green canoe
rowed by a young man—
striped shirt, wet brow.
Arms that must move
against the tides.

Mangroves lean in
on our progress,
knotted to the rockface
with swollen roots—

their rings, I think
as many as our fingerprints.
A black kite springs alive
from the mist,
its call in my throat.

Below, sea snakes
ropes of liquorice.
Sandy cuttlefish
dodging discovery.
A slight turn,
a flash of green water—

a village floating
on plank-and-barrel rafts.
Faces look out
from tin doorways.
Children wave
from wicker coracles
like upturned shields.

At 5 a.m., when the sky
is still purple,
we chug to the market—
wooden boats and buckets
of fruit. When a woman rows by
the exchange is made quickly.
We eat lychees in the half-light.

In bad weather
all are evacuated.
It is hard to live in battle
with typhoons, monsoons,
although—as my grandmother says—
this is the land
taking a breath.
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.