Poetry: 3 Poems by Kristin Chang

Call these three poems by Kristin Chang brutal. Call them violent, haunting, body-strewn and murderous. But do not deny their anchored beauty and exquisite craft—the heart and family and city laid bare, the poetry besieged by the tragedy of bodies.


How I became fatherless

We leave while he sleeps.

In the slack-mouthed morning, we spit

on the doorhinge to soften its sound.

Every night my father falls

asleep with his hands wringing

the voice out of my throat. A blood-thin song

trickling out of my mouth. I drive

across two states, counting roadkill, recording

my speed in miles

per dead thing.


In Nevada, my mother can’t pay

for the motel, so we sleep at the bottom

of the empty swimming pool, hunger

carving our collarbones into deep

bowls. On every table in my father’s house, a bowl

of fruit: dragon’s eyes, red papaya, green

mango. He plunges his thumb into the tender

pulse of a pit, chews for hours. To make the sweetness

last, he said, you must 切开, 吃多. He smiles with rubbled

teeth, cavities clean as bulletholes. Asleep, he’s still as a shot

& skinned animal. I pet his head, each hair black & needle

-thick enough to draw blood. Once, I found

a single honeyed strand. He joked he was dyeing

into a tiger, black & orange, the color

of a bruise forgetting its ache.


Some days, every hurt

feels like the first. Today crows

fall out of the sky & the ground stinks

of surrendered flight. Today I tear off

my clothing like scabs, walk naked

in public. In California, my first fatherless

home is infested with beehives

vibrating walls into muscle. Before bed,

I imagine bees laying eggs in my marrow,

waking up as a pool of stung honey. In the house

we left, my father is still

asleep, blanketed in bees.

His body the sweetest feast. I carry him

in my mouth like a fist

of sugar. I suck

until my teeth riot

with rot & I have nothing

left in my mouth to keep




Self-help for immigrant women

******after Li-Young Lee

If a new name strangles you
******soundless, remember dying
is the sound of something
*******you were born to do.

In your new city, girls
*******keep disappearing
into their own bodies.
*******Become one of them: retreat

down your throat
*******like a drainpipe,
run like sewage
*******to the sea. Remember

your body is a loan
*******word, a synonym for swallow
enough salt
*******to sea yourself.

Stomach the sky
*******& let it storm
you into nothing
*******they can forecast. Forget

the city you were
*******raised to leave
as smoke. Forget
*******your tongue a hyphen

between silences. Learn
*******to read by the light of women
flaming on a far coast. Learn
*******to count: how many crows

to rummage a carcass,
*******how many men to search
between your legs
*******for the origin

of ache. When
*******will you learn whiteness
is never the milk
*******of a mother

that a man
*******who hides his hands
is practicing
*******the width of your neck.

Best to think often
*******of your mother
as dead. Best
*******to imagine your birth

killed the woman
*******& what she named
you. Tonight,
*******trade your pillow

for a basket of knives.
*******Don’t dream. If you do,
waking will take
*******the rest of your life.



What my mother taught me about knives

There are so many ways
*******to be born. To split

a bone among many
*******bodies. To fist

a fish out of water,
*******I punch the sea

til it pores. I shear
*******a chicken bare as my fist.

In the kitchen, my mother
*******kneads meat into my shape

tenderizes my tongue
*******& rubs in silence

like a salt. She teaches me
*******to kneel for every meal

to let the man
*******eat first, finish

in you first. Then sop
*******up the blood, rinse

out your mouth. A bed
*******is an endless cutting

board. A sink
*******is where a body floats

when it wants
*******to be found.

My mother says
*******men are like knives:

there is no name
*******for everything they can do.

She teaches me to hold
*******a knife like a man’s

hand, to teach it
*******the depth of my body.

She tells me not
*******to flinch when he hits

bone. My mother
*******preserves her breasts

in bedside jars, slits her belly
*******into a knifeblock. Before bed

she teaches me to sharpen
*******my hand by scraping it

back & forth
*******between my legs.

By morning, I am hot
*******metal, my hands whirring

blades. Someday
*******I will feed my father

to my hands, I will make
*******meat of men’s minds.

Saliva moating
*******around my body

like blood

a birth.


Kristin Chang

Kristin Chang lives in NY and reads for Winter Tangerine.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, The Rumpus, The Offing, wildness, and elsewhere. Her debut chapbook “Past Lives, Future Bodies” is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (October 2018).  She is located at kristinchang.com and on Twitter (@KXinming).

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