ELEGY WITH MY MOTHER’S LIPSTICK
I climb down to the beach facing the Pacific Ocean.
Torrents of rain shirr the sand. On the other side,
my grandmother sleeps soundlessly in her bed.
Her áo dài of the whitest silk. My mother knew
her mother died long before the telephone rang
like bells announcing the last American helicopter
leaving Sài Gòn. An arrow shot back to its bow,
a long-distance missile, she’d leap into the sky
to fly home if she could. She works overtime
instead. She curls her hair with hot rollers, rouges
her cheeks like Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern,
and I’m her understudy. Hiding in the doorways
between her grief and mine, I apply her foundation
to my face. I conceal the parts of me she conceals,
puckering my lips as though dangerously kissing
a man that loves me the way I want to be loved.
I speak their bewitching names aloud: Twisted Rose,
Fuchsia in Paris, Irreverence. I choose the lipstick
she least approves. My mouth a pomegranate split
open, a grenade with its loose pin. In the kitchen,
I wrap a white sheet around my waist and dance
for hours, checking my reflection in a charred skillet.
I laugh her laugh, the way my grandmother laughed
as she taught me to pray the Chú Đại Bi. I remember
braiding her hair in unbearable heat. My tiny fingers
weaving silver strands into a fishtail, a French twist.
Each knot a child she never got to name, buried
in the soil of her, the barren plot where she keeps
the relentless odor of communist soldiers locking
her only surviving children away. I’m sorry, mother
of my mother, bodhisattva with your thousand hands.
No child in our family stays a child their mother can love.
When I knew the body assigned to me wasn’t my body,
when I heard the murmuring in my heart, I followed it
across oceans wider than the distance now between us.
I found myself on a shoreline, a shell glinting in the tide.
I pressed it to my ear. It was you, still laughing, chewing
a fist of betel root. Your teeth black as the unlit dawn.
BORDER FIELD STATE PARK
Crossing the salt marsh, flies laying their eggs
in the belly of a gutted seal, its head yards away,
its massive blue tongue jutting out, speechless,
as though taunting its corpse, studying the slow
decay, the living making the dead useful again,
you press your palm against my back, your pulse
jolting through me, through my heart, so hard,
like waves refusing to haul away the body, to give
the beast a burial, proper or improper, I can’t tell
if it’s mine or yours, if what remains taunts itself
or us, teenagers cursed with being teenagers,
secrets we can’t tell in fear of being sent back,
of there being no back to be sent to. I face you,
your face ambered by volcanic sunbeams, your lips
pinched to the right, hooked by a thin silk thread,
or because in the rush to assemble the rest of you,
your hands pushing me into the hot sand, your god
forgot to imagine your entire smile, the bright music
that escapes from it like a boy sneaking over the border
with his mother under a sky shot with stars, a detail
we must now live without. Because of you, I wonder
what else we must live without, what else our gods,
in their towering kingdoms, elegant and vicious,
deliberate and absent-minded, forgot in our making?
What else did they leave to chance or circumstance?
Because of you, the closest I’d ever come to beauty,
the closest I’d ever come to confession, to appealing
for a spot in Heaven, where we can both be citizens
and not refugees running from the law, from la migra,
from all I’m too much of a coward to admit, I gulp
every what if hammering its steel nail into my throat
like larva bursting from my stomach, demanding
blood and wings, afraid of the shame I know telling
will cause me, the shame that blooms like maggots
under my skin because I know you can never love me
that way, because I know that, despite the borders
we surmounted, there’s a border we can’t, a border
taller and wider and more dangerous than the border
we finally approach, patrolled and man-made, snaking
into an ocean that, like the countries we left, the future
I made hopeless with my silence, will never claim us.
Paul Tran is a Pushcart Prize & Best of the Net-nominated poet. Their work appears in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, RHINO, which gave them an Editor’s Prize, & elsewhere. Paul received fellowships & residencies from Kundiman, VONA, Poets House, Lambda Literary Foundation, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Home School, Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation, & Palm Beach Poetry Festival. They’re the first Asian American in 19 years to represent the Nuyorican Poets Cafe at the National Poetry Slam & Individual World Poetry Slam, where they placed Top 10. Paul lives in Brooklyn, where they serve as Poetry Editor at The Offing & Poet In Residence at Urban Word NYC.