爱： (Ài / love) celebrates the roof of the mouth and ”eye” halves the poet halves the name given by
爸爸： (Bàba / father): bisector / point of blame: one-side source material for a poem about language loss
and so will not be mentioned here.
西： (Xī / west) at five years old compasses left: the departure of word as name like arrival of
第： (Dìdi / younger brother): names me (Jiějiě / older sister) with sibling spite though in the late hours I sit on the bed holding his head like a globe.
一： (Yī / One) school one alphabet to rule all alphabets against language without alphabet against
发： (Fā / hair) static-charged on its brush: the loosener of things, as Fā diverts to “far”–
I am, I swear,
吉： (Jí / auspicious): “conductive to success”: filament glow not cowprod discharge, see! I am
很好： (Hěn hǎo / ”very good”) the teachers say the father says the mother does not say “Tian-
爱： Ài, let’s speak Cantonese for a minute.” Now Dìdi says “Tian-Ai” not
姐姐： Jiějiě “because I’m not a baby anymore.” And I’m a baby with no globe anymore, now in the late hours on the bed
开： (Kāi / open)ing the writing hand, mouth in muscle fibers praying quietly:
留 ： (Liú / stay) please, I
没有： (Méiyǒu / don’t have) you
内： (Nèi / inside) anymore.”
哦哦： “(Oo / oh)?” they laugh,
放屁: “(Fàng pì / bullshit).”
气： (Qìgōng / Breathing),
二： (Èr / two) lungs coded to exhale an impossible sound
是： (Shì / ”yes”), but like trebuchet only,
踢： (Tī / kick)ing counterweight: this poem, quickly, shoot too late temperate tympanic tadpole—
u: mom says
v: no words start with these.
我： (Wǒ / I) said, it doesn’t matter,
谢谢： (Xièxiè / thank you), I
有： (Yǒu / have) some
字： (Zì / words) now.
Previously published in Pleiades: Literature in Context, Volume 40, Issue 2, Summer 2020
Some Time in Tailiang
Two hundred years ago the coast flooded a hundred miles inward, cities dissolved in Pacific: Tailiang swallowed kind enough to leave survivors
and our children still came, but with each flush something faded, in desperate nets fish slapped their tails extinguishing incense which refused to burn in new humidity, smoked fibers of our thousand-year poems that refused to regather from the sea back to our hands back to our mouths feeding back what we had forgotten.
The consequence is now.
Buildings caterpillar to the sky flushed together,
the thickest fog demanding nothing fed by exhalations
On high balconies grow lamps feed
lychee trees, staining the fog
looming tired tangles of concrete,
scaffold and wire hanging from air conditioner boxes
doing nothing for the condensated windows,
everything only a grey suggestion.
No cars on the streets, not today. Only the hum of the boxes
whirring fans coiling the fog disturbing
above the street.
Neon signs float rectangular to a vanishing
point, fog hands over their mouths
muffling their beckoning to:
Mercy came once in an unearthed erhu,
Cradled from a waterlogged basement like an infant.
We did not know it was an erhu then but we wanted to so badly
That we knew it without name.
Tatters of snakeskin framed its wood hexagon
A cane clacked to the floor
The elder scrambled up the eucalyptus
Descending with a python
Slit down the middle with his pinky nail.
Eight sons to stretch its skin across the box
Eight more to seal it,
The old man flicked his fingernail
Two notes that drummed the river
Ricocheted across the city a million
Pulses synced to silence
Shrine to a new and fleeting God.
Once a boy stole it
Strung it with bra wire and bowed:
A soft wail traced spines top to bottom
Vibrato smoothed down vertebra with its single finger
Shivering the trees retracting their plums and the mothers
Pulled for them finally finally—
A week later cityfolk found an instrument
Snapped in half
Swallowed whole by a boa;
A week later they found the boy
Shot dead in the evening,
Rosy under the traffic light.
No one admits we’ve started praying again
so the procession is quiet. The fog has thickened, but lanterns border the
orbed hearts guiding the parade: the people in black
robes, bodiless if not for the drifting
ceramic masks of tigers monkeys dragons cranes women,
drumming out their prayer: summon summon
Men: frustrated, drool seawater as they sing
Women: humming mouths sticky with
Above the street
I watch wet-mouthed
at the window.
Grandfather smokes the long pipe on the couch,
its long crescent channels drags in quarter notes,
smoke wafts S’s out the window
joining the fog–
One time this was a snake
I lied. I don’t see him. He died years ago.
I don’t see him so violently
I see him.
The drums persist:
Little girls’ heads above
dart in and out of windows, salivating for red.
My brother, mask of a crimson ox
drumming away something
dad put inside him.
He doesn’t tell me much about it, only that
in the night
dad stood over the bed
while he slept.
It slipped from the mouth
and buried into his.
I asked him what it tasted like.
He said a dog’s tongue,
loving too hard.
Tian-Ai (天爱) is a diasporic poet, musician, and visual artist from Seattle. She is a fellow of the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets. She appears in Asterism literary journal, with work forthcoming in Flock Magazine, Pleiades, and others. More of her work can be found at tian-ai.com.