Alicia Lai

2013 Runner-up

The queer thing is in the way you do not know to slip sweetly
into another chambered shell; then my mother’s voice dovetails,
its ribs wide in a city with neon signs. In Myanmar, a girl

has a coconut shell. In Myanmar, one man has a button and
fifty million have the job of making sure he does not push it.

On Saturday, a child shakes loose his mother’s hand and seals
a quarter into the country’s only jukebox, the plastic mouth yawning,

giving. It stutters. Then for a moment we forgot our fear of sound,
the rice wine between our lips tempering behind the first rush
of manifest destiny.

For a moment we bore witness to miracles.
For a moment we forgot to stay rooted, winging away
in a clutch of small, elegant leaves.

In the coastal cities the government cannot afford
the consideration of this American dream, only allowing
the frightened to waltz away from the boy who spills Billy Joel,
Caruso, Aretha, into the city air of Rangoon. What is

this Golden Land: my mother remembers fat mangoes sweltering
in the heart rather than political dissonance, her fingers deep in the
flesh, but only because after an hour, everyone returns
to speaking Burmese.

By Sunday my mother can no longer fit
words in her mouth. She tells me when to play
Rachmaninov, when to boil the lahpet. Listen, she says;
I can’t breathe, I translate to the canary. My mother keeps sleeping
pills in the underbelly of her bed, and I don’t know how to reconcile
her back into the habit of living. When the newspapers offer an article
of the Myanmar boy’s roadside grave, she tells me to allow the
ambulance to arrive with its frantic vibrato—to leave
the mangoes, ripe and swooning
in the Indian summer din, to sift
through the cocoon of lahpet leaves.

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