an unsent letter

in a burst of metal you burned too soon –
it was only last month that we sat
at the edge of the pond,
dust on our palms and peach juice still sticky
on our lips and fingers.

tiny palaces had lined our street,
and we found solidity in structure:
low sloped ceilings,
stone pillars,
perfect squares and perfect circles,
wooden staircases whose steps
led to safe spaces floating between
the roof’s dark tiles.

as we dreamed of the temple of heaven
lying radiant among the golden clouds,
your face was suffused with dying light.
butterflies followed us incessantly then.
they brushed over our heads
as we flipped through our books.

i was a coward.
afraid of change,
i didn’t want to leave
those bright dusty days,
our pond and our peaches,
our books and our butterflies,
so you volunteered to go instead.

(my biggest regret –
i should have screamed then,
clung to your arm
so that you stayed.
screaming later didn’t bring you back.)

at the train station,
gunfire left you
in flames.

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#1: silence

on a late june evening, the seven of us were lying on the pier with our legs dangling over the edge. i was at the end of the row, and as we giggled and squirmed i wondered if i’d fall into the lake. when i stretched them far enough my toes could skim the surface of the water. the lake mirrored the sky’s brilliant blue-gold fire, and the hills across from us were outlined in pink. for a few precious minutes silence descended upon our group. that brief moment seemed to expand to infinity; the entire universe was before us, deep and contemplative and enormous, and it gleamed with the sun’s last light.

dream (7)

“Why are we here?” I ask.

Johanna and I sit beneath a large oak tree growing on top of a giant wooden pole. The pole, a papery white birch trunk, measures fifteen feet in diameter and rises seven miles above the ocean. From where we are the waves look grey and flat, as if we could press leaves on them.

“Why wouldn’t you want to be here? This place is awesome.”

Heavy green-gray clouds envelop us, and my stomach churns. “Everything looks wrong,” I reply. “We shouldn’t be able to see the ocean this high up.”

“That doesn’t matter. This is so much better than Oakland, anyway.”

I remember this dream. We’d lounged in the sun on the edge of the pier and watched pedestrians chat in the open-air restaurant or build sandcastles by the beach. The dream had been cheerful, warm, lovely, and sun-drenched – the complete opposite of this dreary isolation.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Oakland was beautiful.”

Johanna scoffs. “Really? I couldn’t stand the heat and the sweaty tourists. It was disgusting!”

“Better than now.” I rub my hands together and shudder. “I’m freezing.”

As we speak, the ocean seems to shimmer. One moment water surrounds us, and I’m convinced we could dip our hands into the sea just by reaching over. When I blink, however, the ocean turns into grass. Hills roll into view as raindrops fall softly from the sky.

“I recognize this feeling.”

“What?”

“My classmates and I had to drive downtown to shoot a video project once, and we filmed in front of the capital. There were tons of people so we couldn’t get as close as we wanted, but then it started to rain. We barely noticed it at first, even as the area started to clear out, and suddenly it started pouring. Just before that, the rain was like this. Gentle, almost forgiving.” I frown. “Almost like a mother singing her child to sleep.”

“Weirdo.”

“Says the girl who prefers the middle of nowhere to California.”

“Whatever. But hey, does that mean it’s going to storm soon?”

“Maybe. Nothing else here is familiar, though, not even the hills. I just find the rainfall soothing.”

“You’d think everything in your dream is just a mashup of stuff you experienced while awake.”

“I doubt it. I’ve never seen Oakland in my entire life. Also, I would never imagine talking to my sister on the top of a humongous pole in the middle of the ocean. Why are we here, of all places?”

“Well, I can only remember whatever you remember, so I don’t know why you’re asking me. Besides, it’s probably just a random setting your mind generated. It’ll be perfect if it does storm, anyway. Then the waves will be high enough for us to swim in.”

“How long do you think that’ll take?”

“Maybe a week or a few days, if we’re lucky.”

“Will we dive off together?”

“Obviously. We always do.”

Beneath us, raindrops batter the waves as the ocean starts to roar. I already feel hopeful we’ll swim in the ocean after all, just the two of us, the way we never did when Johanna was alive and I was awake.

~

pair the story with this song.

a/n: i originally wrote this two years ago, but it felt strangely fitting for how i currently feel about our future right now – lost and apprehensive, but also hopeful. remember that you are amazing, that you are loved, and that you have the ability to act and the right to be yourself. i think that, no matter what happens from now on, we will be able to power through these troubling times for the sake of human dignity.

déjà vu

There are people everywhere.

Crowds of pedestrians surround you and spill out into the street. They’re all dressed fashionably, either vividly colorful or blatantly monochromatic, and they seem to hurry from one destination to another. You try not to feel dowdy in your jeans and sneakers as a woman with dark red lips and towering high heels glides past you with the grace of a dancer. Stop being so self-conscious, you tell yourself. You should be used to this by now.

You’d dreamed of escaping to the city for ages. Mom had fed you countless horror stories about the Big Bad City (“A college freshman got pushed onto the subway tracks, you know! And another girl got stabbed in the neck in broad daylight!”) to try to dissuade you, but you didn’t take her cautionary tales seriously. Millions of people lived in the city, you’d reasoned, and why couldn’t you do the same?

Now that you’ve wandered onto an unfamiliar street, however, homesickness starts to creep in. Dimly, you remember a surreal summer evening, at the edge of dusk, when you and Penny had stood in the center of an empty road and felt day-old heat against your bare feet. (Penny had still been your best friend back then. Hooking her arm into yours, her eyes faded from blue and pink to purple to black as she watched the sky fall asleep. Your heart thrilled when she turned towards you and smiled. You had never loved anyone more.)

It’s impossible to go barefoot in the city, though. There seem to be teeth everywhere. Shards of glass line the gutter, and sharp pieces of metal glint in warning. Odors rise from mysterious brown puddles while piles of trash clutter the sidewalks. The thought of walking through all of that without wearing shoes makes you want to vomit.

“Watch where you’re standing!” someone shouts, elbowing past you. Jostled out of your reverie, you keep moving, blood pounding in your ears as you stare ahead and take care not to step on anything too revolting. Cigarette smoke curls high in the air and almost looks beautiful in the sunlight, but the stench reminds you of shriveled black lungs.

Despite the noxious fumes and the waste and the dirtiness, however, you love the city. You love the energy that thrums off the crowd with the regularity of a beating heart. You love how streets weave in and out of each other, how you can walk from the library to the market to the gardens in less than ten minutes and take the train for any distances greater than that. The city’s so different from home, where everything had felt languid and drowsy. Even after a year, you still marvel at the novelty.

Penny would have loved it here, too. You try not to think about her nowadays. You left home to move past your grief, after all. But the city constantly reminds you of her. You can imagine her sitting on the roof of your apartment at the crack of dawn, waiting for the city to wake up and come alive. She’s dancing effortlessly through swarms of people, her hums and laughter ringing above the noise. She’s leaning against you on the subway ride home from campus, breaking the general quiet with stories until it’s time to get off –

Penny’s not here.

Like the city, Penny could never stay still. She’d first disappeared from the school you both attended, moving on to university two years ahead of everyone else. Less than six months later, she vanished a second and final time on a plane that flew into the ocean.

You’d felt so lost at the time. Why did she leave home – without you? How could she leave you behind and not look back? And how could the world swallow her so cruelly? You fled to the city when home, the place the two of you had explored since you were four, became too unbearable to stay.

You still miss her like a phantom limb, but the sadness is briefer now. She’s finally stopped haunting your dreams; you feel relief and a twinge of guilt when you wake up without tears drying against your cheeks. Maybe I can keep going without her, you dare to think that morning, and you feel a little less hollow.

Sometimes, though, you try to catch pieces of her from faces gleaming in the crowd. You see someone with her eyes, or her laughter, or her birthmark just above the jaw. It’s silly and impossible to find her, of course, but you do it anyway. You only give yourself a few seconds at a time – you’re not allowed to stop, to stare, to search.

Today, you lock eyes with her.

Your stomach does a flip. She’s standing on the other side of the crosswalk, waiting for the signal to change. You blink once, twice. She’s still there, and her gaze, appraising and familiar, is on you. You recognize the quirk of the lips, the sharp chin, and the dark eyes set against high cheekbones.

It can’t be Penny. She fell into the Atlantic years ago. But this lookalike crosses the street with the same confident step, her arms bare and her hands resting comfortably in the pockets of her track pants. Her hair’s pulled back into a russet-colored knot at the base of her neck, rather than cut into the straight, short bob you remember Penny wearing. The two of you continue to watch each other over the din of the crowd, her eyes never leaving yours as she draws near. She’s already breaking the rules you’d set for yourself when you first came to the city. No staring! you think frantically, but you can’t tear your eyes away.

The two of you are only a few feet away now. Now that you’re closer, you realize with a pang of bitter disappointment that the doppelganger’s eyes are green, not the warm brown you remember. Her cheeks are smooth and devoid of any birthmarks.

She’s really just a lookalike after all. You almost laugh. Leave it to the city to find Penny’s ghost.

Just as you glance away and pass her, she stops and seizes your arm. You jerk to a halt.
“Are you who I think you are?” she asks desperately. Your mouth opens, closes. “I’ve missed you,” she continues in a rush, stealing the words from your mouth. Her eyes shine. You swear they look brown at that moment.

“Penny.”

Your voice cracks on the second syllable. You can’t believe she’s actually there, standing with you in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Let’s talk,” she says, taking your hand. Everyone else seems to melt away. When she tentatively offers you the same smile from years ago, you can’t help but hope that this isn’t a dream after all.

joanna

You walk down a gently sloping hill towards a field. The sun turns dusty, waist-high grass into gold. Joanna’s singing is unpolished and lovely, leading you forward as if she’s taken you by the arm. Her songs are full of strings. You can’t separate harp from harpist – her voice swings and creaks, studded with notes plucked by deft fingers. Somewhere in the distance, an orchestra swells like the tide.

When you’d first heard her you were startled by how childlike Joanna had sounded, but you know better now. She may sing sweetly, and animals may populate her songs, but her voice belies her wisdom.

One moment you watch a bird fly across a breathy sky – the next, an angel flaps its wings. The universe looms, and you suddenly face the staggering weight of the stars. All the while, Joanna’s harp sings; her voice scratches out high notes.

She offers you one story, a second, a fifth. Hens and horses and lions flicker in and out, half-hidden in the grass and entranced by the light. You could never resist her poetry.

You let her lift you out of your loss and offer you hers in solidarity. Her verses struggle to contain the chaos of life and light and allusion within them, and the music expands to fill the gaping hole between your bones.

Each story bleeds into the next like water. The river she conjures runs against time’s gradient while Joanna’s voice surges and cracks with raw emotion. Ursula splashes her way into the night sky. Ocean waves yawn for a moment, and you glimpse the beautiful remains of a sunken city. You imagine sprawling buildings and solid stone ramparts, marble columns that withstood sea currents and bridges that held fast no matter how much they swung and creaked underwater.

Joanna’s music rings in your ears. It’s steeped in sunshine from above the water’s surface, but you know, deep down, that its light is meant to swallow grief.

Closing your eyes, you remember walking towards a field of dusty gold. As words fail you, a harp sings and creaks and pulls you close, wrapping you with warmth.

~
(more…)

how all things glow

at the still point of the turning world,
the first word that you ever spoke was: light.

beast that i am
i set myself on fire

and my dreams also reconstructed themselves –
all bright light and black wings,
the colored liquid turning gradually lighter, more radiant,
(not to eat, of course, but to examine)

and a silent star-filled heaven turned,
metallic, lucid and bold:

blossoms lingered as if you could smell them eventually
around your soft throat

and it seemed that the whole summer dipped,
illimitable in fragrance and in sound.

~

a/n: this is a cento that i wrote for school. i had a lot of fun with this, especially since i got to spend hours reading books of poetry without feeling guilty about it. 🙂  under the cut is a list of the poems/poetry collections whose lines i ended up using.

(more…)

placeholder nine

you find the book quite early one morning and laugh at bad puns. too many too little, not enough time, thyme, a clockwork garden, a hot summer’s day with the water shut off and broccoli dying under the sun. environmentalism, what is. what is not is the brief hope that this will last a while longer because this is finite, unstoppable, because now is the time to throw words out and bring colors in. this is when hyphenations like ‘sun-kissed’ and ‘sun-drenched’ and ‘sun-strained’ come to mind, when air grows cool and trees shed seas of flaming leaves at the end of january. every other sentence is a lie, with the rest lifted from a stale repetitive repository. remember bridges. step into the courtyard, careful not to trip over the ledge where your grandfather broke his leg and his heart. everything is stone. cold: the fishes quiver. a motorcycle last used in 2005. remember to keep your chin up when you swim through a rainwatered living room. remember fruit candies, beaded numbers. remember not to cry when the smell of urine hits like starvation. everywhere is water. compared to others, your book tastes like viciously luscious cake. the architecture is the same; so are those tears. sight, a privilege, wanders permanently when lost. someone breaks open a guitar and takes the sounds inside. dancing ensues.
(eventually you’ll learn to love these floating faces. you’ll learn to love your dreams.)

from your hand red roses flew

from your hand red roses flew as you fell;
you closed your eyes and sang to the gods
with a colorless voice.

grey laughter tore your throat, purple
bruising the softness beneath your eyes.
fluorescent light washed your face white
and flat and clean, like untouched paper –

i still remember when my heart
beat against your hand with an
irregular rhythm: a lonely pulse one
second, constant humming for another five.

on gusty nights we shared a blanket and a
slice of cherry pie – warm, sweet and slightly
tart (like the taste of your lips), the same
muted red as the heat in your cheeks –
while my stomach grew full with your love.

on the morning after you stood at the kitchen sink
making coffee and breakfast. light poured through
the unbearable cold and soaked your bony bare arms,
which were hollow and bent, almost like the wings
of a bird poised for flight

a past life

take time to touch
the ticking thoughts

our years flew by,
drowned in tears and reflected
in a bowl of ginger tea masochism

a camaraderie claimed
to be everlasting
fell apart like delicate gossamer
at the hands of the clock.

we aimed for the moon
and became shooting stars,
but there was no forever
on which we could land.

we tied starfish to balloons

i took a train to the green hills of a nameless town,
surrounded by endless fields of empty reflection,
swam deep into the smooth curves of the ocean,
and saw nothing but mirrors in the sky above –
but then i heard your laugh, sweeter than love,
form paper airplanes that graced the air
oh hi, hello there, how are you, hello again
we tied starfish to balloons that night,
moonlight lapping at our feet under the stars
as the green hills of that nameless town
melted into the dissonance of my thoughts –
(when you disappeared, i felt nothing at all
no time to say goodbye, to stay a while longer)
the shards of broken glass that poured down
all bore the same face, your face, my eyes,
a cacophony of pious colors
and one morning, we took a train
to the green hills of a nameless town,
surrounded by endless fields of euphoria,
floated on the surface of smooth clear curves,
and tied starfish to balloons that night

smiles slipped across your lips like silt
but then you left, leaving circles in your wake
i took everything we had for granted,
but not anymore

the years never began, nor did they ever end

~

[note: inspired mostly by a recent dream i had, and partly by vienna teng’s flyweight love, which i listened to while writing this.]

9/29/14: featured on words(on)pages: the blog!