Poem by Emily Zhang (USA)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 41
Selected by Alberto Blanco as part of the Ofi Press/ YPN collaboration competition
Image: "Smoke 1" by Jason Bolonski.
For a River
It begins when the morning air, heavy with silence,
turns viscous in the stream of cars. You wake up
past the firm grasp of the Atlantic, the pulse of shifted
time in the curve of your shoulder, eyes blurry with clockwork
and dawn. When you are in the market stalls woven
together like the roots of unshy mangroves, the wax
and wane of unfamiliarity, it begins—a stumbling
in your throat, your misaligned feet, the realization
that you cannot bury your longings in two different soils.
There are women, hair heavy with salt and August afternoons
who build fires with hands painted directionless. When
you place silver coins into their open palms, they land
and take shape as birds rather than as prayers. You have never
believed in god, but your faith flows heavy in dirt roads
where the noses of bicycles get caught like trout in nets,
legends of wide-eyed kings with crossbows, open
mouthed gourds stuck to rafts floating slow on the river.
When the venders offer you the lips of spiced papaya,
step into the eye of the storm. Understand the cured taste
of love—for the people’s hands you haven’t yet shaken,
the rich quiet of the mountains, your grandfather’s stories,
the paper wings of his cigarette smoke enough to fill lanterns.
Understand that these soft-armed vowels take form
in a language that does not yet move for you, the street signs
like unraveled ropes, the way a hand slips into a glove
and does not know how to call it a glove. You feel the ground
but not the synonyms, the fireflies, the ebb and flow
of the flames. When your grandmother cups your face
in her hands, liquid, when your name slides
like honey across the mouths of strangers, you will begin
to find the words, syllables stumbling across your tongue,
rocks down a hillside. You will call it home.
You will open your palms, pink with life, and listen.