the uber drive was chinese.
getting off my flight from southern california
still in a wrap dress,
knees goosefleshed in the san francisco air,
I ducked into the warmth of his car.
I knew as soon as I heard his google maps
speak in mandarin,
felt that familiar seize.
ni shi zhong guo ren ma?
a confirmation. the taste of politeness, of
church potlucks and dinners with extended family
rising to my tongue.
the heady lilt of naming my parents’ hometowns,
chinese pronunciations of american words.
I am from juo zhi ya,
out of nowhere
he called me mei nu.
the same phrase my mother used to describe
the women painted on tins from the
chinese grocery store, four women of mythology.
faces powdered and gently flushed,
they caressed paper fans in lily-white fingers.
wrists braceleted, twists of hair glinting
with long pins edged in gold.
mei nu meant those tins filled with
sticky mooncakes, rich with fatty egg yolk and
oversweet bean paste.
the tins my sister and I kept,
storing pretty rocks under the square lids, occasionally
brushing off dust to gaze at the beautiful women
we might be when we grew up.
with the politeness of
my five-year-old self refusing an aunt’s compliments
I deny him. mei nu,
is this the right place?
have a good night, mei nu.
I longed to cover my knees.
to open one of those painted tins,
dust-covered now, and extract
a golden mooncake ripe for tasting,
to be the one eating rather than
the one ground to paste between
my church has a womens-only convention
here is what I picture:
plastic trays lined with glistening meat,
messy barbecue sauce chins,
heavy glasses of beer and the absent static of
a t.v. baseball game.
nice waitresses with blond ponytails
who lean over when you need a refill,
flash their starched teeth.
meat pulling from bone.
a whiskered mouth crunching on
country fries, sucking sticky
sauce from soiled fingers.
a circle of people sitting
cross-legged on a carpeted floor, praying.
the clasp of soft hands,
hairless knees, warm embraces
through apple-scented hair.
a body from bone.
a lithe figure being pulled out of
curved marrow, for the first time
born without a woman’s pain.
did it hurt adam when eve was made?
at the grocery store I taught my mother
the difference between male and female.
past the glossy palm-sized lemons,
the tiny seckel pears like swollen birds eggs
beside waxy eggplant butts
stacked in rows we found
fluorescent bell peppers, fat and gleaming.
four lobes means female
I told her, lifting one
cartoon orange and waterproof-smooth.
three mean male. the females
are sweeter eaten raw.
peering among stacks of waxed
traffic-light shells her eyes grew wide,
finding only lobes in fours and threes.
so it’s true! what does it mean
for a pepper to be female?
later when I found out that it was all false,
that peppers are “complete and perfect,
ready to self-pollinate”
that women need men in a way
peppers only need themselves
I didn’t tell her the truth, instead
bit into the four-lobed pepper, savored the taste.
argument for the pomegranate
imagine that first act of desire:
holding the cool fruit leathery in her palm.
splitting open the cottony husk to find
a cluster of jewels
tight as eggs.
those pearly seeds clinging
to their waxy walls. the color of
heartbeat, too bright to taste.
eating a pomegranate is no simple task.
it’s not a chomp into apple skin,
mealy, yielding, cellulose sticking to the teeth.
not, even, a bite of fig.
the flesh so soft
it dissolves into the tongue,
is mistaken for cheek, draws blood.
pomegranate demands deliberateness.
the claw grip required to
tear the tough hull,
pinprick touch to pluck
a glossy clump of translucent seeds
without breaking, turn them in the light.
bite through the crunch of water, so sweet,
throat closing with juice
and decide if the pale
pointed seeds are
safe to swallow.
the bouldering gym
here the ground rises in walls;
chalk-scarred stones jagging out in
scarlets, ceruleans, emeralds
rough like hard-boiled lava.
clinging to the wall by a
bit of fake rock and taut wrist,
forearms straining into tendons
my body is a wire.
toes straining to draw closer to the
punishing vertical, the surface that
defies steadiness. let me in
my arms scream, the soreness
I know will persist,
keep me from clenching my hands
in prayer on sunday morning.
dear heavenly father:
keep me perched here unsteady
just a second longer,
let me have the strength to reach
the next hold, I pray, fingers raw and
muscles too tired for fists,
that I will not
fall back to earth, though I know that
even when I hit the ground
I will be weightless.
in summer everything becomes sweeter,
headier, the fermented scent of
unpicked fruit and fat blades of grass
ripening in the sun.
throughout august I wear nothing but
a wrap dress the color of plums
day after day, the discount rayon
light enough for my thighs to breathe.
in early september the figs on my neighbor’s tree
(“come eat! there are more
than my husband and I can carry”)
and we scramble over the rough-leafed tree,
swatting the ants that beat us to the juicy prize,
fat with honey,
plucking the fruit like jewels
from the tree’s loose limbs.
I scoop the harvest into my skirt,
the figs glowing, thickly veined,
tiny milky drops already blooming in the
fruit’s new cut.
we scour the rough leaves,
pushing aside flat sheets of bristly-green
for the ripest ones,
almost purple with plumpness.
biting into the flesh I forget everything but
tangle of fibers blushing in the wet
center, the yield of the fruit’s sweetness,
the skin still rough with dust
that my mother is warning me to
don’t eat yet,
we have to wash it first.
Life on Earth
Tracy K. Smith writes about coastal Georgia,
the black blood spilled there in war,
bodies of color so easily forgotten.
but I remember the entire state as coastal.
Native American rivers bisecting the state
Ocmulgee, Ogeechee, Etowah-
that artery, thick and familiar as blood.
When I saw the road kill I was
seized with a strike of something
more electric than fear. My spine buzzed.
The shattered shell, the
dark blood smeared into the road.
The turtle who slid too slow
toward the waiting Chattahoochee,
warm and wet
just yards away.
The shell, that same shape which has
ground into asphalt,
become crushed eggshell.
Tracy K. Smith reminds me of
Giotto, the Italian painter.
In 1305 he finished a fresco
covering the Arena Chapel in Padua.
A curved ceiling, like being inside ribs.
He painted stars.
When we imagine heaven now it is
golden, or white, something
But Tracy K. Smith knows what
Giotto knew then, that
salvation is real enough to be touched:
the sweep of a river’s curves,
a road black with innocent blood,
painted angels peeling back
a physical heaven from the walls.
Stephanie Niu: "I am Georgia native and an undergraduate at Stanford University pursuing a degree in symbolic systems. My poems have been published in Rainy Day; The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society; Liminality; and Writer’s Block Magazine, among others. Outside of verse, I experiment with art-making through dance, videography, and machines."