Survived By

Stephanie Niu

February 29, 2024 
The following poem is from Stephanie Niu's Survived By: An Atlas of Disappearance. Niu is a Chinese-American poet, digital humanities scholar, and ecology enthusiast from Marietta, Georgia. She is the author of She Has Dreamt Again of Water, winner of the 2021 Diode Editions Chapbook Contest, and the editor of Our Island, Our Future: A Zine of Youth Poetry from Christmas Island (2023).

“At the Top of the Hill, Unnamed Graves of Workers They Didn’t Bother to Carry Down”

The largest island cemetery is at sea level.
Sprawling with frangipani blooms
and feral roosters, it seats the non-living
to watch the sea. When the waters finally rise
over the cliffs, the dead will be the first to drown,
we are sure of it, as we witness other islands
dredge their graves. Even then: what privilege
to have the earth remember your name. Of course
the body decays—how quickly hands deteriorate
in this humidity, release nitrogen into stands
of papaya trees. A headstone is only a home
for a name. It says, I lived once.

The Chinese who died on Phosphate Hill
had names and bodies deemed unworthy
of remembering. Named only for the days
they spent brushing precious white powder
from the island’s limestone teeth. The elaborate
system of belts and carts efficiently wheeled
the phosphate down, no room left
for the worked-through bodies except
in the worked-through earth.
Their mountain graves are hard to find,
separate from the sea-level dead.

We know so little about them. Only enough to imagine
they said: I lived once. Thank you. It was here.


From Survived By: An Atlas of Disappearance by Stephanie Niu. Used with permission of the pubisher, Host Publications. Copyright © 2024

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