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October 14, 2016 Poetry

Five Poems

Kien Lam

Five Poems photo

Asian Pen Name*

Mine is Kien,
which is useful
in cases
where I need
to prove
I am who I say
I am,
like the time
a cop pulled me
over and said
Sir, do you know
why you write
poetry, and I said yes!
officer, I am trying
to say something
I don’t know
how to say
in a language
that swallowed me
whole with its big
whale-like mouth,
promising my parents
it would spit me out
when it surfaced
for air, but it seems
it’s a creature
that can hold its breath
for a long time,
like three hundred years
long, or at least
the ten seconds
the cop made
me stand on one foot
like I was a tree,
my other foot
branched into the sky
like a ballerina, balancing
all my weight
on my toes, their tips
breaching the dirt
just barely, and like that
we waltzed like we truly
were stuck in a whale’s
stomach, just two
trees planting themselves
into the pit of the little
ocean inside
a much bigger ocean,
the whale bumbling
through the currents,
wailing out a long song
I will never understand,
and I told the officer
I am a little wet now
but I have not been
drinking, and my tongue
made the right dips
for him to believe me,
which is not always
the case for people,
which is why, truly,
it’s important
for you to go
fuck yourself
if you want to adopt
the long history
surrounding my name,
all the foreign
syllables that couldn’t fit
in my kindergarten
teacher’s mouth
on my first day of school,
when she said Ken?
instead of Kien, and Kien
instead of Kien,
which is all the same
on the page, but if you heard it
leap from my mouth,
the thick Gs
in God and King,
you’d understand
I’ve been using a pen name
my whole life,
that the big whale is real
and it’s in the room
and its spout no longer
spits at the sky
and it’s all so dry now,
and it’s not the only
quiet creature
who’s had to adopt
a different sound.

*This poem is for Asian writers and in response to the Michael Derrick Hudson cultural appropriation of our names

God Complex

I believe in the higher power
that lets me make it
to McDonald’s a few minutes
before their breakfast
hours end. I think
God has a thing
for people shameless
enough to roll
through stop signs
just to shove biscuits
and hash browns stuffed
into little paper sleeves
down their throats.
I am shameless people.
I’ve got a thing
for God and a lesser
thing for bad decisions.
I want to fall in love
with someone
who’s bad for me
the way McDonald’s is
bad for me. The way
God is bad for me.
How they prove
there are always things
in life that can make
you feel worse.
How the McDonald’s
of sex is still sex,
which is to say
if you regret it too
deeply, you’ll come
in touch with God,
who they say lives
inside of you in a house
complete with a nude
portrait of the Blessed
Virgin Mary and a personal
McDonald’s which serves
breakfast 24/7. They don’t
say one of those things,
but who is they
and what do they know
anyway. I feel bad
for anyone who lives
inside me. For anyone,
who when God said
Let There Be Light,
had to scramble
to find their clothes
when the clothes
scrambled to find
the dark and the dark
scrambled to find God
but nothing was found.
So the myth goes
darkness spread
and so we have humanity.
So we have carnivores.
So love comes. So it goes.
So help me God.

How to Swallow

All those years eating food
prepared you well, you filthy

perfectly normal human-being.
Open your mouth and shove

a wooden bird inside. Wiggle it
down your throat and rest

it between your lungs. Every time
you exhale, let it out, but keep it

tethered to your heart. Clip its wings
with your arteries. Give it a name

so it feels a little real, like it’s the one
keeping you from falling apart.

Call it Floyd Mayfeather, Cock-a-Doodle,
Larry Bird. These are just suggestions.

You’re in charge. When you wake up
and it’s just you and the bird,

and your morning wood, sing
a song together. Make some music.

Knock on the wet doors
of the earth until a worm answers.

Practice survival by eating it
whole, before something swallows

you first. It will remind you, ever hour,
the body opens and closes. It can’t

swallow itself whole. You’re not
that flexible. Touch the bird

from time to time. Do not be afraid
of touch. Let someone’s mouth

open a hole where you least expect.


I unloaded my stomach
onto the pavement again,

which you might call a gut
check for the way I push

my body to its edges—inflate it
to the point just before it pops,

or as so often happens, just after.
I have learned so much

from my mistakes. Do not pet
a dog’s ass when it’s not looking,

or anyone’s ass for that matter.
If someone offers you a drink,

you take it and spill it
into your mouth. Swallow it

quickly. This is one way
to test how hollow you are.

Do not despair. Inside of us
all is enough space for even

the most grotesque-looking
creatures. The liver, the lover,

and so on. There are worse
things to spill than the stomach.

What Kind of Morning

comes so early? All this light
as if a little Moses basket
would be waiting at my door,
some child who would grow up
to tell me the things
I cannot do. What a horrible
gift! There was a time
I loved the sun. There are so many
things I used to love. At five,
I broke into a chest of toys
with a pair of chopsticks—slipped
it into the looped locks and leveraged
it open. My mother snapped
the chopsticks in half
over my hands. She didn't
like to be woken up
either. How easy it is
to make two things out
of one thing. If you break
your morning in half,
you get two chances
to pick up little Moses.
Maybe you get two Moseses.
Maybe we'd get double
the commandments.
Honor thy father
and thy mother, and yourself
and yourself. Double
a good thing and it's hard
for that to go wrong. Twice
the love. Twice the belief
that nothing could backfire.
It's easier to fly with two wings
than one. A bird with one wing
is a broken proverb. Two
in the bush is two in the bush.
Let them do as creatures do—
this, perhaps, one of the new
commandments. Just this morning
I woke up. There was nothing
at the door, but it was nice
to look. I have faith in a day
where something comes so early
it will feel like it's late,
like I should have known about it
a long time ago.


image: Aaron Burch