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October 1, 2020 Poetry


JinJin Xu



These four poems by JinJin Xu are part of her forthcoming chapbook, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, the 2020 Winner of the Own Voices Chapbook Prize, judged by Aria Aber.


                                    To Her Brother, Who Is Without Name

                                            for April

                               I am sifting for a sister              alive
                                slipped by her brother              not alive

                                mirror eyes, twin nose
                                         face surrendering

                               Chinese-air my mother              alive
                      declares appealing to whites                        /  not alive

                                        filing us into faces              never alive
                                             like hers, single

                                   lid eyes, capped quiet
                               like his, I study her belt

                       wound tight around her ribs
                               tighter than loops allow

                                                her qi pao slips
              foreign over an inherited longing

                   something ancestral my bones
                  outflew the August I turned 18               alive   

   slips foreign yet intimate, a belted body               I vowed to never write 
                                           surprises, loosens                                                      / qi pao into a poem

                                   belted above her waist
                                                   holding silent

                                          movies glue qi paos
                             onto wives smoking curvy                who imagined them

            at mahjong tables, skin crystalizing                                                         /   alive? 
                                  emerald lamps perfume

                    occupied city lost by now-exiles                whose moaning vinyls? 
                                   their children haunting

                             New York City thrift stores
                                  neon qi paos slipping —

                                       my mother readies me
             inching up the zipper to squeeze out

                           my woman, knots the button
               around my neck, your grandmother                never alive

       twisted them so delicate even memories
                           buttoned were lost to the war

                                 a city lost by exiles forgets
my family was of the kind who did not know

                staying was not the same as leaving
                   rickshaw drivers waiting bare foot               barely alive

          traversing qi paos through opium highs
                                       did they feel alive then?



                                                                                                       her brother
                                                                                                       my friend
                                                                                                       attempted to speak
                                                                                                       Chinese, stuttered shy

                                                                                                        accused me
                                                                                                        of being born easy

                                                                                                        he was born split
                                                                                                        by a mother’s longing

                                                                                                        & a boy’s thrifted desire
                                                                                                        to slip on his sister’s qi pao 

                  I remember thinking, how American 
                              because I was of the kind who              only born

                                    chose to leave, slipped my               living
                                              neck into the foreign

                                                   hands reaching—

                                                                                                     a too late alibi
                                                                                                     always true

                                                                                                     alive / always

                                                    he rides the bus

                                                                                                    alive / alone
                                                     he rides the bus

                                                 away, from leaving
                                                    from going home

                                                                he cannot
                                              go home because he

                                                                                                    not alive

                                                         cannot go 


                                                                    because he  


                                                                                              not alive



                                                                              will not go — 



         To Your Brother, Who Is Without Name
                                                                  for April


It is snowing. I wake to find your brother
out the window, meditating. Apricot t-shirt
dusted with white, eyes closed in the blue light.
In my sleep, I had forgotten –

memory alone, slips -

April, remember that film we watched?
Jie mei sisters sworn to this life,
pair of jade bangles separated,
slid up the other’s wrist.

Remember how we shielded our faces
with a too-small pillow
as the sister on screen sharpens
her knife. She sharpens her knife

To save her sister, which is to say
to betray herself. Between us,
there was once betrayal.
But April, you already know this,

I have lost your brother to a Name -

Those last weeks, April, I lost
him to a land without sleep,
days without rest, his dreams wrestling
the pale daybreak. In the land of eternal wake,

                         I call – I call -


His Name sinews into threads,
ashes, ashes, our birth country allows
no return for the dead. Except, there,
He is still alive,

Called into the living by relatives
who still think him growing,
call him by Name.
In the Kingdom of Eternal Spring,

Peach blossoms. Whiskered gods
swooping down the backs of cranes,
I hear his whisper in the clouds,
pressing his ear to a murmur         

                          of Names - 

 It was snowing, April, the day I left
 your brother waiting. I am afraid of this memory.
 Left alone, it slips. Every word I say
 becomes truth. Please take my words

as they are, pinpricks of light -

         From the surface of your face, April,
         emerges his outline. I look away, desperate
         for you to believe me, to know my story
         as true. Instead, I crouch to shift

         Him from my back. I let him down.
         That sweltering food stamp summer.
         Him swinging containers packed by your parents,
         stopping by a man on the sidewalk,

         Asking, Do you like chicken? 
Containers stacked on the pavement.
         Signs everywhere. Dusty apricot shirt,
         howls tearing the winds.

April, words are slipping -

   I wrap my palm around their throats.
   Step back over the threshold. Hold.
   A sister without a brother is still a sister,
   is always a sister, half-rhyme, reaching –



   Me telling you, beneath the train tracks,
   I am writing about us,
   I mean, about him. Sirens swallow
   your voice. Do not – Red pools -

his Name -

   He has not slept, your brother,
   lotus pose in the snow.
   His outline blurs, blue with wanting,
   waiting, eyes closed, for me to wake.

It is no longer snowing -

   No, I am awake, I am outside,
   palms outstretched to greet him.
   In this story is a promise. Promise
   of a brother without Name,

word that keeps him living -


   Magic Word.
   Word beyond grief.
   Memory’s slippery net.
   In this story, my story,

April, it was never snowing -





A moth! A moth! On the stairs made for one,
           you pass by me & just like that, I am carved empty,
           one foot on each boat, platitudes

Singing from the bathroom,
           a casket of you, a casket of truth.
           You open your mouth to unname me

& my poor mother, with only a daughter to her name
           melts her red tears into the little girl
           I have long searched for.

I am her daughter in this life, her mother the next.
           I undress her grief, suckle cancer from her breasts,
           dye blush from her mother’s face onto my own.

O mother, you are without container,
           come meet my sister, we are red jumpsuits
           flicking confetti, the pause before a tsunami,

We rip the cords from our bellies,
           slide a jade locket around your neck,
           hook you thrice

To this life.
          So yank yourself from the sea
          of self-pity, strip those scales

Of memory: Carp jumping over dragon gate / toad craving
         swan flesh / flower plucked from shit
         let go of my toad-pimpled body,

I shall not carp nor swan!
         Look - look – we are sisters shaking our masked heads,
         wobble wobble gold bells, glitter dripping from our

Big empty nose holes spluttering
into the firecracker spring.


Triptych Split by Land



 Your name is a shadow of yourself,
          without which I’d be alone.

 Your spine half-scaled, bone-gold
       & arching to the hum of land,

           Pluck the wooded gorges
  rib by rotten rib, waterfalls pouring

        Mud into the ancestral night.
   Recall how, our grandmothers

            Never learn our name.
      No matter, I drink and you thirst.

We open the jaws of a nation to strangers
       halving us in the boundless light.

        We let them. Even in the rain,
snails return, trailing a songless march.


                                YOUR NAME

                                      an echo
                     without which you’d be alone.

                     I have left you lonely, crowing
                       to a nation starved of spine.

              Your spine shapes a nation, even snails
                 return carrying night on their backs.

                You march my call across the ocean,
                            the land below shifts.

            Beneath shifting land, our grandmothers
                crack shells in search of our name.

                     Our name suckles a nation,
              lone mouth dripping shards of song.


                                                                                    YOU CALL

                          To the parts of your body
     you dare not enter alone. I have left you gasping,

Gills flapping on the banks of no country, backbone or
         not, I bend your jagged edges, cervical warping,

                      Even hydrangeas are blue here.
      Your song marches across waves foaming no crest,

                   And under the collapse of this land,
        our grandmothers crack skulls awaiting our call.

            Light the incense, JinJin, wash the smoke
               from your eyes, fill our lungs with song.




image: “Beyond Garden” light installation by Studio Dyan Jong in collaboration with floorkids.studio, Nick Gregg, Carlina Duan, Jiaoyang Li, and JinJinXu