Two Poems by Tam Nguyen


Now that there are plenty of doors to enter, I step 
into one with dim blue light beneath its crack. 
I touch the knob, the door swings open, reveals
my thirteen-year-old father. On his side a trunk 
of melted ice-cream, and it's raining behind him. His 
face a hole big enough to fill in my tongue. So I do it, 
a capsule of light falls into my mouth. I cannot hear 
a thing except his muffled cries filling the gaps 
between our timelines. The next thing I know, I'm 
already at the edge of the world: it's become so 
large I can no longer tell the difference between hell, 
heaven, and family. I remember the first time my father 
wiped his face: as the war just ended, grandma tucked  
two copper coins in his cheeks and called it charming.
I wonder if there's a word for forgetting so much you 
feel almost human? My father believes a father isn't a father
without the Buddha of the Underworld resting on his chest.
Not yet born, I wrap my face in a blood-red cloth and
put it inside a suitcase, ready to lament all the years 
I have yet lived. Quietly, he hurries himself into the broken
moon in the lake as the wind strikes down an apricot tree 
with a noose hanging down its branch. I call his name, 
brittle like a sparrow speaking lost words. I want to say 
I am right here, but he wouldn't listen. A period expands 
into a black hole in the middle of the room where all 
poems end. I close my eyes, the way a blacksmith 
surrenders the flare of his sword upon his decapitation.
how we lived in vietnamese
when you plant a seed in vietnam it grows and grows
- Xiao Yue Shan
which is true for everything here is either rare-metal or motherly: 
golden forests, silver seas, sacred motherland, etc. 
how we're born: throwing our names into the river and let alluvia
shape our bodies as they strand along the banks.
river-children. sun-burnt skin. we've made it here like an endless 
lucky streak, faces oversaturated like yellowed  
photographs. this is how beautiful we can get and yet, you still ask for more. 
a productive mantra made of sleepy mouths:
to gnaw anything soft to the look, to carefully crack open hard shells 
of watermelon seeds with our teeth, 
and never fail. that's how close we get between eating and destructing.
in case you're wondering: hunger, for years, 
ended up making us gentle: survived the metronome of history, 
took care of corpse-fed soils, and are 
still finding a way out. we've been taught to neither get too wolfed 
nor too lambed; for even footprints get
filled up over time and our bellies won't stop demanding. sometimes
I want to be possessed by ghosts and see
what happens when past and present mashed into one. then, 
what do we have? a hologram of blood 
sanctimoniously held on a pedestal with too much pride to neglect. 
as postwar peasants, my parents used 
to make drinking straws out of hays to get a taste modernity. 
but it’s all different now. 
everything they did I didn't do. even the we in this poem is only an 
emblem the I uses to skulk off. to say 
amnesia is inadequate, for we can forget everything but the frankness 
of skin. here, I'm stepping in tree-lined, 
asphalt boulevards that used to be dirt roads some decades ago, which  
turned into small canals when the flood arrived. 

Tam Nguyen is a poet, art writer, and apprentice curator, born and raised in the south end of Vietnam. His works appeared and are forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Softblow, DiaCRTICS, Dryland, Overheard, among others. He was a Pushcart Prize poetry nominee in 2021.