By Natalie Linh Bolderston
We inhale together, honour life
with burnings. Each layer of ash
a generation. I can almost hear
Ông Ngoại living across
the room. Perhaps he was always
part fire, part city, part typhoon.
And Mother, maybe you were born
to smell like something alight –
one life folding into another.
Maybe you were made to kiss
the perfumed throats of our prayers,
bruise your bones against the shadows
of our ancestors. You tell me
how we are from women who kill
their own hogs, plait hot gold
into necklaces. How your mother
buried yours in the yard, as she tried
to divine whether we were meant
to survive. You filled your chest
with black and white memories
that won’t scab over, drained tears
from your body to make space
for a child. Mother, I have watched
you feed your flesh to an altar,
hang your voice from spirals of light.
In your dreams, I never happened
and a jar of ginger crumbles to a jar
of black teeth. Mother, I have seen
how this nation expels you
from your body, makes you count
the places that might still love you.
Mother, let me feel the weight
of the name they took from you,
shake off the god you never learned
to love. I want to discover us
in this pile of glass, for this water
to mean more than what it has stolen.
Maybe we were made to bless
our wounds with every new birth,
hoard shame that we cannot outlive.
How we beg at the edge of a blade,
preserve our tongues with praise,
roll old songs in our hands. Mother,
teach me to fever through English rain,
collect wrappers and fold our griefs
into an elegy of birds and lotus flowers.
Gold joss paper flares and flaps
from the tin barrel. Smoke rises
in cattails. We quiet the flames
with Cointreau (Ông Ngoại’s favourite),
bow to the black mark left
on the kitchen floor. My mother opens
every door in the house, says
that should be enough, I think.
We bend the sun in our mouths, wait
for ghosts to swell our blood
with their singing.