I climb down to the beach overlooking the Pacific. pouring rain
ripple the sand. My grandmother is sleeping on the other side
silently in her bed. Your áodài of the whitest silk.
My mother knew her mother was dying before the phone rang
like bells announcing the last American helicopter to leave SàiGòn.
Arrow shot back to his bow. long-range missile.
She would jump in the sky to fly home if she could. Instead she works
over time. Curls her hair with hot curlers. Blush her cheeks
like Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern. I’m her understudy. Hide
In the doorway between her grief and mine, I apply her foundation
to my face I hide the parts of me she hides and purse my lips
like kissing a man who loves me the way i want to be loved.
I say their enchanting names out loud. Twisted Rose. Fuchsia in Paris. Disrespect.
I choose the lipstick she would least approve of. My mouth a pomegranate
split. A grenade with a loose pin. In the kitchen,
I wrap a white sheet around my waist and dance
for hours, fascinated by my reflection in a charred pan.
I laugh her laugh like my grandmother laughed
when she taught me to pray the ChúĐại Bi when I braided her hair
In unbearable heat, my tiny fingers weave the silver strands
into a fishtail, a French twist. Each knot buried a future she never named
in the earth from her, where she locked away the image of her sons and daughters
locked up. I am sorry mother of my mother, immortal bodhisattva
with a thousand hands, chewing a fist of betel root, your teeth black as the dawn.
No child in our family remains a child who can love his mother.
Paul Tran is the author of the first volume of poetry, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin, 2022). Her work appears in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. Paul, winner of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize and grants from the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, is an assistant professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Man Ray, A l’Heure de l’Observatoire les Amoureux (Observatory Time: The Lovers), 1932–4.