What do you call it when a man swallows smoke
& you never see it exit him
What do you call it when you wake up and find
a lemon strangled inside each fist
What do you call it when a body choked by terror
becomes the softest thing you hold
I call it hunger. I call it white cabbage. I call it flesh. I call it
throat sliced open by a tongue. I call it 人山人海. I call it belonging.
I call it sap-slick whiskey bottle. I call it flight. I call it swallow.
I call it pillowcase stuffed with bones. I call it egg yolk flicked on to
a sleeping face. I call it afterlife. I call it morning. I call it crows
ransacking an open surgery. I call it murder. I call it mother. I call it
slurping the gray juice out of a fish’s eye. I call it bamboo stalks
in the backyard. I call it spit. I call it blue. I call it cello strings for
hair. I call it pulse. I call it suffer. I call it fight. I call it mine.
Say Helli & I will tell you where I came from. In Texas: a lottery ticket
drenched in honey emerges from my mother’s thighs. My father takes
the ticket to the nearest gas station, fifteen miles north, where
the cashier hides a pistol in his boxer briefs: not knowing how
my father has sucked the gasoline out of a semi-truck. & somewhere
on the way home, the ticket is traded for a femur bone—
my mother scrapes it against the desert floor until she sees fire,
its flames curling into gingko leaves, reminding her of the city she
was born in, the city where smoke rises from everything:
soup dumplings, dragon-shaped rooftops, the skeletons of children
in the plaza. My mother & my father held hands before they walked
off the Nanjing Bridge. My mother & my father carried a box cutter
to slice a pathway through the ocean. My mother laced her breast milk
with peppercorn so her children could grow up to eat anything. &
from the desert fire, my mother dragged me out by my hair, birthing me.
Say Hai Li & I will stop pumping the trigger of this empty pistol. Say
my name & I will teach you how to leave your home behind
& build a new one out of dust.
Helli Fang is an undergraduate student at Bard College. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Salt Hill Journal, The Adroit Journal, DIALOGIST, Blueshift Journal, Columbia Journal, Alexandria Quarterly, Wildness, and more, and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Columbia College of Chicago, and Bennington College. She has also participated in programs such as the Iowa Young Writer’s Workshop, the Adroit Mentorship Program, and the Speakeasy Project. When Helli is not writing, she enjoys playing the violin and climbing trees.