Poem: Lipstick Elegy

This poem explores all the distances between mothers and their children, the frayed seams between countries and cultures. It is also a poem of love and understanding, as if love is a way to the speaker’s freedom as a queer, trans Vietnamese American poet. It is brimming with images as a way to enter the speaker’s intergenerational trauma. The speaker’s mouth is a “pomegranate/split open,” but also a “grenade with a loose pin.” The grandmother is described through imagery only — she is an “immortal bodhisattva/with a thousand hands, chewing a fist of betel root, your teeth black as dawn.” Here, imagery is both the language of survival and the language of escape. Selected by Victoria Chang

Credit…Illustration by R. O. Blechman

Lipstick Elegy

By Paul Tran

I climb down to the beach facing the Pacific. Torrents of rain
shirr the sand. On the other side, my grandmother sleeps
soundlessly in her bed. Her áo dài of the whitest silk.
My mother knew her mother died before the telephone rang
like bells announcing the last American helicopter leaving Sài Gòn.
Arrow shot back to its bow. Long-distance missile.
She’d leap into the sky to fly home if she could. Instead she works
overtime. Curls her hair with hot rollers. Rouges her cheeks
like Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern. I’m her understudy. Hiding
in the doorway between her grief and mine, I apply her foundation
to my face. I conceal the parts of me she conceals, puckering my lips
as if to kiss a man that loves me the way I want to be loved.
I speak their bewitching names aloud. Twisted Rose. Fuchsia in Paris. Irreverence.
I choose the lipstick she’d least approve of. My mouth a pomegranate
split open. A grenade with a loose pin. In the kitchen,
I wrap a white sheet around my waist and dance
for hours, mesmerized by my reflection in a charred skillet.
I laugh her laugh, the way my grandmother laughed
when she taught me to pray the Chú Ðai Bi, when I braided her hair
in unbearable heat, my tiny fingers weaving the silver strands
into a fishtail, French twist. Each knot a future she never named, buried
in the soil of her, where she locked away the image of her sons and daughters
locked away. I’m sorry, mother of my mother, immortal bodhisattva
with a thousand hands, chewing a fist of betel root, your teeth black as dawn.
No child in our family stays a child their mother can love.

Victoria Chang is a poet whose new book of poems is “The Trees Witness Everything” (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). Her fifth book of poems, “Obit” (2020) was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Must-Read. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in Antioch University’s M.F.A. program. Paul Tran is a poet and an editor whose debut collection, from which this poem is taken, is “All the Flowers Kneeling” (Penguin Books, 2022). They are an assistant professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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