How To Tell It’s Winter in Vietnamese
BY NGOC PHAM
You can tell it’s winter by the way the fields rise in flames.
Burning hay on the other side of the river
To dispel December frost. The air full of static
Like blood draining from a limb falling asleep.
Men spitting sunflower seeds, sucking marrow
From cow femurs on the sidewalks. Cold licks
Their eyelids close and they dream in sweet steam
From a street vendor’s sticky rice aluminium pot.
You can tell winter, know what it means
When your mother spools brittle hair from a comb’s teeth,
Strands of white and dyed umber, once jet black. Once
Traded in for jaw-wiring pulled sugar candy on a stick.
Sweetness sealed her mouth so forty years later
You, too, can taste hunger, know how it strips
Us clean. Peels sinews, leaves the pips.
Marinates our livers in grief.
Sông Hồng lulls this city, sienna blood slow, sleep-slick.
Old Quarter: Silver Street. Shoe Street. Paper Street.
Tiger’s cages threaded with vine. Rows and rows
Of tube houses collapsing inward like your grandmother’s
Calcified spine beside her rusted medicine grinder.
Rows and rows of hand-labeled jars coated in mustard yellow
Panax dust. An encyclopedia in a language you don’t speak
But memorized anyway, between multiplication tables, chewing
On dried licorice roots, breathing in that cloying perfume
Of brown paperboard, cassia and clove and ossified seahorses.
Bear bile, amber wine. Sewage when it rains.
You tell winter in words frayed and fizzled. Mùa Đông:
Frozen season. Time atrophied,
Tender as your dead grandfather’s gloves.
Mother tongue an arrowhead in your mouth.
You walk this house like a toddler, an amnesiac
Pointing at things, saying their names out loud.
Hinge. Dishrack. Con mời mẹ ăn cơm.
I’ve missed you. I’m sorry. Mildew.
You’ve been gone four years now and still the year ends
On your right ring finger’s knuckle, cracked dry,
Not December but Mười Hai, Month Twelfth.
Salt Street. Coffin Street.
Still your hands smell like coriander blooms
In New Year bathwater. Still, an elegy.
A river silt-choked. A blighted field wakes ablaze.
Herb names in your grandmother’s writing
Selling a new painless life.
Still, were you not someone I loved?