tết

Lydia Wei

North Potomac, MD

Richard Montgomery High School

Poetry

Claudia Ann Seaman Award

Winner of Poetry

already we have gathered like shadows, like the faded 

imprints of the first day, at the edge of the field: 

 

moist soil turned, rice grain and ossein tucked under our

roots, bare feet kicking at the quagmire. beg to return 

 

to our families in the waning light, kneecaps pressed 

against breathing soil, crude graves marked with 

 

elephant grass and burnt rice baskets. we worship our 

ancestors who did hear the charlies singing “crack the sky, 

 

shake the earth,” their fallen bodies splayed on the convulsing 

earth as divine incense filled the sky 

 

with asphyxiation: and the country was a temple, 

aluminum soap tearing toward paradise like a prayer,

 

prayer for purity, prayer for cleanliness, prayer to wipe 

vietnam clean and start over for the new year; but still, it’s sweeping

 

on the day of tết. and the first man to open the door

is always charlie, always arvin, always willie peter, having forgotten

 

how even our father cleaved the air upon entering

the house. when we passed the overturned altars where bullets 

 

nested in oranges, flesh bleeding from the porous rind, a question 

hung in the air before us pregnant as a B-52: who could we believe in

 

now? napalm gods/paddy gods/monolid gods/vietcong bombed 

in buddhist pagodas/one god/no god/secular beauty of

 

history books immortalizing the expanses of annihilation,

forgetting the new year’s greetings whispered in the hoary frost,

 

massacred bodies murmuring chúc mừng năm mới/chúc 

mừng năm mới/chúc mừng năm mới, a eulogy for us: still

 

alive. yesterday we heard nothing but the shallow breathing

of lungs made of pickled fish and woven hammocks, fingers reaching

 

through the gaps to find each other before dreams,

but this morning we woke up to operatic preludes, the flight 

 

of the birds, cosmic enchantment humming tubercular & the eternal

and yet O how silent the moon is, sitting heavy in our hearts;

 

a poet, a spectator, atonement, speechless: but merely 

feeling, a gash where empty wishes fester in the chloracned sky.

 

when nighttime falls and the feasting begins, remember 

that the line of sweat above their lips only looks like blood

 

in the red lantern light.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

"when nighttime falls and the feasting begins, remember / that the line of sweat above their lips only looks like blood / in the red lantern light." Those might be some of the best lines I have read in poetry. My favorite aspect of this piece is how the beauty of the language and of the writing is used to display such an ugly reality. It just goes to show how important and powerful poetry really is, how it is a door to the discussion of crucial topics for humanity. This piece evokes a whole culture and a massacre that goes beyond borders. It is suffering, but it is also strength immortalised in verse.

PRAISE FROM FAISAL MOHYUDDIN, POETRY JUDGE

This is an incredibly ambitious, spellbinding, and wisdom-rich poem, one whose power—beyond the mastery of its crafting—lies in the proximity of the speaker (“a poet, a spectator”) to the enduring traumas of war, specifically the American War in Vietnam, and to a specific site where the fighting and resistance happened. “already we have gathered like shadows, like the faded / imprints of the first day, at the edge of the field” is how the poem begins, how this speaker, with their use of “we” and the power enjambment, pulls the reader closely to their side as they simultaneously observe the Lunar New Year and gather for a memorial for those whose lives were lost or permanently impacted by the war. And once the reader is there, the writer deftly employs their poetic skills to pull us through this landscape, with its “breathing soil,” “divine incense,” “overturned altars,” and “chloracned sky,” and through the legacies that haunt it. At its core, the poem is a plea to the gods, a yearning to be metaphorically cleansed: “and the country was a temple, / aluminum soap tearing toward paradise like a prayer, // prayer for purity, prayer for cleanliness, prayer to wipe / vietnam clean and start over for the new year.” Yet this young poet—so deeply attuned to the way the traumas of war are inherited by and carried by future generations—understands the impossibility of starting over. Instead, the poet turns to prayer, to reverence, and, in doing so, they hauntingly render this poem a “eulogy for us: still alive.” I am in awe of what this poet has accomplished in “tết,” and so excited about what lies ahead for them in their writing career as they continue to write about both the dead and the living.

Lydia Wei is a student at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD, and will graduate in 2020. She writes because she believes that language can illuminate our histories and our heritage. During her free time, Lydia enjoys making blueberry biscuits and going for very long walks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR