Hour of the Ox 082296421X, 9780822964216

Winner of the 2015 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry Hour of the Ox received the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, selec

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Hour of the Ox
 082296421X, 9780822964216

Table of contents :
Contents
Anti-Elegy
I
Old Country, New World
Disconsolate Brother Returns as Penumbra
Postmarked
Bonsai
Restitution for the Grandson
All the Sheep Have Scattered
Invocation
Happiness
Oath
Cultivation
Herdboy and Weaver
From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
Brother Returns as Chrysanthemum
History
Generosity
Your Mouth Is Full of Birds
In Season
The Last Supper
II
Ode to Hunger
Brother Returns as Octopus
The Sea Urchin
Haenyeo: Image of the Pearl Diver
The Pearl Divers’ Daughters
The Asked-For Day
Penance
Last Half of a Letter from Home
Apodyopsis
Storm Elegy
Diffusion
Remedies for Grieving
Brother Returns as Sunflower
Vase of Ashes
Apperception
Brother Who Does Not Surface
Sijo for Early Spring, Year of the Boar
Returning Home
Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo
Notes
Acknowledgments

Citation preview

HOUR OF THE OX

PITT POETRY SERIES

Ed Ochester, Editor

HOUR O F THE OX MARCI CALABRETTA CANCIO-BELLO University of Pittsburgh Press

This book is the winner of the 2015 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, awarded by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). AWP, a national organization serving more than three hundred colleges and universities, has its headquarters at George Mason University, Mail Stop 1E3, Fairfax, VA 22030. The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry is made possible by the generous support of Amazon.com. Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260 Copyright © 2016, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello All rights reserved Manufactured in the United States of America Printed on acid-free paper 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6421-6 ISBN 10: 0-8229-6421-X Cover art: Pan by South African artist Jono Dry. Artwork can be found at Jonodryart.com. Cover design by Joel W. Coggins

For every brother I’ve ever had, remembered or not

CONTENTS

Anti-Elegy

1

I Old Country, New World 5 Disconsolate Brother Returns as Penumbra 7 Postmarked 8 Bonsai 10 Restitution for the Grandson 11 All the Sheep Have Scattered 12 Invocation 13 Happiness 15 Oath 16 Cultivation 18 Herdboy and Weaver 19 From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows 21 Brother Returns as Chrysanthemum 22 History 23 Generosity 24 Your Mouth Is Full of Birds 25 In Season 26 The Last Supper 27

II Ode to Hunger 31 Brother Returns as Octopus 32 The Sea Urchin 33 Haenyeo: Image of the Pearl Diver 34 The Pearl Divers’ Daughters 36 The Asked-For Day 38 Penance 39 Last Half of a Letter from Home 41 Apodyopsis 42 Storm Elegy 43 Diffusion 45 Remedies for Grieving 46 Brother Returns as Sunflower 48 Vase of Ashes 49 Apperception 50 Brother Who Does Not Surface 52 Sijo for Early Spring, Year of the Boar Returning Home 54 Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo 55 Notes 57 Acknowledgments

61

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53

HOUR OF THE OX

Anti-Elegy

For my mother, who twisted her hair every day into a knot held by a wooden pin knobbed with jade. For my father, who combed our island looking for the most deformed trees, measured water into the shallow bases of his bonsai sprigs, waited years for me to grow into my long fingers. For Grandmother, whose skin smelled of seaweed, who asked me always to eat the sweet abalone porridge with her. For what the sea gives up and asks to be returned, for the tide. For the water deer, who moved and mated the night my brother first wept, as though offering their own children to our grief. For my brother, who did not die no matter how many times we killed him. —For we are not our own.

1

I

Old Country, New World

Although my sweaters were already rolled and tucked around stone cooking pots, packages of dried, flat squid and fish in a borrowed, half-centuried suitcase, Mama burned a bouquet of candles that last night, plucking pearls from the cold bowl of water to string on waxed red threads. I said Americans do not barter, everything costs exactly what it says. In silence she clipped each loose end carefully, close to the knots, with large, ancient shears. Although I did not know it, Mama sewed pearls into my skin: each vertebra, each tooth and eyelash stitched in salt-laced dew and the ash of incanted incense, strung with the thread of old blood. She said white is funerary back home. Red is for good luck, still unraveling in her hands and across her lap. Entire tapestries between us. Mama, don’t miss me. I will eat enough, I said to the phone, because I did, and didn’t, could still taste desire taut as the skin of an umbrella over its ribs. Here, darkness is pinned back like long, black hair from the phosphorescence of this new city. Enormous apples, umbral faces, a thousand languages in the same breath.

5

Even the air spins its own guttural songs in coral and gold, malachite green and porcelain blue. Of all the colors oiled into the crows’ feathers, only their throats are crimson. Once more I roll my tongue over the old grain of longing, patient as an oyster with its seed.

6

Disconsolate Brother Returns as Penumbra

This evening is shaped like a helix of fireflies, a mouthful of moist pips dug from the body of an orange. I have not thought of you in years, but tonight, thin and knob-kneed as a heron, you come to lean against the wall, your shadow sewn to my feet. The morning you drown in will be shaped like a swell or a clam devouring its own pearl, our mother’s letter smudged with salt, and the memory will wane into a mist-burnt morning, loud and red as a raven’s throat. But now, as I kneel on the porch, fingertips and scrolls of paper brushed with ink, you come to me as a dawn heron, as stag or stone, shades of gray with no name.

7

Postmarked

I am writing to you in favor of storms fanned from the ears of elephants, stretched against the sky in this month when dragonflies shake off their skins. Imagine that your walls are the greatest wonders of the world, a hotel made of ash or ice or endangered rainforest leaves, and that I am waiting for you in the curved glass bubble of air sixty-six feet beneath Persian sand draped in waves like lace and light. The white sip of champagne distilled by sunrise carries you on the tide of a thousand sidelong glances from your island to mine. Your bed is laid with sheets soft as the membrane of a jellyfish and lined with the whisper of saltwater just beginning to wake. You cannot feel the crash of the horizon here in the darkness. Your rust-wrapped windows are a chandelier of stingray tails pointing the wind in all the wrong directions. At the foot of this bed, lulled by the undertow of sunrise and set, there is a coffee table for your tea, which will steam and cool until each window, kissed by bottom-feeders and undiscovered fish, has fogged. See, I am writing your name into the breath of the storm, next to all the others who have drowned in this room, our room, your room.

8

The wallpaper is wrinkled with the wet murmur and sway of seaweed. The ceilings are transparent and broad as the moment in which we realize we have grown old together in this room beneath the sea where there is no one but us and the sonic knocking of waves on our wall. We cannot confine our solitary selves to this, so I am waiting for you from here, in favor of storms drawn in and out by your eyelashes as they flutter and still, alone in this room, our room, your room, made of ocean and air and selfish letters.

9

Bonsai

As a bent man with insubstantial hands wires the skin of a miniature myrtle, waiting a year to break the bark, and another to undo the trunk’s mistakes, so my father was neither kind nor strong in his bruising, only patient.

10

Restitution for the Grandson

If, in the hour of the ox, you had passed from your own bright life into ours, or perhaps if your mother had begged more fervently for you during the spring tide when the sea cannot help but give and give for its fullness, even if you had not been born in the ruinous hour of the boar as the shore emptied its cupped hands back into the breakers of neap tide, if your father had not shut himself up with the bark and bone of small forests, had instead cultivated patriarchies tenderly and fiercely, if and if and yet–– here I stand, lifting my empty net, slinging into the sea from this precipice your sister’s scrolls, your mother’s oath, the spent cockleshells of clams, insufficient recompense for what the sea asks us to return. 11

All the Sheep Have Scattered

1:25 a.m. The memory of your hair’s whorl reminds me of a snail shouldering a staircase toward the inner ear where a storm or a dream is brewing. 2:26 a.m. One thousand tiny orchids prick open my pores as I chew the darkness. 3:27 a.m. and still I sprawl in this damn bed thinking of you. 4:28 a.m. Sleep, the light sown into your skin shimmers like holy water— why do you touch everything but me?

12

Invocation

Lord, I have pulled myself up this mountainside to burn a thousand days of incense, laden with ginseng wine to pour on the pitted feet of this stone servant of yours. My prayer is stitched in the skin on my side, over the rib that binds me to men—to husband, to son. Here will I sit and kneel and beg to know what you can spare and who you will not. My mother, who left the sea unspared, who culled creature from wave, who burns coal for the shrimp and the clams and the pigs, who seasons nothing but wine, whole roots of ginseng blocking my pores— spare her. Spare my husband, who razes tiny forests inside his bonsai room, reshaping the branches, believing you reshape us after death to return as stags or sunflowers. Do you? Do you know how my daughter spreads her scrolls, dabs sparingly— too sparingly—at the ink, how she renders and flings aside these tangerines, these sows, how she hungers and burns for a different shore. For her I curve my spine daily, poring over ropes of pearls hung loose and swaying in unison on my wall, iridescent stitchery like whitecaps catching the sun. This sandalwood burns for her. Only the wine is yours. Remember how, the second night I gave birth, you poured out a blessed rain so that the water deer stirred in the sparse trees outside our window? This turmeric and pine burns for my son. Remember me, on this same mountainside

13

many years ago, how I begged and would not subside, how I offered an oath in exchange for a son, how the fog curled like a young vine, how it burned back into the sky like a prayer, how I asked you what I must give to receive. My own body was not spared from this oath. What else could I offer, being poor? Remember me, Lord who was also a son. I have poured out the last of the wine. Do not take back the rib from my side. Do not ask in return what was given. Who will you spare, who not? My mother, my husband, my daughter, my son. I am here for the reaping. Only this wine is yours. All of the forest now lifts a prayer with its burning. Spare my son or let burn the mountainside. I have already poured into the dirt what is yours.

14

Happiness

Wild strawberries were blooming as we ambled toward the cottonwood shade. You were examining the prophecy of snowfall in the measurements of caterpillars and I asked your opinion on the nature of happiness, perhaps because you called me sister or because I called you brother and stranger. Tiger-banded dragonflies skimmed the grass. Fern and myrtle, downy brown and black. You laid the larvae on my palms without speaking. I never knew you had such silences. Overhead, wires heavy with starlings or crows— I couldn’t tell against the steel sky. But I remember later that night the steam from our tea curling above us and into our mouths, as though the answer could last us a whole season of snow.

15

Oath

The night she gave birth, the water deer were moving. But before that, the oath. Fog pulled from the mountainside like an octopus, slow, aggregate tendrils leaving trace dampness, rocks jutting flat and broad enough to beckon a god. Steep. Her face close to the ground, body bent as in age or reverence, spilling a burden of ginseng and wine onto the shoulder of a mountain dappled as fawnback. They said whatever she asked of the gods must be returned. Blessed is the son who opens the womb. In the hour of the ox, she poured wine at the feet of the grandfather, god of fertility and stone,

16

while she swallowed spoonfuls of tea and rice, an oath porous as rock and shadow. Fog burned itself from the mountainside when she discovered the hummingbird beating in her belly. Later, she remembered that on the night she gave birth, the water deer were stirring in the moonlight like small, grazing ghosts.

17

Cultivation

No one’s hands are made like his, coarse and slick with the grub of dirt and bark locked beneath each nail. Tonight, again, he hears wife and daughter shelling with stern fingers. Voices like candlewax or warm bread. His son’s hands lifting under a watery sky, hands that should have drifted through fields that burn with only honeyed light. Dusk settles on his shoulders, the day heavy and growing heavier yet. Earth has balmed him prematurely with dusted herbs and sand, but he scrapes his palms against his thighs, lays a hand on the door latch, presses his shoulder to the wood, lets light run out to the fields.

18

Herdboy and Weaver

Stars, we say. Fate, goddess of weavers sewing the living into coats of skin like apples latticed into fluted crusts. Buffalo, we say, syllables and asterisms, oxen driven along a riverbank. Goddess fingers transcribing the rattle of her loom into his dialect. Work, we say. Skill and wool, distaff empty of thread, still shuttled

19

with an unfinished celestial robe. Division, we say, milk of constellations. Little daughter ladling the river dry, magpies smuggling the lovers across in exchange for new coats each year.

20

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

We were told our bones were too heavy to lift even when latticed together with feathers. You stopped eating and learned to scowl while I folded birds into paper and flung them across yards already littered with light. You read how hummingbirds tuck themselves into the plumage of northern geese, so I held you against my breast as we fell from the darkest pines. Each night you dreamed of crooked trees, thin seams tearing apart in the sky. You found a word in the dictionary of obscure sorrows upon which to hang our failures–– mahpiohanzia: the disappointment of being unable to catch wind currents in your arms. Together we chanted the syllables, as if each vowel could bear the weight of the living.

21

Brother Returns as Chrysanthemum

Didn’t we think we were more than this— little suns unfurling above the earth? We thought we were constellations in soil, entire galaxies anchored to dust. Ravenous, we believed our thousand arms could hoard the horizon–– eclipsing ourselves even as we waned, bereft of all but shadow.

22

History

Grandmother sent a box of tangerines and a small glass teapot, but the tangerines had spoiled. I sparked the stove for the kettle, dropped my last tea leaves, poured the hot water. Through the glass, the dried tea flowers bloomed, filled the studio with orchards of tangerines. That night, I dreamed of black pigs rooting in lava rockbeds, caterpillars carrying evening spun from the day’s silk, crows shedding coarse feathers against the coffin of my window.

23

Generosity

We are epistles the gods have written to each other, Mama often said as she stitched pearls into silk, stuffed spices into frayed cabbage heads for winter, ground the rinds of citron into honeyed water. She said our fathers were first tigers, sons of heaven who prayed off their fur, dulled their teeth on garlic. She said our mothers were hidden bears scrawling petitions on the white skins of birch bark, answered once through sacrificial language, pitied, torn open, given sons, all gifts. I wonder what gods correspond in us now. Yearning is a gift. Yes, and suffering. Even the crows—always the crows— restless at my window, waiting.

24

Your Mouth Is Full of Birds

You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches heavy with five-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled, each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires, the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while, when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds, I think that you meant you forgave me for the rookery, because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.

25

In Season

The dragonflies are in season. Before she leaves, her father gives her, from their gray backyard orchard, a tangerine. When she last locks her door, the orange star leans against the windowsill in the empty room as if it would remain firm and sweet.

26

The Last Supper

Father killed the thin black pig for the last supper. Mother sliced strips of backfat and brought out the table-grill. The room filled with the smell of grease and coal-smoke. My metal chopsticks clicked the loudest, deft fingers laying rice in cabbage leaves, rolling tightly. A borrowed suitcase by the door, latched with new life— if new life smells of red pepper paste and dried squid, is heavy as a stone hotpot wrapped in three towels and a sweater. Pour the tea, my father said, and I pressed my fingers against the lid to keep from spilling. Not one small drop. After the pile of black boar bristles was wiped from the plate and the last persimmon speared and swallowed, after the blankets had been unrolled and my father’s breath steadied, I pressed my spine into the warm floor where the coals had burned. Counting the breaths in the dark, my fingers crept lightly across the floor and against my father’s calloused palm, willing his lifeline to grow long as a stream of tea poured green and steaming and smelling of herbs.

27

II

Ode to Hunger for EJ Koh

Or rather, to you as you are, as you are full of many hungers like storms dragging rain through clouds as fine-toothed combs that snarl, then smooth.

31

Brother Returns as Octopus

This is what I remember: fierce webbed skirt of an octopus draped over Grandmother’s raised arm, unable to devour her black diving skin. Its many umber limbs drew nothing but air to its dark beak, center of the grotesque star. So my brother returns, body full of teeth and desire.

32

The Sea Urchin

Grandmother kept a diver’s knife strapped to her thigh. Daily, before the night could fray into dawn, she dived half a mile from shore, inhaling three minutes of air at a time. All morning she pried abalone and sea urchins from slick rock. Once, when she returned, I counted the stiff lines around her mouth, which never seemed to open but could swallow entire tides. On my birthday, she brought me a ball of spines in a bucket, lifted its bit of ocean into my cupped hands. The creature’s round mouth explored the cracks of my palm, tasting the salt on my skin, recoiling. An offering like the pincushions I often brought my mother, every needle threaded with a different color. Grandmother boiled garlic, soybeans, salt into broth, ladled the seaweed soup into a white bowl. She turned the urchin and broke it open, scooped out the ocher roe with a spoon, dropped it in among the kelp. How it sank like a sun into the murk, dissolved. I spooned mouthfuls at a time as she harvested the rest of the body’s cavern, a move as practiced as mending her thick black diving skins and nets. Her fingers were steady against the spines. What I remember is not the sweetness or the slickness, but the heat rising from the broth, a mouth wide enough to swallow the needles and flesh of the sea.

33

Haenyeo: Image of the Pearl Diver I Likely as not a pearl pried from the opened lung of a shell, payment for the pearl divers’ daughters. White flesh wrapped in fire sweats in our palms. Because I can want it, I don’t hesitate, looking for the sweet salt I can’t find in this sea-less city. II We cannot say the pearl was wanted, or white, in the beginning or that we bury matriarchies with the sea in their lungs, three minutes at most of sea-woman song. Chant: the haenyeo on the shoreline swing their empty nets, all the ocean wants and cannot have.

34

III Our grandfathers are stone, our sons have drowned. Only the black pigs persist. IV Arirang, they chant, slipping thick black diving suit from pale skin around fire and pearlescent nets. Push, they sing, pushing the sea back into itself. Soon, it will take everything back. V Deeper, they say, octopi wrapped around their arms. South. Pearls dug from oyster tongues will never be enough for this war, though our mothers are resurrected daily.

35

The Pearl Divers’ Daughters

We are the pearl divers’ daughters skinning the ocean of her abalone scales, planting oyster seeds in each other’s vertebrae. Our mothers carved veins into the sea with reinvented air, wrists scarred in rows and rings–– octopi and coral––legs scissoring against the sun, the space between their thighs profound as trenches. Haenyeo, we name them, pearl divers whose songs build and blossom like barrel-fires or anemones. They press our shoulders against the ribs of whale sharks, our palms on dotted black rays. We graze our fingers through damselfish schools, but our appetites are as insatiate as the sea is for land. We gnaw the shore, legs wound in seaweed, skin flayed by the tongues of clams, pulling, pushing. Arirang, our mothers say patriotically, and cities bloom from our spines, rooting us to cartographies, thumbing our eyes into sand-locked jewels. We are the pearl divers’ daughters, our sisters’ skirts are hemmed in coral, our brothers are cloud-eyed eels.

36

Arirang, we say, our futures pearled into every empty shell, our tongues pressed against the words until we become them.

37

The Asked-For Day

Sunlight drips from fists of clouds, bronzes white sand. Arms hoary with coral, the sea gathers each minnow back into her skirt. All day she has been prying secrets from the mouths of clams, catching at my brother’s legs. He comes to me every night, sits on my stomach, digs his fingers through my ribcage for the bivalves of breath. He follows me into the bathroom, pisses seawater into my sink. We kneel on the tile floor, folding the shadows of our fingers into pigs and ibis, spotted fawns. Birthmark on his shoulder shaped like the shoreline, dark as a lung, fists full of water. Even as the sun shrugs out of its daily sweater of stars too early, he unfurls his fists, and says forgiveness is not a star, it is a dragonfly.

38

Penance

And outside the crows besiege the window ledge while she rifles through the mesh bag of tangerines, testing each with all five fingertips, digging her thumbnail into the fleshiest skins, remembering the orchards back home. Orchards full of stars the color of tangerines, almost the color of koi or orioles, not quite saffron or crocoite. Orchards blooming mandarin and white, five-petaled crowns sweet and citrus among the dimpled rinds. Each night in this tiny room she unrolls her bed beside drying canvases and turpentined brushes speckled with paint, aware of the absence of dried fish and sea brine. Here the tangerines are unripe, not yet full and nectarous— she can tell by the weight in her palm, the rim of space between peel and flesh. She splits open the white-veined fruit, spritzes the air with a sweet cloud of citrus. Inside, the tangerine is small, ripe pairs of lungs. She runs her tongue over the strange membrane, veined and pulpy, delicate and swollen. The skin breaks, exhales a mouthful of nectar, and she devours sweet portions of breath over and over with each piece of tangerine. 39

This is the second thirst to be quenched. Later, the other tangerines will spoil and harden, their own lungs full of orange light. And now the crows are tapping on the window, hungry for the pips and rind, the body void of breath.

40

Last Half of a Letter from Home

And this is not about the fat dung pig your father didn’t butcher when you left, or the rope of pink pearls I strung myself, which you refused when you left in the spring. Not oysters and urchins, no, this is not about water deer, nor about disputing how it was your brother lost his footing that morning on the seaweed-covered rocks. I am writing to say that your father is building a shrine for the not-yet-dead: small myrtle sprigs, black boar bristles embedded upright in pots filled with sand and water. Preparing for grief shouldn’t be done alone. Come, daughter, join us, oh come quickly home.

41

Apodyopsis

A baptism of the body is not enough. I want to uncover all your secrets. I pry open the horizon’s dark shell to spill on your face the lunar light. Arc of jaw, slender clavicle ridge. Lace slips from slope of shoulder, confessing skin. Virginal currents pool at your feet, embroidered with undertow, hemmed in foam, now periwinkle, now porcelain, all opalescent. I cannot help but break into song. Do not be startled by the devotion in my voice. Ocean, when you raise the gold of your gaze, do not turn away, concealing the evening pearl, drawing the sea back up to your throat.

42

Storm Elegy

O great accumulation of storms! No name exists for your gathering. Flight of stairs. Galaxy of stars. Muster or phalanx of storks. The list jumps, then, to a puree of straphangers. Perhaps the dictionaries mean a flock of storms, great gray sheep of heaven lumbering to be sheared into lightning, or a frolic of storms, lambs lilting across the sky, ewes heavy with wool and milk. Or, a buttress of storms, as rams 43

unsheathe their horns and charge, full of thunder, cracking the sky open to let fall constellations of rain. In the fields, sheep huddle in a barn, pressing each other’s sides into lanolin until the clouds disperse, and they scatter once more into the wet grass, weaving coats over the skin of the hills.

44

Diffusion

All day she has been sitting, hair newly shorn, smelling of honey and mint, fingers wrapped around a cup of chamomile gone cold, jerking at the teabag like a puppet. As the sky burns itself into darkness, she ponders the time consumed by a flower as it exhales into bloom.

45

Remedies for Grieving I Eucalyptus, perhaps, or rosemary, St. John’s Wort. Cupful of pau d’arco tea leaves. Coins of persimmon laid against eyelids, tongue. Stone pots of kimchi dug from the frozen ground after three years spent fermenting. II In the back of our tangerine orchard a banyan tree bows toward the opaque rice paper window, branches older than my father stooping to prune them year after figless year. III What we remember of the dead. What we don’t of the living. IV Calligraphy brushed by water mixed with the fine ash of burnt photographs. Crooked handwriting, black ink. A boy took my mother for his own, renaming her children as if they could forget whose tongues sewed them into their skins.

46

V Porcelain bowl nestled in tissue and shoebox, knocked from the shelf by a small brother, cracked, in pieces. Years later, I dipped an old horsetail brush in gold lacquer, traced lineages of imperfection, pressed them firmly back together. Mother placed the bowl on the windowsill, and for many nights I filled it with coins as payment for the dead. VI Mother staked the head of a ratsnake to the table, its body writhing black and gold. Her blade slid its elusive length, her fingers peeled back its scales and skin, digging for gallbladder and eggs to swallow whole and warm even though her body was too old to bear the bones of another son. VII I sold persimmons and painted shells to buy a small pot of honey, the only gold I could afford.

47

Brother Returns as Sunflower

As a stranger, you glanced over my shoulder on the train. I was reading about twenty-four sunflowers set in ponds near Chernobyl after the plume. Attention to the sky, roots hungry for earth, inhaling blight and metal into themselves, any two blossoms touching only once. They had no mouths for each other, no hands. Only faces with one dark eye dimming even as the water clarified. Like the fading smell of dry rain in soil, your hair, what we meant to say and will not remember. What we should have done in the husk of this life.

48

Vase of Ashes

In the streetlight where all the exiles congregate, my shadows walk below me in upturned collars, nodding their heads without recognition. And one is the lover I lost just by trying. And two are the vices I’ve never fought down. But I am still standing here at the window because the light from this lamp is yours and my light is the bite of ginger cognac in an empty apartment pinned with postcards from somewhere I couldn’t be. I am looking for the dawn because in some other street, lit in some other city, you are Heracles, bracing your foot against a boulder, your back arched like an unstrung bow. You are falling into the sea. I place the corner of a postcard on my tongue to taste your name one more time.

49

Apperception

Measure grief with your hands, not stopping as at the withers of a horse, or like stacking hands up a baseball bat. Measure it by handfuls of tea blossoms, or in the strings of pearls rattling through your fingers like pagan rosaries. Measure grief by the number of stains you scrub with sand from your skin each night after painting or writing home. Do not measure it in the number of times he visits you, pulling himself from your dark memories into flesh. Do not measure it in the fissures between your fingers, water slipping through before you can bring cupped hands to mouth. Measure your grief in the bowlfuls of pips and rinds you throw to the crows, how many fists you make, how many slivers of incense you burn or how many times you held your brother steady. Not often enough to quench the illusion—

50

there is no number for this grief, for the handfuls of breaths you want to press back into his lungs.

51

Brother Who Does Not Surface

If this boy lifted his cap, he might have my nose, my hairline, the same birthmark on my shoulder. He might not. I have lost the possibility of measuring my hands against his. I peeled back half the globe, petitioned every crevice of city and glass, pots of kimchi fermenting beneath the porch, profile of a shadow against a stone wall, faces that looked almost familiar. Some risk is always involved, because the visor never tilts high enough for certainty. The memory of water and slippery rocks in the back of my head is never fully clarified. Perhaps I, always looking, still hope I will not recognize him. No jawline will be sharp enough to satisfy my wolfish heart.

52

Sijo for Early Spring, Year of the Boar

My parents are rearing a new dog, a mottled, long-legged mutt. These days, even neighbors skirt the yard when they sweep the porch, the wind dispersing ash from all the bowls of incense at the shrine.

53

Returning Home

I’m supposed to know how to do this–– the bowing and taking off shoes at the door, baskets laden with Asian pears and persimmons whose skins spiral from my blade like autumn. How I carried packed boxes of fish, eels for fertility, salmon, carp. I brought my parents pearls from the sea still nestled in the curve of abalone shells, and one live octopus, a membrane ready to break in my hands before I reached the threshold. But now I don’t know what to look for in this city. I’ve dug up my brother’s last colors— ash and flower, chives blooming in a fire pit.

54

Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo

Here, the deer, having no tusks, grow great bone branches from their skulls. Here, they cannot wound the water, and their thirst is so small, even in the rutting season. Not like ours. Not like mine. ———

Once, when I was eleven, I saw the fish-oil hand cream scented with crushed jasmine petals, how Grandmother’s fingers daubed then smoothed over the hard backs of her hands. Only once I saw this. ———

Grandmother’s fingers binding a dragonfly body with silk, unspooling the thread, knotting it around my thumb for a kite. Her hand hard against my face for letting it slip so soon. ———

There are many kinds of thirst: that of the sea for the shore, potted roots for the forest floor, woman for a man she cannot have— father, lover, son—that which thickens and blackens the tongue. ———

How many times we counted the stars in our constellations— the rooster, the tiger, the boar, and mine, which should have been the horse. All this to keep from counting the sons who drowned when no one was near.

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———

I have swallowed the bitter branch of my brother’s absence. No water now is sweet enough to slake this ghostly thirst. And this is not a love song, nor a glossary of despair.

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Notes

“Invocation”: The grandfather stone is a “harubang,” one of the stone statues on Jeju Island. Often compared to the Easter Island statues, the harubang are considered to be gods of protection and fertility. Traditionally they are placed in pairs outside gates for protection against demons. They are carved from porous black volcanic rock and are mushroom-shaped with bulging eyes and an exaggerated grin, their hands resting on their bellies. “Oath”: Water deer are native to China and South Korea. In size, they are larger than a Key deer but smaller than a whitetailed deer. Their ears are also much larger than most other deer species, and they lack antlers. They have two prominent tusks they can move to the sides of their mouths in order to feed, which has led to their being called vampire deer. “Herdboy and Weaver”: This poem is based on a Korean folktale in which a herdboy is matched with a celestial weaver maiden. They fall in love and neglect their work for play. The weaver’s father reprimands them and separates them to two distant stars. They are allowed to see each other once per year. However, the Milky Way runs between them, so although they can see each other from afar, they weep so much it causes the Earth to flood. In one version of the tale, all the world’s magpies volunteer to form a bridge so the lovers can meet. In another version, the herdboy and weaver have a daughter who dries up the river one ladleful at a time.

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“From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”: The word “mahpiohanzia” is taken from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and means “the disappointment of being unable to fly, unable to stretch out your arms and vault into the air, having finally shrugged off the ballast of your own weight and ignited the fuel tank of unfulfilled desires you’ve been storing up since before you were born.” “Generosity”: This poem is based on the Korean creation myth. The King of Heaven created animals, but a bear and tiger wanted to become human. They prayed earnestly for their desire. The King commanded them to live in a cave and eat mugwort and garlic alone for one hundred days. The tiger grew tired and left, but the bear stayed in the cave and, after only twenty-one days, was transformed into a beautiful woman. The King of Heaven then married the bear-woman, and their son became the first human King of Korea. “The Last Supper”: Black pigs, also known as “dung pigs,” are a traditional delicacy on Jeju Island. They used to be tied beneath the latrine to eat human waste for the nutrients. Although this is no longer practiced, many say that the black pig tastes different than its pink counterpart. “Haenyeo: Image of the Pearl Diver”: “Haenyeo” is a romanization of the Korean word for “pearl diver.” Unlike the mainland, Jeju Island supports a matriarchal culture. Long ago, the men were fishers and the women dived for pearls and abalone. When fishing laws were implemented, the men found them58

selves out of work, and the women became the breadwinners, inverting the traditional patriarchal structure. Women today still dive in their sixties and seventies, and they are able to hold their breath for up to three minutes and dive to great depths without any diving gear. However, with young women moving to the mainland for education and careers, pearl diving is a dying art. “Arirang” is a Korean folk song that is so popular it is often considered the unofficial Korean national anthem. “Apodyopsis”: The title of this poem means “the act of mentally undressing someone.” “Sijo for Early Spring, Year of the Boar”: “Sijo” is a Korean poetic form similar to the Japanese haiku. The three lines average fourteen to sixteen syllables. They may be narrative or thematic. The final line often employs a twist. Sijo are seldom humorous or witty. Bucolic, metaphysical, and cosmological themes are popular themes for this form.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the editors of the following journals for publishing these poems: The Adroit Journal: “Brother Returns as Sunflower”; Chautauqua: “All the Sheep Have Scattered”; Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art: “Old Country, New World”; Dusie: “Returning Home” and “Sijo for Early Spring, Year of the Boar”; HEArt Online: “From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”; Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: “Anti-Elegy” and “Brother Returns as Dragonfly”; Lunch Ticket: “Your Mouth Is Full of Birds,” “History,” and “Penance”; The Margins: “Oath,” “The Pearl Divers’ Daughters,” and “Remedies for Grieving”; Narrative Magazine: “Bonsai”; Paper Darts: “The Sea Urchin”; Scalawag: “Brother Returns as Octopus” and “Last Half of a Letter from Home”; So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Arts: “Generosity” and “Herdboy and Weaver”; Southern Humanities Review: “Restitution for the Grandson” and “The Last Supper”; Thrush Poetry Journal: “Happiness” and “Brother Returns as Chrysanthemum”; Tupelo Quarterly: “Vase of Ashes”

“Songs of Thirst: Six Sijo” was chosen by Tracy K. Smith for publication in Best New Poets 2015. I am grateful to Florida International University’s creative writing program and the Knight Foundation for making this manuscript possible through the inaugural John S. and James L. Knight Fellowship in poetry.

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To those who walked with me through fire: thank you. Kacee Belcher, Paul Christiansen, Dawn S. Davies, Carlie Hoffman, Sarah L. Mason, EJ Koh, Barbara Swan, Brittany Szabo, and Alex Yuschik. I am forever indebted to my teachers for their guidance and friendship: Lynne Barrett, Jim Daniels, Vernon Dickson, Denise Duhamel, Terrance Hayes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ron Starmer, and Julie Marie Wade. Infinite gratitude to Campbell McGrath, whose door was always open. For Keetje Kuipers, who read these poems with such openness; for Crystal Williams, who chose this book for the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry; for Ed Ochester and the University of Pittsburgh Press for their dedication and their labor. Thank you. These poems are for Rob, whom I have always followed, and for Guillermo, whom I adore.

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