Stephanie Niu

Midden / Appetite

My mother calls herself our trash heap.
She eats what we won’t, grows plump
on our leftover eggs, bread crusts,
the bitter-hearted lotus seeds we cannot stomach. We have small appetites. Waiting for us is eating, cutting
slice after slice of pumpkin bread

until all the bowls are clean.
No one wants to be garbage, she says, but look what I do for you.

In archaeology a trash heap is called a midden.
It means you’ve struck gold. What better map
to the way people lived than the things they discarded. Oysters shells, chicken bones, bits of green glass,
pickle forks, shoe leather miraculously intact.
The trash is what they used, what they ate,
what they could not afford to throw away.
No buttons. No jewelry. In a California midden where Chinese orchard workers lived
they found a single bottle for baby formula,
cracked. The glass so old it flakes,
iridescent, dragonfly wings catching light.

My mother does not like the way she looks. In the dressing room she pinches the flesh around her face. If
someone loved me more, maybe I wouldn’t gain weight.

When a whale dies and sinks to the sea floor,
a world emerges to devour it. Hagfish come first, faceless mouths chewing at the skin.
Then larger fish, sharks even, their eyes
rolling as they tear into flesh.
A fallen whale sustains this ecosystem for years. Even its skeleton becomes a home.

My mother talks of death often—her knees hurt, she cannot sleep, her eyes worsen each day.
Put my body in the earth, she says,
breaking sunflower seeds after dinner.

I do not want to become food.


Originally published in Portland Review, June 2020



Garbage Boogie

Is it bad that in the crash
of trash down the chute I hear
music? The sound of hollow boxes
and old bottles of booze
lulls me, confused, into its groove:
I have trash guilt. I’m culpable.
Though I compost, sort my
recyclables. I know that no
amount of used glass
can amount to real absolution.
A friend suggests we throw it
into space as the solution. My date’s dad is a psycho recycler, I remember
as I pass a strangely fragrant can.
He sorts everything, the chopsticks
and their wrapper separately bagged. We can’t all be like him. The system can’t need us to be
Of course, I toss takeout containers without rinsing the grease first.
What am I if not a glutton
for convenience? Waste is easy
as moldy tomatoes tossed in the bin.
I discard what I can’t carry.
Cheap furniture. Responsibility.
The ambitious bag of bacteria
for kombucha never brewed,
still fizzing miraculously.
I empty myself gladly. Trash knows.
It barrels into a bulge, shows off
the ways we still overflow
with hunger, so much hunger
with nowhere to go.


Originally published in Breakwater Review, Issue 30



Stephanie Niu is a poet from Marietta, GA. She earned her degrees in symbolic systems and computer science from Stanford University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Southeast Review, Poets Readings the News, and Storm Cellar, as well as scientific collaborations including the 11th Annual St. Louis River Summit. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Award for work on decolonizing historical narratives of overseas Chinese laborers through digital techniques. She lives in New York City.