Chosen as the winning entries in our 2019 poetry contest, these poems were featured in Boston Review’s print issue Allies.

I kept returning to these poems. They don’t beg for a reader. I could see no way to extract one, to rearrange this sequence. I asked myself “Why these poems?” the same way I might ask “Why do I prefer certain fingers on the piano?” These have a light touch, flexible but precise.

—Ladan Osman, 2019 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest judge

Other People

My whisper goes to the piano bench,

the piano of bodies. Maybe what follows

is forgiveness, the error

of a fallen fingertip. You teach yourself to feel it

with repetition, like foreign language.

How to love this body.

How to love in this body.

Like touching, the work that’s done

to tell time. On the other side

of the bed, what we’d call now, I felt a word

like eléctrico, électrique, diàndòng and rain. The death

of your mother entered our conversation with that idea

of the volta. So, I held your dead hand

and we bobbed behind her black hearse like ponies

in the old country, until each pulse dissolved into pianissimo.

The rest of that story is Italian, which I never learned,

all that time under lemon trees and parting. What dismembers

is only la nube, as nuvens, and memory like camellias

falling off their stems, like single hairs asking

how close one can get to the meaning

with exactly this much life to flatten

onto a page. My first ten thousand words

were Mandarin like ducks or oranges, were snow.

I say them slow as they grow forgotten, returned to noise,

molded and wang le. In the crystal vase, arranging

the spores and nouns of loss,

that infinite field of characters,

I feel the undersides of quiet growing.

I watch memories

spider into memories.

Turning towards you, again

I am listening for the one hot sound

to strike where the pain is most beautiful.

 

 

Nocturne

The shadow in the bed       wasn’t your shadow.

Her hands still haunt you.

The record skips                 on a rendition of Chopin

in the CD-ROM where 季云迪 makes

fast-moving romance          of mustangs and Polish rain.

What did your body sound like?

In another language, we were making fast copies

of such fresh pain it seemed

to be a copy of your voice—

instinctively, you hate how it sounds

maybe because it was yours yours

full of loneliness,

full of you.

Tulip fields wave repeat flags.

In a melodic arrangement of the timeline,

yesterday a man is asking me

why Chinese kids all seem

to play the piano                  and I could only say

something like the sound a machine

makes when we call it music,

the string we brush and call a lifetime.

In the branches, a hooting tells me

about free will and terror.

This, I call regret.

We call it wood

when it’s done with being a tree.

There are times this long search for beauty

feels like the breath passing through a harmonica.

You are trying to tell a piece of mahogany about

holding your skull in the bathroom mirror,

the nights it collapsed like a heartbeat.

You know vibrations through cold air will not save you.

Unthread the fog

and glimpse the mast going down.

Into the fairy tale, growing ever smaller,

she trades her voice for legs. Desire, how it leaves you

alone with the instrument of the body.

 

 

France

From France, I call my mother

to listen to her frail heart tell me. A thin stethoscope

branches, strangles through air, and the doctor’s voicemails

say the mountaintops operate on subjective time. I journey

to the far left of a painting arrayed with lawn chairs, dappled

by a bath of sky. Lemon trees shade in

a slow poem about greenery

and promise. Briefly,

everything beautiful sits

outside the body. Every day, talking

on the phone beneath les orangeries,

studying the anguish deposited in each Rodin and cloud,

I consider the mistakes a pen makes out of landscapes,

our confrontation with Death in Romanic language

and the totality of raw stems for the dying:

Proto-Germanic and Saxon. Or Old English.

Parisian rain, umbra, constant theaters

for weeping. What I felt those days, I can only describe

in verbiage beyond my family’s understanding,

another gallery of nothing. What was it

Barthes guessed about la mort, c’est

qu’il me faut perdre un langage.

In the sky’s throat, the same

clockworks of mourning.

Every dusk, sitting silently

as available light gathered sadly

at the edges of that foreign country,

how we culled death or fate

as a tiny secret kept between us. Like a bud

or quark, unspoken and fundamental. Inside of time, how

there is no leafage too far away or broken.

At the end of a string, how you would say

anything to be heard.