If by truth you mean hand then yes
I hold to be self-evident and hold you in the highest—
KO to my OT and bait to my switch, I crown
you one-trick pony to my one-horse town,
dub you my one-stop shopping, my space heater,
juke joint, tourist trap, my peep show, my meter reader,
you best batteries-not-included baring all or
nothing. Let me begin by saying if he hollers,
end with goes the weasel. In between,
cream filling. Get over it, meaning, the moon.
Tell me you’ll dismember this night forever,
you my punch-drunking bag, tar to my feather.
More than the sum of our private parts, we are some
peekaboo, some peak and valley, some
bright equation (if and then but, if er then uh).
My fruit bat, my gewgaw. You had me at no duh.
THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING LONELIER
There is absolutely nothing lonelier
than the little Mars rover
never shutting down, digging up
rocks, so far away from Bond street
in a light rain. I wonder
if he makes little beeps? If so
he is lonelier still. He fires a laser
into the dust. He coughs. A shiny
thing in the sand turns out to be his.
A STUDY THROUGH HOMES
We live in imaginary countries
When people ask where I’m from, where I’m really from, I ready my permutations. My mélange of autumnal streets, my obscure cities, the countries I found built on a mound of papers and tears, the pebble-sized universe occupying my left shoe—I want to tell them everything. I want to see how far we can go.
A Venezuelan couple moves into our neighborhood. They share their story with me, why they migrated to Peru: the inflation, their hunger and fear, their love—they are relieved they can send money back to their families. They say they miss the soup their grandmother used to make, the sleepiness after eating it, the magic. When I ask what’s home for them, they say home is a fist that dreams.
Instead of calling home by the name of a country, I imagine calling it by people’s names or pronouns. Hello, I’m from Sang-Hee. I’m going back to Alejandra. Have you ever visited Daniel? I’m proud of you. I miss me.
I realize I’ve been acquainted with my husband for less time than I have my parents, who received and kept my first laughter like a pressed flower in the folds of their memory. Less time than my sister, who would only fall asleep when my hair was twined around her thumb, an amulet against nightmares. I didn’t expect I would end up staying in the United States after finishing my studies; I find it strange I fell in love with a stranger. Though maybe it was because he was a stranger, and it’s easier to love strangers. One day, the years I’ve known him will claim half my life, then maybe most of it, but never all. This, the life of an immigrant too.
I ask my parents whether they miss Korea. My father crosses his arms. Says home is now. My mother, next to him, adds home is also then.
A BBC documentary explains how, at some point, a hermit crab must look for a new home, a new shell to protect its curved abdomen, pliant as a grape, easy cooking target for the sun. It’ll meet others by the shore, where they’ll line up patiently from largest to smallest, to swap shells that match their present size. A systematic method of survival that benefits everyone—except for the one left out. It sears into my mind. Not the idea of one being left out but the image of the crab, its toy-orange legs flailing, hurrying after a shell with a hole on its roof that will just have to do for an uncertain while.
I ask a friend whose life oscillated between Trujillo and Lima where’s home for her these days. She says home is any place that calls her name.
At the airport, the day I would stop sharing a roof with my family, my mother tucks the word saranghae deep into the pocket of my ear. She repeats, saranghae, saranghae, saranghae—until the word I’d heard every day sounds like a foreign language, until the word sheds the husk of its meaning and is replaced with music.
At one point, I thought my home was a pair of hand-me-down pants I’d eventually grow into. But home was the blur of my body, in which the same bloodstream didn’t flow twice, in which a deep breath made my lungs embrace my heart tighter, before letting go.
In my mailbox: a welcome letter and a 3x2 inch card. It declares I’ve been granted temporary permission, acceptance, to be where I already am. I could drill a hole in it with my stare: this small key on the palm of my hand, green like a pair of emerald earrings I never had, green like bad breath and anxiety, green like the application fees that continue to increase like an insidious dream of bloating grass. Green, the color of my conditional privilege. All condensed into a single object I’m asked to carry at all times but made so I could, easily, lose so much more.
I’m tired, so I read about how policies attempting to restrict immigration constantly fail, unable to forbid the body, the cities and deserts it carries inside, the winds wrinkling its lakes, the finches darting not only above but under its airport ceilings. I’m tired, so I lie down. The earth spins for me and the dead continue their orbiting. It gives me strength to remember there is no such thing as an immovable object.
AE HEE LEE
Jog through this suburb at a blue hour
when bliss blows over dewy lawns
and neighbors walk suspicious dogs
inhaling trunks of oaks and birches
like a posse of pet detectives, and roused
yet cautious, a first mourning dove sings.
Ponder your existence, which someday will
no longer animate the world of creatures
Could your limbs survive without always
naming the flawless cathedrals of leaf-branches
entwining above your head?
Isn’t this what you meant by truly living?
Do you believe it?
Did you mistreat the vowels?
When did you begin to speak, you who love
the grace of a fireplace, its morning ash
the aftermath of a desperate battle?
You, too, were trying to recover
the myth of Philomela in your own time,
in your own district, in a tenement
built for the wounded and discontent.
Those early days you lived in shadows,
speechless from what you could not name,
yet its absence ever present and growing in
a field peopled by your metaphoric propositions.
You turn onto Circle Drive — a dragonfly
inspects the dark city of your head.
USELESS IS AS USELESS DOESN’T
Have you ever had the eyes of a cat
removed? I’m about to agree to this.
The cat’s already blind and in pain
according to the vet, and would be blind
differently is all, with ghosts of eyes
instead of his current milky orbs,
but the thought of my yes
still crushes my tender bits,
the origami at the center of my breath.
My father saw this coming. Years ago,
he set me on his knee
and told me that everyone dies
in pieces, an elbow or head at a time,
then set me on his other knee
and told me that wisteria
can’t be killed, and roses, rust,
that a smart man
ignores the construction code
and builds on a foundation
of love and cumulus.
I’m sorry that he ran out of knees
so quickly, that I’ve killed everyone
I care about for years, imagined them dying
or dead, and that I can’t actually
hitchhike on starlight. I stick my thumb out
but nothing, I’m still here and unable
to lift the darkness of Wednesdays
and Januaries off of Eve
or operate on my mother’s heart
with a firefly or go to Spain
this minute and free bulls
from men about to stab them
for the art of a terror so deep,
only blood can speak its name.
IN THE END YOU GET EVERYTHING BACK (LIZA MINNELLI)
The afterlife is an infinity of custom shelving, where everything
you have ever loved has a perfect place, including things
that don’t fit on shelves, like the weeping willow from
your parents’ backyard, or an old boyfriend, exactly as he was
in your second year of college, or an aria you love, but without
the rest of the opera you don’t particularly care for.
My favorite joke: Q: You know who dies? A: Everyone!
Because it’s true. But ask any doctor and they’ll say that
prolonging a life is saving a life. Ask anyone who survives
their surgeries, and they’ll say yes, to keep living is to be saved.
I do think there’s a statute of limitations on grief, like, certainly,
how someone died can be sad forever, but who can be sad
simply about the fact that Shakespeare, say, is dead, or Sappho,
or Judy Garland, or Rumi. There’s a Twitter account called
LizaMinnelliOutlives, which put into the world a set of thoughts
I was having privately, but the Twitter account is kinder than
I had been, tweeting things “Liza Minnelli has outlived
the National Rifle Association which has filed for bankruptcy”
and “Liza Minnelli has outlived Armie Hammer’s career” to take
the sting out of the really painful ones, like “Liza Minnelli
has outlived Jessica Walter,” or like “Liza Minnelli has outlived
George Michael” or “Liza Minnelli has outlived Prince.”
In my own afterlife, the custom shelves are full of Liza Minnellis—
Liza in Cabaret, Liza in Arrested Development, Liza singing
“Steam Heat” on The Judy Garland Christmas Special, Liza
on the Muppet Show, Liza in Liza’s at the Palace, and because this is heaven,
Liza won’t even know she’s in my hall of loved objects,
just as I won’t know that my fandom has been placed on her shelf
for when Liza Minnelli has outlived Jason Schneiderman,
waiting for Liza Minnelli when Liza Minnelli has outlived
Liza Minnelli, which is what fame is, and what fame is not,
and if Jason Schneiderman outlives Jason Schneiderman,
and your love of this poem waits for me on one of my shelves,
and will keep me company for eternity, thank you for that.
I promise to cherish your love in that well-lit infinity of forever.
In one theory of the mind, the psyche is just a grab bag of lost objects,
our wholeness lost when we leave the womb, when we discover
our own body, and so on and so on, our wholeness lost and lost and lost,
as we find ourselves smaller and smaller, which is why heaven
is an endless, cozy warehouse, where nothing you loved is gone,
where you are whole because you get everything back, and by everything,
I mean you.
I talk to the students in jail about freedom, how in America
we obsess over it, write it over flags on T-shirts, spread
it around under eagles. It has something to do with guns
and fireworks, Harley-Davidsons, New Hampshire, living free
until you’re dead. I tell the students I think the people
fetishizing freedom don’t mean it. That they really mean
look over here, away from all the slavery
we did, away from all the jail! I tell them they
are the experts, ask them to write what freedom means:
privacy is freedom and if you feel held back, afraid
to do something, you’re not completely free. No fear
of loss. No fear of hunger, no fear of pain. A body
to call my own, a voice driven by my own mind.
The security of a dry, warm place to sleep. To own
my own time left here. Being able to hold my son
at night. Showering in private. Freedom to me
is having the choice to walk away from a fight. Freedom
a work in progress. Everyday freedom, the real work for us all.
We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you're thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn't your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
THE DRY SEASON
All of it dependent on words.
When books burn,
even the settings of stars collapse,
and slipping from thick palms and fingers,
the history of place falls away,
even the structure of the human body goes wrong then.
(At this moment a figure passes quickly through the summer grass)—
Letting the blessings of ancestors fall on the body,
drawing a bow toward the sleepless (karmic) core.
(What is this festival eve for?)
Recognizing, as something like moonlight,
the maternal voice of origin as it ricochets through time’s usages
and sinks (into the mind).
A word, unseasoned wood.
A woman’s laughter floats out
from bamboo leaves that rustle
in a kind of rhyme with the strum of grooves in a copper board,
as she passes behind the sliding door of half-transparent Japanese paper
(although I recognized her for what she was).
Is anything redeemed (by one preceding line)?
Something like words can be imagined, trembling,
the long genealogy of the mother-tongue,
each phoneme standing clear (without its face)—
(having been) arousing, aroused,
aroused, always, back to questions (echoing back)
never finished, but nested by echoes.
(Being born ..., being born ... )
Oh moon, come back from your eclipse! Melt down
the utensils at hand,
mute the images we see on the sliding door!
(The incarnation diminishing)—
Only occasionally can the udumbara flowers be seen.
Stuffed with thousands of years of funeral services, (released)
(a flicker of something like flames ... )—
Still, endorsement, words, body
(these, which are not given)
are not even what I can call for.