what good is (my) art
if it neither saves lives
nor remembers the dead?
all poetry is written by Ryan Kai Cheng Thom, who is (obviously) an aspiring poet. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org!
if it neither saves lives
nor remembers the dead?
(i ask him, “should i feel exploited?” and he won’t meet my dark eyes with his own baby blues. i’m such a sucker for blue-eyed boys. lo fan jai, as my baba would say. they look at me from a different place, a different life, a wider heaven. he says, “i don’t know. I never lied to you. did you ever lie to me?”)
well, beloved, my baba was a storyteller too. a fast-talking-sweet-tongued-pull-one-over-on-ya devil. he could sell you anything: snake oil, shoe shine, tall tales about fabulous people living fabulous lives in distant lands. shoulda been a laywer, my baba, but poor chinese boys growing up in canada in the fifties weren’t exactly rolling in post-secondary options, so he ended up selling insurance, which is a snake oil all its own. mother, herself a straight-laced kinda gal, fell in love with his fast tongue and collection of leather jackets, which she found charming in an dangerous, asian james dean kind of way, despite her commitment to seventies’ second-wave feminism and living life as a Strong Independent Woman. she called him Foxy, she liked to tell us years later, not because of his looks, but because he was the only man in the world who was cunning enough to talk her into a marriage for love and no money. she said this with a certain bittersweetness, adding more bitter and less sweet or vice versa depending on the day and her mood.
(chinky chinky chinaman sitting on a fence. tryna make a dollar outta fifteen cents!)
according to chinese legend, the fox is able to live for a thousand years, subsisting on chickens stolen from the coops of hapless farmers and the belief of anyone foolish enough to believe its tall tales. the fox is a storyteller so convincing, it can talk its way into or out of anything – a chicken coop, a love affair, a tight spot, a locked room
a death trap, an oppressive homeland, a political snafu, a faux pas
an ancient ruined temple where the old gods still wait for vengeance,
a thick skin, a oppressive gender paradigm, a lawsuit,
an unwanted pregnancy, the underworld and destiny and all things under Heaven.
the fox can appear to you as an exquisite, angry woman, her long black hair dishevelled in the wind, or
perhaps a young soldier on his way to war for the first time, or a helpless child lost in the woods. most often, the fox appears to you as the thing you most desire the fox is an expert at
sniffing out the hollow spaces in your soul
it knows all your favourite foods,
especially those which you have not yet tasted all your favourite places especially the ones you’ve
(to catch a thief of hearts, you must look it in the eye and ask three times: “what is your most precious long-cherished wish?” to which it will be forced to answer, “i have none, for i was born without a heart of my own”)
you can spot a fox in disguise by its pointed ears, its teeth slightly sharper than, normal, by its lack of reflection in the mirror. a fox that has reached a thousand years has worn so many faces that it has forgotten its own. but most noticeable of all is the hunger in a fox’s eyes, which burns like a torchlight and never goes out, for a diet of stolen chickens and stories may keep you alive, but it will never
never make you full.
(those chinese kids, they have a lean and hungry look. they read too much. always studying, trying to get into our medical schools. such children are dangerous.)
china’s scattered children, we became storytellers by necessity, selling snake oil to survive and playing (and sometimes turning) tricks to stay alive. gave up our faces to save face, our smooth tongues our saving grace. me talk pretty engrish for you. give you big big discount. i’ll dress up pretty for you, lover. i’ll be your little boy, sweet girl, shemale, night man day woman dark-eyed exotic oriental flower blown in on the eastern wind. i’ll run through the dark of your dreaming to take the shape of the thing you most desire. i’m yours, if you’ll take me, if you’ll have me, if only you’ll order me off the chinky menu in the food court of love. i’ve spent a thousand years preparing my mouth for your flesh. what do i want? i want to swallow you whole. hunger scratching like chicken claws at the inside of my belly. i’ll say anything to get what i desire. i invented this face, these hands, this whole body and spirit on the off chance you might choose me. i invented language, a homeland, an entire story universe to spin on my fingertip in the hope that i might catch your eye. like my baba before me, and his mother before him, i invented love out of necessity. don’t look so scared, honey. you saw it all along: my pointed ears, my sharp little teeth, that burning gleam in my eye. you’ve been the farmer with the gun waiting outside the coop this whole time. it takes a human to catch a fox. i never once lied in my heart.
(i ask him if i ought to feel exploited, and he says to me, “i don’t know. i never lied to you.” his big rabbit eyes slip away from mine, but i have the gaze of a fox and i catch him. “you lied to yourself,” i say, and that’s all the story there is to tell.)
i’m not clean enough to bring home to your mother.
you certainly seem to enjoy that.
but sometimes i still wonder what kind of poetry i would have found on the other side of suicide. what kinds of letters would i have written to you, the living, my love, from inside that eternal midnight room? what if this whole life is the mechanical clicking spinning whirring whirling of a gigantic clock, all of us cogs in its inexorable gears - and death the vast velvet stillness that waits for us all? what if death is a library; somewhere inside, there is a book with the words you have been searching for all this time. all this time. death may be silent, but it is full of words, and someday, my darling, i will go there whether i will it or no, and i will speak them all. death is a language. no one can take it from us. no imperial army, no colonizing force, no prison, no sanitorium, no government can silence death’s mouth, death’s tongue, death’s pounding hammer drumbeat heart. listen to it. hear it. what if death is anti-capital? what if suicide is revolutionary? what if, all those years ago, i meant to tell you something by trying to die? what if i meant to tell you that the world had to change, that you had to change it, that we needed to stand and bend the iron arms of this clock we call life, that we needed to wake up? somewhere, at this moment, a man has set himself on fire. somewhere, at this moment, a woman is tying a rope around her neck. somewhere, at this moment, a child is dying by their own hand. writing a letter in ashes and in bones and in blood, a poetic manifesto phrased in the vocabulary of corpses: listen. as i lie dying, listen.
and discover that my flesh is made of sky:
azure, sapphire, cerulean, turquoise, ultramarine,
cirrus and cumulus clouds stirring behind my eyes,
cumulonimubus, alight with lightning,
crackling through the capillaries of the heart.
i am oh so full of rain,
you could fall through me into forever.
dear scientist, mortuary explorer, search me thoroughly,
tenderly catalogue all my wayward parts.
find somewhere in me,
the forgotten moon, the faded stars.
re-member, reassemble, this tattered heaven, this
we could spend whole centuries in mourning for what we have lost - and rightfully so. goddess knows, it seems like every week another one of us is found in an alley, a dumpster, a basement, a cellar, on the highway, tied to a fence, hanging from the ceiling, floating in a lake. a dead army of strange sisters. weird siblings. lost girls with lips and nails as blue as the night we were murdered in. sometimes it feels like i could sleep for years, knowing me knowing you knowing what the world holds for girls like us. but i woke up this morning. saw the slivered light coming through the clouds through the grime of my unwashed window through the particles of dust. dear sisters. i am so tired of mourning. i am so tired of carrying this weight. heart like a balloon, i am swimming up through what sunlight will come. i cannot talk about what i have lost today. i cannot talk about fear today. i have so much saltwater joy welling up overflowing spilling out of my eyes like rivers. my sisters. pain tunnels into you, like a river cutting through a mountain. it wears you down. makes you deeper. you have so much space inside your souls. you have so much room for love. the world taught you early how much you had lost, how much less of a person you were for not wanting to be a man. i need to tell you how much you are worth. how exquisite you are. how much i have gained for being one of us: i have learned to shift my shape. change my skin. lift my head to the sky and call forth the moon with my song. a line of ghosts dances behind my steps. my hair is full of stars. my lips are blue as memory. as the ties that bind. as the rivers that flow between us. strange sisters, weird siblings, lost girls all. tell me that i am beautiful. tell me that i am a treasure beyond compare. a jewel the strand of our legacy. that i am a dream in the making and someday, years from now, a child will wake and live in the freedom we didn’t have. that you would not give this up to be someone else. sisters, i am so glad to be one of you.
what good are words amid this hail of bombs,
this rain of blood?
that you were a good child because you were so quiet. and so you learned that silence was something to admire, to look up at and aspire to, like the moon - distant and unfathomable. you perfected silence. carved it into yourself till it was miles deep. you dropped your words into this chasm and watched them disappear. you could sit for hours, folding your thoughts under your tongue, into themselves, over and over. at school, as teacher droned on. on the playground, as the boys chased and beat you up. at home, as your mother shrieked. in the hospital at two, three in the morning. people told you that you were a good listener as you got older. told you secrets, their petty whims and hidden rages. their stories of abuse, of pain, of tenderness. they never asked if you wanted to hear. you thought this made you special. your silence was exquisite, a many-faceted prison that gleamed like a dead crystal star with your voice trapped inside. love me. love me. love me.
the man you’re sleeping with has a girlfriend whom he adores. you know because he won’t stop telling you about her while you’re in his bed together. he makes you leave this bed once you’ve finished making him come, out of respect for their relationship. once, when she was sick with the flu, he stopped in the middle of sex with you to call her and see how she was. though you have never met this woman, you know all about her. she is brilliant, beautiful, delicate, tempestuous. she sounds like the romantic interest in an indie film about a disenfranchised white guy. you listen to every detail. you nod, you reflect. you gleam with empathy. with understanding. he likes to fuck you roughly, up the ass, after he talks. sometimes you bleed into the toilet after. you barely make a sound. a part of you is proud of this. you think that this is being good. you think that this is strength.
if i asked you what you wanted, you would not say a word. the truth is trapped inside you, like light inside a prism. you are always disappearing in the hope of being seen. you are always shrinking to fit into someone else’s arms. you are collapsing ever inward; you are a galaxy trying to become smaller. when i put my ear to your chest, i hear the humming of a barely audible frequency beaming itself past the clouds, into the atmosphere, through the distant reaches of space. infinite and unstoppable. magnificent. love me for my anger, it whispers. love me for my need. love me for my jealousy, my weakness, my greed. my cruelty, my viciousness, my vanity, my shame. love me for my ugliness. love me when i scream.
to be yourself,
to be human,
to never change.
who taught you that without a cage or a contract
you would end up