Welcome to LINE LEVEL: Craft Lessons from Poets of Color, a monthly column in which writer, editor, and educator Joanna Acevedo zooms in on an element of craft from the work of BIPOC poets. LINE LEVEL unfolds in three parts: an excerpt of a poem, followed by a contributor’s note, followed by Acevedo’s own exploration into the poet’s world of language. Guided by a curiosity that yields learning, we are invited to consider historical context, stylistic influences, and more, all the way down to the level of the line. This month, Acevedo discusses “A Dream of Returning” from Drowning Dragon Slips By Burning Plains by Khai Đơn, out now from Texas Tech University. 

“A Dream of Returning” from Drowning Dragon Slips By Burning Plains by Khai Đơn

You wander through the hill as the clouds are threading the river arms. You braid the foaming layers like you used to braid your sister’s cloudy hair. Now you stand in the middle of the braided hill. The wind brushes the foam-lipped eddies, where you used to swim and flap water in her giggles. The light is so bright, and you lose your way uphill. You lost your way to her. Again. You stand among exquisite flying threads, you see a catfish leap through thickets toward you. But when he goes up close, you realize he is not a fish but your sister who used to cry with you in the schoolyard when your mom forgot to pick both of you up. It was when you was six and your sister was four and mom showed up with purple bruises on her left eyes while you were braiding your sister’s hair. The bruise was as deep as the river’s soul, her eyes reddened as the sun floating in. After the summer, your sister never returned to school. You couldn’t remember where she went since she faded away too quick. She was playing with dirt in the front garden. She didn’t turned back to look at you. Your mind braided itself to the hill but it does not braid her smile back to you. She walks among the silky hill and her shadow casts on your feet. You scream at her: “Why do you never return?” But it is late. You are both late for class. The school gate shuts its mouth, swallows your mother’s sun eyes. All the lessons crumble into dirt and you can’t remember if either of you exist. 

Contributor’s Note // Khải Đơn

This collection uses documentary poetry as the primary approach to examine and unpeel the reality of the Mekong Delta, the land of abundance, the “rice bowl of the country” that exports the majority of rice from Vietnam to the world. This poem, “A Dream of Returning” tells the story of the narrator “you” as an older sister who lost the grip of her younger sister and mother to the blank past. In this line, “you see a catfish leap through thickets toward you. But when he goes up close, you realize he is not a fish but your sister who used to cry with you in the schoolyard when your mom forgot to pick both of you up.” 

I used the “catfish” as it is the local and most popular kind of fish in the region of the Mekong Delta. It’s the catfish that the world, like the EU or US, knows about the Mekong Delta through exported catfish sold in the supermarket. But the catfish has also lost its innocent existence in this land since the fish have been grown at an industrial scale. When I write this line, I intentionally use the pronoun “he” ( for the catfish “when he goes up close”), and then it turns out “he is not a fish but your sister.” there comes an element of transformation. If you search on the internet, the Mekong Delta is highly sexualized by the Western media and even the Vietnamese media as the land of attractive and beautiful girls to exploit sexually. I want to reverse the narrative by using the transformation from the masculine implication to the tenderness of a younger sister. There is violence happening throughout the poem, the younger sister “cry with you”, and “mom showed up with purple bruises on her left eyes while you were braiding your sister’s hair”. 

Why violence? – The Mekong Delta has a very high rate of child sexual abuse and domestic abuse. This poem ends with “you can’t remember if either of you exist” as a final conviction because many young girls in the Mekong Delta just disappear from their hometowns without any traces. Did they leave for better economic choices? Are they sold and smuggled through Cambodian and Chinese borders? We never know the consequences, but society doesn’t question their leaving for good. 

As this is a “dream of returning,” the narrator returns to each phase of life in which she witnesses violence through the subtle daily existence between her and her sister and mother. The poem doesn’t use “I” but uses “you” as a method to put the reader through the journey of imagination that they can’t resist. I learned this from the novel “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida” by Shehan Karunatilaka, the 2022 Booker Prize Winner, in which he uses the pronoun “you” as a device to put the readers through the extremely uncomfortable existence of the violent past.  

Craft Lessons from Poets of Color //  Joanna Acevedo

Who are we writing for, and more importantly, who are we writing to? I’m sure many of us can relate to the feeling of being locked alone in our bedrooms, music blasting, furiously writing poems addressed to a jilted lover, and maybe this is where it all begins (lots of Shakespeare’s sonnets are about romance, right?) but pronouns in poetry can be so much more than that. Who we’re writing to can be a huge expansion on the poetic form—think “Ode to a Grecian Urn”—and finding the perfect subject for a poem can sometimes be elusive. But when you discover your subject, the manipulation of pronouns, whether they be a direct address (you) or a third person (he/she/they), the world opens up, and there’s so much that suddenly becomes possible. 

We see this in Khải Đơn’s “A Dream of Returning,” both in the prose poem itself and in the note that she has generously written for us. The transition of the masculine catfish, as she notes, into the younger sister, represents not only a transformation but an acknowledgment of the violence of the Mekong Delta, the juxtaposition of the male onto the female. Additionally, the choice to write this poem not only in the point of view of the older sister, but specifically in the second person, invites the reader to put themselves into the older sister’s shoes, bringing the reader into the poem and letting them live in her experience, the threat of violence hanging over this poem the entire time like a shadow. 

These transitions are intentional, deftly handled, and integral to the success of the poem. The catfish becomes personified, the only masculine presence in the poem, and although the catfish, as Đơn mentions,is a symbol of the Mekong Delta, the area is actually well-known for sex trafficking and other criminal activity. She is rewriting the narrative, using the catfish as a motif; another important element of craft to note. 

In writing our own poems, it can be difficult to know how to address them, and what will be the most impactful way to direct our energies. Đơn is meticulous in the way she controls her field of poetic charge, and she is able to move between pronouns to manipulate the reader’s experience so that they understand where she is attempting to emphasize. As she says, the “you,” pronoun brings the reader into a “journey of imagination.” The second person narrator or speaker is less common, but traditional forms of directly addressed poetry included odes, like the aforementioned Keats poem, and sonnets, like Shakespeare, but this is a huge category of poetry, and many poets will find themselves falling into this category. 

Đơn is choosing to reverse the narrative of violence against women by transitioning between male and female pronouns in this prose poem. Transitions, in poetry, can be rich with possibility; these moments where we move from one state to another are where the keenest observations can be made, and where we find the most curious juxtapositions.

In “A Dream of Returning,” Đơn shows us how to work with these elements of grammar in a way that becomes an extension of the poem itself—with simple parts of speech that we use every day, she is able to imply a huge and complex sociopolitical and cultural set of problems. Just the switch of a male pronoun into a female one implies a massive change in the way the poem is functioning. Taking this lesson into our own work, we can see how influential, expansive, and meaningful basic grammar and the parts of speech can be. 

Khải Đơn is a writer nurtured by the Mekong Delta. Her debut poetry collection, “Drowning Dragon Slips by Burning Plains” is published by Texas Tech University Press. She is pursuing a speculative novel on the climate devastation in the land of water and flood.

Joanna Acevedo

is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at

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