Carissa Chen

2016 Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers

Nanjing, China—1966, Cultural Revolution

Peony petals lace the Nanjing streets, ripped in pink dissolve,
And here, my soldier spits the wad of dope from his mouth mindlessly.
      And here, he holds the hem of her honeyblue cheongsam silk, counts
the hooks, and trails perfect circles as a prophet down her neck. Listen: then soften.
            And this is where sin blooms: no wind, no songs,
                                    red trees, no roots.
            And this is where names run and rot
                                    the forest renders all things nameless.
            And this is where lovers come to sleep, where my soldier, my father,
holds my forbidden mother’s chapped lips,
      and she pulls
   her blue dress
                his black hair
      their bodies: two pale trees by moonlight.

My mother used to run like this:
and screaming things only birds loved.   
all things the women have abandoned over the years.
Nanjing and my mother drinks amnesia like red wine,   
replaces reality with Ritalin:                
Give her a marker
and she’ll draw you God.
Give her a willow
and she’ll make you a crown.
Give her a Bible and
she’ll make you a mirror.

      there’s a willow tree across the Yangtze River from my home that will sing you half-curses, half-lullabies.
and a boy who joined the red guards at school told me that my father died underneath her branches a hundred months before,
the long rope-like leaves around his neck, nature’s noose.
      And he takes me there tonight. Here is your father, the boy shows me, digging bare nails into raw mulch and pulling something half-human half-deity from between trees roots:
      And his eyes were open, perfect circles traced a million times over
            opened, arid, dry: no tears for a dead man’s repose.
            And the noose cracked his Adam’s apple, a thousand year’s revenge from Eden.
      And the plaque was foam from the Yangtze River.
            And the jade cross around his wrist caught what little light stolen from the moon.
      And his skin was so, so soft, so smooth, touching it made our five-year-old hands’ weak skin feel human.
            And his lips are forever ripped apart into a smile.

And so the boy took me home into
the long dark night, our small bare feet skipping, fingers interlaced and arms
                        And we laughed and sang songs—the East is red the East is red [1]
Listen: my father’s head is swinging from the tree,
                       singing songs of lost gods and how good men become good
               soldiers and blind deities.

[1] Chinese Communist propaganda song taught as a child’s chant.

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