Back to Issue Thirty-Nine

The First Law of Motion



An object in motion stays in motion

From the photograph of us in the kitchen
I cut my father’s face. The denim shirt

hugging his sun-scorched skin. His hands on my shoulders
as I blow out the two .99 candles.
Was it a surprise

I turned out like him?
Exacting. Stubborn. Attention-seeking. Resentful of longing

I could not sate. My mind

a dull knife sharpened by a dull knife
until both dulled further, dividing
into perfect triangles the cake. My heart

a cabinet door swung open
to reveal plates neatly stacked
and then slammed shut.

I sought to determine how and what
he left. The impact on me

it had. Would have. Continues even now to have

despite the control I’ve sought to establish
over everyone and everything, including my longing
for control…Yet I couldn’t

cut him from me. Cut me from him.


At the same speed and in the same direction

By what force will my longing be stopped?

Time. Distance. Clarity.
Even after he turned from me, after he reached for
and stuffed into my mouth

the white towel, the last thing
from that night
I remember, the man

—whose hesitancy resembled my father’s

the afternoon my father left
me at the park with a box of leftover KFC—
failed to stop

the pattern of recklessness. Wretchedness. Wreckage. Regret
brought on by my longing, my failure

to locate the regret and the longing
beneath that. I took the knife. The scissors. The shears.
Anything to carve past

the past, the body I hated

because I was not so much exhausted as I was
just bored of feeling everything and nothing
at all. At once. At last,

gash after gash, I reached inside.
Wrists. Hips. Thighs. I found
not the source of my regret. Not the force to stop it.

Just more.


Until acted upon by an unbalanced force

All night I wait for the cactus flower to bloom.

I wait, as if the cactus flower and the night both know

I’m waiting, asking also to bloom not in spite of light

but simply in darkness, to bloom that simply, briefly, almost

randomly, and then immediately to wither without return.

I’m asking to live like that. I’m asking—after a life of asking

for permanence, for another chance to prove

the consequence of longing isn’t always regret,

that longing to control my life means not controlling longing

but letting go of regret, longing, and consequence

so I could be free, set myself free even of letting go and waiting

for permission—to live. Immediate. Random. Brief.

Nothing blooms. Nothing withers. Only the knowledge

that there’s a difference between letting go and setting free.


Paul Tran is author of the debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, forthcoming from Penguin in February 2022. Their work appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. A recipient of the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Poetry Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, Paul is a Visiting Faculty in Poetry at Pacific University MFA in Writing and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

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