“Lipstick Elegy”

Poetry by Paul Tran

February 15, 2022  By Paul Tran

I climb down to the beach facing the Pacific. Torrents of rain
shirr the sand. On the other side, my grandmother sleeps
soundlessly in her bed. Her áo dài of the whitest silk.
My mother knew her mother died before the telephone rang
like bells announcing the last American helicopter leaving Sài Gòn.
Arrow shot back to its bow. Long-distance missile.
She’d leap into the sky to fly home if she could. Instead she works
overtime. Curls her hair with hot rollers. Rouges her cheeks
like Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern. I’m her understudy. Hiding
in the doorway between her grief and mine, I apply her foundation
to my face. I conceal the parts of me she conceals, puckering my lips
as if to kiss a man that loves me I want to be loved.
I speak their bewitching names aloud. Twisted Rose. Fuchsia in Paris. Irreverence.
I choose the lipstick she’d least approve of. My mouth a pomegranate
split open. A grenade with loose pin. In the kitchen,
I wrap a white sheet around my waist and dance
for hours, mesmerized by my reflection in a charred skillet.
I laugh her laugh, the way my grandmother laughed
when she taught me to pray the Chú Ðại Bi, when I braided her hair
in unbearable heat, my tiny fingers weaving the silver strands
into a fishtail, French twist. Each knot a future she never named, buried
in the soil of her, where she locked away the image of her sons and daughters
locked away. I’m sorry, mother of my mother, immortal bodhisattva
with a thousand hands, chewing a fist of betel root, your teeth black as dawn.
No child in our family stays a child their mother can love.

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Flowers Kneeling Tran

From the Book All The Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran. Copyright © 2022 by Paul Tran. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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Paul Tran
Paul Tran
Paul Tran received their BA in history from Brown University and MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, where they were the chancellor’s graduate fellow and senior poetry fellow. They have been awarded a 2021 Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, Paul’s work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, and elsewhere.

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