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The Pearl Divers’ Daughters

 

We are the pearl divers’ daughters
skinning the ocean of her abalone scales,
planting oyster seeds in each other’s vertebrae.

Our mothers carved veins into the sea
with reinvented air, wrists scarred in rows and rings––
octopi and coral––legs scissoring against the sun,

the space between their thighs profound as trenches.
Haenyeo, we name them, pearl divers whose songs build
and blossom like barrel-fires or anemones.

They press our shoulders against the ribs
of whale sharks, our palms on dotted black rays.
We graze our fingers through damselfish schools,

but our appetites are as insatiate as the sea is for land.
We gnaw the shore, legs wound in seaweed,
skin flayed by the tongues of clams, pulling, pushing.

Arirang, our mothers say patriotically, and cities
bloom from our spines, rooting us to cartographies,
thumbing our eyes into sand-locked jewels.

We are the pearl divers’ daughters,
our sisters’ skirts are hemmed in coral,
our brothers are cloud-eyed eels.

Arirang, we say, our futures pearled
into every empty shell, our tongues pressed
against the words until we become them.

 

 

 

Remedies for Grieving

 

I

Eucalyptus, perhaps, or rosemary,
St. John’s Wort. Cupful of pau d’arco tea leaves.
Coins of persimmon laid against
eyelids, tongue. Stone
pots of kimchi dug from the frozen ground
after three years spent fermenting.

II

In the back of our tangerine orchard
a banyan tree bows toward the opaque
rice paper window, branches
older than my father stooping
to prune them year after figless year.

III

What we remember of the dead.
What we don’t of the living.

IV

Calligraphy brushed by water
mixed with the fine ash of burnt photographs.
Crooked handwriting, black ink.
A boy took my mother for his own,
renaming her children as if they could forget
whose tongues sewed them into their skins.

V

Porcelain bowl nestled in tissue and shoebox,
knocked from the shelf by a small brother,
cracked, in pieces. Years later,
I dipped an old horsetail brush in gold lacquer,
traced lineages of imperfection, pressed them
firmly back together. Mother placed the bowl
on the windowsill, and for many nights
I filled it with coins as payment for the dead.

VI

Mother staked the head of a ratsnake to the table,
its body writhing black and gold.
Her blade slid its elusive length, her fingers peeled back
its scales and skin, digging for gallbladder
and eggs to swallow whole and warm
even though her body was too old
to bear the bones of another son.

VII

I sold persimmons and painted shells
to buy a small pot of honey,
the only gold I could afford.

 

 

 

Oath

 

The night she gave birth,
the water deer were moving.

But before that, the oath.

Fog pulled from the mountainside
like an octopus, slow,
aggregate tendrils leaving
trace dampness,
rocks jutting flat and broad
enough to beckon a god.

Steep. Her face
close to the ground,
body bent
as in age or reverence,
spilling a burden of ginseng and wine
onto the shoulder of a mountain
dappled as fawnback.

They said whatever she asked
of the gods must be returned.

Blessed is the son who opens the womb.

In the hour of the ox, she poured
wine at the feet of the grandfather,
god of fertility and stone,
while she swallowed spoonfuls
of tea and rice, an oath
porous as rock and shadow.

Fog burned itself from the mountainside
when she discovered the hummingbird
beating in her belly.

Later, she remembered that
on the night she gave birth, the water
deer were stirring in the moonlight
like small, grazing ghosts.

 

 

 

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox, which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and Last Train to the Midnight Market (2013), and has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, among others. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2015, Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, Southern Humanities Review, and more. She serves as co-founder and managing editor for Print-Oriented Bastards and producer for The Working Poet Radio Show.

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