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Three Poems by Gavin Yuan Gao

The Sad Siren

I have a knack for making men stay

for all the wrong reasons. The zeal-bitten

historians. The shy classicists. Nightly, from

the fire escape, they came for the famed

antebellum phosphorescence

of my voice, but stayed for the way

fire escaped from the tidal clench

& thrust of my hips, the kind of flames

pure as white grapes

that seared a vision

right through their bodies

and made their dumb flesh see

the heaven their eyes had refused

to believe in, which is the heaven of here

-and-now, which is the hour of never

-and-always—for which the city, in loneliness, burns

and all its good angels burn with it. I came

when they sobbed into the hollow

of my collarbone afterward. How

anticlimactic: their tears flooding open

an eye inside me, which I didn’t

even know was there

and now I can’t close it.

Siren's Grindr Profile

Name: Siren, lost

in a sea of what ifs

Age: gone with the blossoms, hallowed

by sparrows

Height: only as tall as the distance

traversed by the fragrance

of a hyacinth

Weight: a single dewdrop, its sheer skin

pierced by the wind

Ethnicity: unsung, blue-feathered dawn

lifting a veil

of swirling snow

off history’s sand-worn face

Tribes: salt lantern / wife of a volcano / serpent

-skinned boy riding

the riptide

of a nameless yearning

Body Type: exhalation

of starlight

by which to steer

the leaf boat of my soul

Gender: tiger-striped silence

Position: moth to ash / ash

to flame, either way is fine

Looking for: heart-to-heart, as in when we kiss

under the luminous sovereignty

of a wolf moon

my heart climbs like vines of star jasmine

onto the oaken trellis of your heart, then

more kisses

to drown our lips

Relationship Status: widow of a lantern’s flame, married

to the new year’s

first snowfall

Meet at: the lily-studded meadow between Can’t you see

you’re hurting me and Please

don’t stop, please


where the moon always sheds

its sequined bodice of light

Find me on: earth, water, air, fire

The Quiet Siren

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.

—Robert Hass, “Envy of Other People’s Poems”

How disappointed they were

when the sailors discovered

I couldn’t sing. The girl I was—

netted in the wet blooms of my own

waist-length hair the color of thunder

booming over a field of frost.

I didn’t know how stranded I was

until I opened my eyes, fresh out

of the lukewarm sea, to a world

that didn’t want me. Pretty pearl,

the sailors called to me, rowing

their great gray ship around me

that cut pear blossoms in its wake.

Let us teach you how to sing. So

they sang in deep, dappled voices

and beneath the moon-streaked ice

of their age-old chantey

a river flowed darkly that made me

shiver as I listened more closely

than I had intended, bending down

to catch the words

but the ice broke open beneath me

and swallowed me so that everywhere

I turned, instead of words, there

was darkness & water: not the kind

I was used to, but water so cold it scorched

my flesh into sunlight, water so empty

it blew through the reed flute

of my body like high-mountain air.

What did I know. O the girl I was,

thunder-haired & bird-boned. What

I would give to be that girl again.

I couldn’t sing then. Now that I can,

I open my mouth and every song

that flies out of me

is bitter.


GAVIN YUAN GAO (they/xe) is a genderqueer immigrant poet. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Journal, Foundry, The Shade Journal and elsewhere. Their first book of poetry, At the Altar of Touch, is forthcoming from University of Queensland Press.


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