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The more I ask

the more is asked

of me. My mother asks

for nothing

except a simple life

—work work work—

Never why,

never I. Bird-mother,

bird-child,is it true?

We return to our source

no matter how we escape


we’re from. Nest built

from trash, limb of coral

trees, the Torrey Pines:

I’m sorry I called

our home a cage.

I’m sorry I asked so much

of my life, yours.


all we deserted

we can’t hurry back to,

though we know the way,

though it exists

somehow, somewhere.

Yesterday, you called

to say you missed me.

That’s false. Regret,

its chiseled stone,

struck us both.


Against the lamp

light, a shadow

on the bed. Or was it me,

me, a trap door, a hole

I fell through, plunging

to the underworld,

where Ngài Mục Kiền Liên

feeds his mother

white rice from a begging

bowl. Her mouth

catching fire each time

a grain grazes her lips.

How do we consume

if consumption destroys

us? How do we retain

what we know

we can’t? Ngài Mục Kiền Liên

barters his soul

so his mother can go

free: more than Demeter

could do for Persephone,

my mother for me.

Though she now kneels

before him, before all

the spirits in heaven

every night—Spare

my baby its body, its bounty

—it’s too late. I ate,

so I must stay. I must pay

or there’ll be no spring.


I’m thinking of an early morning

in April 1975. The ocean

a bronze bell before it shivers

with sound.The last days

of a war that’ll last forever.

Bà ngoại, is this what it’s like

to be a mother, to watch

your child abducted

by flight? I’m thinking of a girl,

her yellow dress.

The wind lifting its hem

like a love she’ll never meet

again. A love waiting for her

on the other side

of a collapsed bridge

with no keel in sight.

I’m thinking of the song

they sang—Thương anh

thì thương rất nhiều

mà ván đã đóng thuyền rồi—

the song she sings me

only in dreams—Đa đoan

trời xanh cắt cánh lìa cành

khiến chim lìa đôi. Bird-

mother, is this what it’s like

to be a child, to suffer

the seasons of my life, migration

lacking the promise

for reunion? I’m thinking

this is why—


Season of reap,

season of sow:

like rain, I pass through you

to get here. Everything

I touch, everything

touching me, changes me.

I’ve hurt so many with my greed.

Another stranger

in the doorway, another

stranger in my bed

with a plate of Korean pears,

a bowl of coconut sticky rice.

Or was it me, seeking a reason,

any reason at all, to exist

beyond this lonely hour

haunted by the song

I heard once in a dream.

Like Ngài Mục Kiền Liên,

my mother crosses the river

to the underworld, smuggles me

to earth. I’m reborn

a black dog at her feet,

lapping gutter-water,

feeding on my own excrement.

Punished for want,

punished for not wanting,

I didn’t think I could be saved.

I didn’t think I could kiss

my reflection in the waves

and not surge with flames.


PAUL TRAN is a Pushcart Prize & Best of the Net-nominated poet. Their work appears in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, RHINO, which gave them an Editor's Prize, & elsewhere. They are the first Asian American in twenty years to represent the Nuyorican Poets Cafe at the National Poetry Slam & Individual World Poetry Slam, where they placed Top 10. They received fellowships & residencies from Kundiman, Poets House, Lambda Literary Foundation, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Home School Miami, Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation, & Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Paul lives in Brooklyn, where they serve as Poetry Editor at The Offing & Poet In Residence at Urban Word NYC.


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