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abecedarian for mỹ lai

CAS for Database

Tho Nguyen

Pleasanton, CA, USA

Amador Valley High School


abecedarian for mỹ lai

at 7:30 am, the rice paddies birth

insects from the soil, green-

backed helmets             exoskeletons in the sun.

machine-gun underbellies

circle the trees in false

celebration: village out for market day,

daughters weaving baskets of banana leaves

when they see the insects

emerge men, and these men must be gods

because they make the earth crumble,

for these faces christen still lifes           from bayonet and bullet, cheeks still red

and the blood even redder.

grandma cradles the children in her arms before the shadows

sharpen into soldiers and

hand hooks trigger, launches metal

to the browning flesh of her throat.

in the bomb shelter, sister spreads            her fingers to the sky

so her soul can fly there.

justice is a recruit sobbing           as his lieutenant presses

the gun to his hands: if it’s alive,

kill it. their eyes have forgotten         the light, only

remember the darkness of a

little boy’s mouth: a knot forever twisted, the unending

black of a mother’s cry

moments before it silences          in the pit. the soldiers

frantic, crazed. they know

nothing will be left           when they are finished.

monks prostrate on the shrine

offer their lives to a.          faceless god.

this the second coming, the apocalypse

painting blood          on the bluegreen skies. the soldier kills the girl

when he finishes,

quartered like so many sheep.             when there are no eyes

left to stare the men

retreat without a word.             none are enough

to capture the blood, but they

slip out nonetheless: we scorched       the earth. i can see

the faces. i sent them a            good boy            and

they made him a murderer.            and the earth there           rots in red, damp

still smells of death,        innocence          lost

under the water. the few that remain

touch shrapnel scars and weigh            the price of

victory in human lives: how many       american lives were those bodies

worth? the courts ruled        one. a man           reduced         life, then twenty, then ten.

when asked, the soldiers stare

without seeing.

xanthic, straw withered yellow. the color of

the corpses they left.

you know, i felt             like crying, really, because             we had nothing

to apologize for.

zipped up the body bags

like there was nothing              worth seeing.

italicized phrases are taken from the words of the soldiers who marched into mỹ lai in march 1968, and their families.


Truth is often more horrifying than fiction. We all know that, and yet with pieces like “abecedarian for mỹ lai,” that knowledge hits me anew. The frantic flashes of daughters, grandmothers, mothers, and children falling victim to the massacre are deeply impactful, and the author’s choice to include real-life quotes from soldiers makes this poem all the more harrowing in its honesty. There is so much pain here that can never be undone, but at least with “abecedarian for mỹ lai,” we strive to acknowledge and commemorate it.


Tho Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American writer from the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Kalopsia Literary Magazine, Cathartic Literary Magazine, and The Bitter Fruit Review. She lives for nature walks, night skies, and just about everything dark academia. She hopes you're having a wonderful day!

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