Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Washington High School
I saw how your father’s cross carved notches in your skin
& how you were promised pumpkins
before you were promised peace.
How your grandmother’s lungs overflowed
& how you knew the taste of iron grief
before you knew my name.
Your father’s memoir on hurt,
first to you, then to your daughter:
“This is the wire mesh and the bolt cutter,
the bidirectional wind at the bottom rung.
This is the only thing the poor man knows
when he is not afforded ease.”
The capillary branches of horsetail pines,
the soft beat of the jungle field.
This was the heart of China.
To the ventricle cave, you dragged your dead brother’s
wilted limbs, the hollow victims of your fights
over fistfuls of winter squash.
You watched your own body decompose
and cried a guilty prayer from jutting bones
while landlords’ heels drove leftovers into dirt.
This was when you learned that moral compasses
are locked in glass display cases, that cruelty
only says its name when the starving are the perpetrators.
Was it not cruel to be born in hunger
& in the year of the rabbit
with its feet cut off?
To offer your rib to the saints
& see your pagoda graze the scarlet sun
but never deliver?
Your memoir on hope
from when you were denied life:
“This is the dragon and the phoenix,
the airborne performance that bears faux fruit.
Never listen, for the only time the sky sings
is in its thunderstorm laments.”
Millions of chests faced the cherry heavens
in pumpkin patch graveyards.
When the November sale came, decades later,
you gave me a knife to carve their shells,
to disembowel their tangled organs,
to slash the orange weeds of past and present.
My grip was slippery with unease,
because my hands, unlike yours,
did not memorize the arc of their father’s swing,
and my hands, unlike yours,
could understand the craft of killing
but could not guide the weapon.
“Blame the deputy coroner,” you assured,
“who looked to lords from his ivory balcony
while dead bodies piled below him.
But don’t blame yourself, daughter,
because your palms, at once,
can be violent and bloodless.”
Y/our memoir on survival
from the ghost of that bloody sky:
“This is how hands heavied by earth
will squeeze each other in the dark,
not because pain is good
but because good relies on a deaf god
& because family is only called family
if our hearts are hardened and whole.”
With profound, poignant imagery and lines that are so dark, so vivid, so breathtakingly fresh and unexpected, reading this piece can at times be a punch to the gut, but it's well worth it.
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