The 2020 Industry Prize, 1st Place Winner: The Long Afterlife by Michelle Phuong Ho
So excited to share with you the 1st place winner of the 2020 Frontier Industry Prize, selected by Daniel Slager, Peter LaBerge, and Carmen Giménez Smith! Please enjoy this stunner by Michelle Phuong Ho, who takes home the $3000 prize.
The Long Afterlife
From 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military poured approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. 5 million acres were destroyed. An estimated 4.8 million people were exposed, and 150,000 were born—with deformities, mental illness, blindness, and cancer.
Even the land learned to loathe
herself. Her soil seethes
with a persistent poison.
She remembers everything
she’s been given. Twenty million
gallons leached or sunken
into the sediment of rivers
and bodies. Dioxin has a half-life
of a hundred years, and Eternity
arrives like any other day—the sun
rises orange. I wake early to make coffee
and butter my tongue. Leaves on the mangrove
shrivel black as cotton off a child,
as her limb. Days slow
toward nothing. With a finger,
I push around breadcrumbs. The near end
of anything wants itself finished.
Even liver cells inside my father
divide relentlessly. They call this
the long afterlife—
The mission we’ve been given—
Our bodies—former cities—
cannot stop splitting.
When my father died, I asked, What makes a body
turn on itself? He replied, What makes a body
a tree? I once believed I could towel
my wrists and take my seat
against the sun. But the dark thought
burned. I could not wring
a light through. In the mind, a red heron
loses herself, flapping wildly
and war no longer needs
its soldiers. I open jars of peppers.
Twenty million. Red
behind my eyelids—the sky
burns. Eternity, an old friend, insists
this desert I guard with stakes
is no place. She enters without asking
The end, I think,
At the funeral, a man my father knew
removes his cap. Says, I didn’t want to
My hands, soft in his, wrap his red
meated plea. I didn’t want to
Steady as this—who can blame it, the soil
soaks the rain.
Michelle Phuong Ho
Michelle Phuong Ho is a poet and curator based in New Haven, CT. Her work most recently appeared in Apogee, Wildness, and Tupelo Quarterly and has been nominated for the "Best American Essays" and "Best of the Net" series. She has received fellowships and support from Tin House, Fine Arts Work Center, Brooklyn Poets, Omnidawn, Kenyon Writers Workshop, Kearny Street Workshop, and Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Born to Vietnamese refugees in San Jose, CA, she graduated from Yale University, where she wrote and performed with the Asian American writing collective, Jook Songs. She is currently a 2020 NXTHVN Curatorial Fellow and MFA candidate in poetry at NYU.