Paul Tran

Family Vacation, 1999

July before second grade.
Seventeen hours

            from San Diego
            to Sài Gòn.

My first time in a plane,
excitement approaching

            overpowering terror.
            My mother's first flight

since leaving
reeducation camp

            in the Philippines.
            We steal silverware,

cerulean cups
we drink Coca-Cola from

            with raised pinkies.
            We meet the family

my father marooned
for the United States

            at Tân Sơn Nhất:
            half-sisters, half brothers,

their children
almost twice my age,

            calling me Uncle,
            pinching my fat.

Even their
kindness humiliates me.

            *

My uncle at Phu Bai
—years before a stroke

            nearly claims him, before
            he buries his youngest son—

folds into my mother
after a decade apart.

            Brother and sister split
            by duty, their superior

sense of sacrifice—who left,
who stayed—a strain

            only pardon whittled from pity
            strips away. We ride a green

taxi north to our village
along the An Cuu River,

            mortared and rebuilt
            from particles of nothing

during Tết Mậu Thân:
twelve thousand hands

            bound behind backs,
            mouths stuffed with bullets,

mouths stuffed with rags,
interred alive in the fetal position

            as if our end can be our beginning,
            as if rebirth can rectify

our suffering, the debts
we carry over from this life.

            *

On Đống Đa Street,
pitched by impatience,

            a heart resumes
            following countless

monsoons. My grandmother,
distracted by excruciating joy,

            forgets to put on both
            of her slippers, hobbling

elegantly towards my mother
and I over seared gravel,

            roasting her right foot
            with each step.

Daughter once more
a daughter, remind me how

            a villager, centuries ago,
            deserted his family

searching for the Buddha,
for emancipation from this world,

            this body, whose price
            somedays seem insurmountable.

Remind me how His Holiness,
disguised, sent him home

            to his mother, fumbling
            from her house with shoes

on the wrong feet, and said,
She's the Buddha

            *

Passing Cầu Trường Tiền
on a dragon boat, the memory of it

            shattering into Sông Hương,
            my mother's eyes grow

wide with everything she sees
and doesn't see: food truck

            where she spent li xi
            each new year on shaved ice.

Temple where Kennedy's
puppet government abducted

            Buddhist monks under
            a moonless night

and stoned them in a mountainside
whose name she can't say

            without seeing their faces:
            her sisters, her teachers.

Their gray robes darkening.
Blood spouting from cracks

            between rocks through
            which their spirits slip

towards paradise. The school
where my mother briefly presided

            as principal in the wake
            of red flags storming

the Imperial City, chanting
Quyết thắng. Quyết thắng.

            *

Rather than their shared husband,
my grandmothers pick graves

            side by side. Lovers joined in
            circumstance: a sister's arid womb,

a sister's gratitude. Mountains
we climb to their seaside tombs,

            clear the weeds chasing
            my grandfather's portrait.

So handsome was he
they outlived. A carpenter

            that hid his entire life
            savings underground.

Tin cans turned green
when his kids dug them up,

            when the sky's maw of black
            teeth retched never ending

Napalm, convinced it could purge
a world that can't be purged,

            drunk on anti-imperial dreams,
            imported from Versailles,

from millennia of occupation
under foreign invaders

            summoned into the jungle
            by their bleached gods,

their proclivity for containment,
for perpetuity.

            *

What's left of summer
peeks from rain-

            wrung clouds. My cousins
            kicking a soccer ball

at the gate: lung thrashing
a door-less cage.

            I squeeze limes
            into a bowl of melting ice.

Not pulp but their laughter
stinging, sweetened

            with knuckles of sugar,
            shouting my American name

to join them, still
young and inseparable,

            in the rising red dust of this
            mosquito-bitten afternoon

when the only difference
between absence and death

            is our impression
            of object permanence,

belief-governed sight.
Even thirst is to demand

            what we must return,
            what we can't see

passing through us
like the briefest thunder.

            *

Clang of bells
in the citadel. Infinite

            red corridors guarded
            by spells. Joss smoke

twisting into a child-
ghost hissing—Remember

            Remember—like wind
            through wootung leaves.

It's not that geomancy
couldn't save a dynasty

            from rot as it's not the sun
            but our eyes lighting the world.

Self-preservation thrusts us
senselessly towards violence,

            its curious depths, and faith
            in that which we design

to domesticate our nature.
There's no way to stare

            at darkness without it
            staring back, to turn the bone-

white page of a story
without absorbing

            what happens next: my ear
            against a wall of shrapnel-

perforated stone,
my voice spilling out.

 

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PAUL TRAN is Poetry Editor at The Offing and Chancellor's Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Their work appears or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, POETRY, and elsewhere. They are the first Asian American since 1993 to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam, placing Top 10 at the Individual World Poetry Slam and Top 2 at the National Poetry Slam.