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
I am sifting for a sister alive
slipped by her brother not alive
mirror eyes, twin nose
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
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?
attempted to speak
Chinese, stuttered shy
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
a too late alibi
alive / always
he rides the bus
alive / alone
he rides the bus
away, from leaving
from going home
go home because he
will not go —
To Your Brother, Who Is Without Name
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,
still 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 -
Word beyond grief.
Memory’s slippery net.
In this story, my story,
April, it was never snowing -
NEW YEAR’S WITH MY ABORTED SISTER
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
other 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.
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.
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.