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I Wore My Blackest Hair: Two Poems by Carlina Duan

I was her American / daughter, my tongue / my hardest muscle / forced to swallow / a muddy alphabet.

By Carlina Duan

What I’ve Lost

teeth. metallic parts of headphones,
bad machinery. sticks
of lead. loves I once pressed
my lips to, firm and hard, on
their whole precious throats.
entire countries streaked
with black pepper,
entire countries
bleating with the creamy milk
of goats. it is absolute: this loss.
rivers and eyelashes. onions
waggling their roots. what I
will never know: new sisters
and stones curled into the center
of a palm. what I’ve missed:
kernels of corn, kettles of water.
I am lonely, in my lonely chest.
birds traipse out of windows. flags
lift their red and floppy throats.
cars shout; I will never hear them.
I want to catch so much of this earth
on the gentle tongue, but
outside: there is only snow.
and inside: there is only muscle.
only what I can give and flex—
which is to say, inside: there is
a moon in me, a heart
that swamps and swamps.
today: oil and vessel. turnips
I fried for dinner. joy I got
from touching a friend’s humble
face. the monthly blood. the honest
stutter. what I place my paws on:
only rain, only squares of papaya,
and the hundred lives in me:
tender, eager to sprout.


Fractions, 1974


in the kitchen, my mother and her sister
talk in tiny whispers. a cultural revolution.
spirals of teeth. mouths centered into Os
like slow red pearls. by the sink, a fruit fly
whines, and my mother cinches the ribbon
of her dress, bites into a cucumber.
teaches her sister fractions—

all they haven’t yet swallowed: Chinese
girls with flags pinned to their bags, Chinese
girls in love with the swell of onions
and moons. milk is measured out through
ration cards; a neighborhood rooster chases
their skirt hems.

years from now, we cackle in our throats.

in the capital, the windows are dirty with stars.
as the chairman lifts his hand to speak, a needle
punctures a strip of muslin cloth.

in the kitchen, my mother slips pills of rice
into tin cups, casts thin glances at
her sister. halves and wholes.
thirds and fourths. someday, American
daughters will speak the language
in sections—


a is for apple; b is for bitch


once I called my mother bitch,
and she said, BITCH. Shì shénme?
WHAT IS THAT? teeth crackling
against lip until I saw her: a girl
again, splitting onions by
the sink.

I said, MOM. MOM.

while she called me



I was her American
daughter, my tongue

my hardest muscle
forced to swallow
a muddy alphabet.
each night my mother taught me
Chinese myths, fractions. we
watched the night crawl. bagged
into blackness, our tongues traced
English and Chinese,

English and Chinese,

two throats.

Excerpted from I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan. Text copyright © 2017 by Carlina Duan. Published by Little A November 14, 2017. All Rights Reserved.