Sunday Jun 23

CheCathyLinh Cathy Linh Che is the author of Split (Alice James Books, 2014), winner of the 2012 Kundiman Poetry Prize. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Poets & Writers, Hedgebrook, Poets House, and The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Residency. She currently lives in Brooklyn.


Language Came to the Door for Me

This is how her language came to me:
through song. A ribbon from her chest,
the hymnal next to the crib, the vowels

rose in the alabaster
coolness of the church.
We'd sing in Latin, in Vietnamese,

one, a dead language, the other
dying in me. This is how I build
a poem: grapheme, phoneme, hieroglyph—

the Roman alphabet evolved from images;
in the mirror, I watch the face I must read.
My father's nose, rounded at the tip.

My mother's freckles rising from beneath
my skin. I am becoming
my mother, and losing my mother tongue—

they are syllables rusting
in a shed I have neglected
in California.

There the spiders spin their webs.
They tick the Morse Code.
SOS. Hello.

I lean over a desk
like a monk filling books
in English.

When my mother's voice calls out,
it is tinny and digital, not
the soft tongue of a mouth

which loved to sing.

I am orbiting away. I sing
into the confessional.
I say please and forgive.

The word is hot iron,
a brand—or a tattoo
I am filling in with ink.

The German word for dream is traume.

The coal-dust hushed
parameters of the room.

Outside, my mother stitched
whole dresses for $3.00 a piece.

I slept in a bedroom
which faced the street.
A cheerleader was killed
in a drive-by that year.

She died in her sleep.

I watched the headlights
sweep overhead.


It felt like skin.

It did not
feel obscene.

When that boy
tongue-kissed me

and wiped
his mouth,

it was a coming
into knowledge.


When my mother whispered,
Has anyone touched you there?
I had to pick.

Alan, I said.

I was seven.
The training wheels
were coming off.

Between the couch
and wall, the ceiling was white
with popcorn bits. The boys stood

and watched. I lay there,
my eyes open like a doll's.
Someone said, Let me try.

He pulled down his pants
and rode on top. The boys laughed,
said shhh, and stood me up.

In what way does the room map out violence?

Internal weather rain pings like nails on cement.           

I pulled weeds with my ungloved hand,
tore them whole from the ground.

The dark expanded like a shadow.

            The sky pressed down
            in a sheet of obsidian.

How I imagine an un-punctured universe—
We begin whole then slowly deflate.

            After the break-up,
            I feel pitted, but too full of him.

That muck.

            Drove past the windy bluffs of Los Angeles.
            The sagebrush seemed anchored to the cliffs.

Rain, an emotion skidding.

            I watched a seagull dip into the water
            and rise shimmering.

Doc, I felt him ebb in the endless summer.

            I want a self-actualized
            kind of weather.


Oh, love and fern and sun-spotted holly.
Oh, great vase, painted with shadows.

How must I attend to my life?

I was once a white gardenia:
pistil and stamen,
my many-fingered petals.

In the center, a spot of mustard
like a stain on a napkin.

I, bird-boned and red-breasted,
marked with a spot on my chest.

Oh, fox gloves white
as a wedding dress.
Oh, bird of a single color.

I too can change.

Daphne becomes a laurel
and is saved from rape.

I can crown myself
with my own life.