Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Victoria Meng
Writing Portfolio: In The Museum of Lost Things
Broken Ghazal For My Ears
In summer we sprawl onto the streets— legs and eyes and ears
all attune to the heat. Love to become less, I am all ears
as we dissect ourselves. Removed from our bodies, examining
from afar. Mom has always told me about my ears
and their lobes, thick like Buddha’s, a sign of prosperity. In first
grade we learned homophones and I confused years with ears,
missing the y, the way mom had always said it, equating some truth
like time with a part of my own transient body. My palms, ears,
pressed with sweat, back bending into cement steps. Once
a campmate told me she couldn’t find a part of my face she liked. My ears,
I wanted to say. I am lucky to have these ears, you can’t tell. To be born
with the width, the weight, years of potential, you see? I want to siphon into my ears
all the sounds of the world. All the words in their correct pronunciations. All
the city sidewalk summer swell. All of the things I say, and don’t. One ear
for each of my two languages. One ear that always catches the y. For now,
I slump on the stoop and wait to become beautiful under summer sun.
Your brain as a series
of packed apartment units
with sound bleeding in from both sides.
Learning how to filter &
keep. My mother paused
before telling me that after thirty years
she no longer thinks in Mandarin,
but now in English. Communication
as product of war, as continuous
competition. There is grief in translation,
so even if my mother was not sad,
I can be. I am sad at most losses.
Even to translate is to decide &
deny the other possibilities.
I watched an interpreter
in a documentary once explain
his job of diplomatic dialogue.
I wish I could be professional about this.
I wish these walls were not so thin,
or makeshift. Maybe they will last thirty years
if I’m lucky, then flatten and fall.
In Summer I Dream About Limbs
Because everything bloats and expands
in the dream there is the 10,000 hand Buddha
that stopped me once in a museum /
Its hands fanning, upright, palm-out
and grabbing me / The body loves to talk
about the body even when it learns not to /
Likes to imagine itself taking on new, at least
partially despicable forms / After the museum
I wish to petal into limbs: duplicating and fractaling
becoming more of myself / If I had a thousand arms
I would clap and the unison would break / hearts
and other things / In the statue’s presence
twisting my body into an x and then into light,
dreaming to be museumed, looked at, made to last.
When I Am With You I Am
no-body / this body up / between us
like a weighted thing / winnowing itself
from existence / like if I slipped
into a balloon and it did not float /
but only stretched / and I kneeled in it
so the latex would accommodate
myself keeled / and keep me
snug in my own breath / like one time
I climbed up a church tower /
and could not make my way out before noon /
the hour pooling around me / ringing
heavy as if I were the bell / you
would have seen / fingers pressed
on the thinning surface / visible and
still / you would not have wished it
to pop / you would not have wished for me /
or anything at all.
The day before I left
there was a power outage
that dragged in dusk:
20 blocks of city unsettling
& shifting into dark.
They shuttled helicopters downtown
as if to ration out light.
On a plane the next day
I looked down, tried
to find those blocks & imposed
a sudden change, saw a hundred million
windows below frisking into fire, igniting
as they sent me off.
Sometimes you think the city does things for you
& it does not. But at least
my doorman Julian knows my name.
At least the power came back, unfailing.
At least we still have light to give,
& take away.
Thirty minutes too long, so the broth over the low flame
is skipping, like stones or a heart. Poured into bowls
which we receive in cupped hands. Bite down on the bones, mom says.
A call from her long-ago home. We find out her father is ill,
he is forgetting more than he used to, he is forgetting us.
So we bite down. The bones crack in two, molars into marrow,
red and gritty. Stuck in my throat. The fat of the marrow is the best part,
hidden in the bones’ holes and dimples. Drink it, mom says.
We are waiting forever by the phone. I cry before she does,
my head pressed heavy on her shoulder. No one has taught me
how to miss someone I never really knew. So I just listen, I slurp it up.
If I don’t try to taste it, it tastes like nothing at all. The rest of the marrow
dissolving in ceremony, splitting into stock and steam. Turned to nothing,
dying again even in death. Spooned into our mouths, so we don’t talk.
Ten Thousand Arms
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
I have been writing my whole life, and dreaming for less of it. At least, in terms of remembering my dreams. I advertised this trait like it was a talent, because it meant I could never say I had nightmares as a kid. At the very least, it was some demonstration of my above average will, I thought. Waking up with my mind wiped clean like a whiteboard, I’d pretend I had done the erasing. When I started remembering my dreams more regularly, the cause of which I’m still not sure, naturally I wrote it all down. That way I could say that I’d ordered them to appear—that they were intentional, and had plot, or cohesion, or purpose. By freshman year I was getting less sleep, so the dreams were compressed, becoming lopsided and cut-off. In one recurring sequence, I grew arms, and could not stop. Nor did I want to. They sprouted willfully, and dutifully did all the things that arms do: reaching and grasping and pointing. I affectionately called this my fever dream because it was so bizarre and persistent. From this, I assumed it must be symbolic, too: capital S, underlined.
When I tried to write this dream down, I thought of my first visit to China ten years ago. The trip lives in my memory as a series of images: slow and dragging traffic around me, quick and gutting Mandarin above me. But more than anything else, I recall one statue I had glimpsed in a museum in Yunnan. A seated Buddha, ten thousand arms spiraling out from it like a peacock. All the little fingers carved lightly onto stone, perfectly rigid but moving, and growing, and never ending.
The dreams eventually faded, as fever dreams tend to do. The arms and I had been conjoined for three long summer months and I felt a new emptiness when they didn’t return, night after night. I liked how they had felt jangling from my dream-body, swishing with my motion. Bumping into each other sometimes, tangling themselves into nasty knots of arm on arm. I never had full control over these ten thousand arms, although when I wrote about them, I did.
On paper I told myself that these dreams arrived to give me closure about that statue I had seen a decade ago, one of my few clear memories of China. I was now equal parts deity as the Buddha—I had all the arms and power. But besides being a poor dreamer, I am a poor dream interpreter, so I decided that this hallucination was a triumph. It was my return to China, my claim to authenticity by way of distorted dream. Because that was what I believed culture was: something to be displayed physically, something that spoke to you in codes.
This past summer, I would wake up remembering that I couldn’t stop talking about being Chinese. In the dream—of course it was a dream—my classmates told me that they knew already and didn’t need the reminder. And yet in everything I wrote, I told them again. I told myself too. I wrote obtuse poems about a temple I had visited once with my grandparents. Some of these obtuse poems won awards and I cringed at the prospect of reading them out loud to an audience of white spectators. And at the concept that anyone was spectating and evaluating, to begin with. I invented family members to better suit the plots of my little poems. With surprising lack of initial guilt, I played God and birthed an aunt who drowned in a river back in China. I drafted a college essay about eating chicken feet with chopsticks, and failing, and ultimately triumphing.
But what I mean to say is that the room felt white, even though it wasn’t. Even though it wasn’t, I felt watched. And so my roomful of new family members kept me company as much as the guilt did. What I mean to say is that in this dream I’d spent so many words insisting I was Chinese that I had no space to let myself not be Chinese. My Chineseness and my writing were permanently fused together—my ethnicity and performance codependent for survival.
If you had asked me two Augusts ago what’s with that dream you keep mentioning about the arms, I would’ve told you a different story. Both accounts being stories in the end—fictionalizations for you. That summer, I would’ve explained that I had willed the arms away. In reality, some other force intervened. That’s the thing I could never accept about dreams. They’re in a different dimension, ungovernable under my rules and authority. After the arms left I felt immensely light, as if I had emerged above water and reminded myself how to breathe. My chest decompressed. I had no weight but my own.
They were never my arms and I had no right claiming them as such in the first place. They belonged to a dream, but even within the space of the dream they belonged to other people—people that came before me in this same, created space of the imagination. In trying to claim Chineseness I had taken on a whole culture: all of its people, all of its arms, all of those arms’ actions. Extending from me, I had invented other bodies, and then ensnared them into my orbit. My grandmother’s flailing arms here on my right, her feet bound to the past. My mother flattening her palms behind me, tired from prodding space into something edible. The twisted spines of railroad tracks growing hands, too, clanging mercilessly around these other arms. These ten thousand arms were nothing more than grotesque versions of reality—my fictionalizations, mutated. Besides that, the statue was monstrously deceptive. The arms looked weightless for the stone Buddha, carved with care and outlined tenderly. Transplanted onto me, they became heavy.
I don’t write my dreams down every time anymore because attempting to control them and capture them onto paper is good for nothing. I tell myself this and work to accept it. Instead, I write outside of the sticky and small space that exists only inside my own head and during my own sleep. I like to think in terms of realities.
One reality being that I’m not a good dream interpreter, still. But I think I can analyze the arm dream for what it was. I wanted to museum myself, and be seen like the Buddha. I’m not made of stone though, not even in the fever dream; I was always flesh and always incapable of such perfect immovability. Unlike the Buddha, once I was seen I wondered what I was being seen for.
Another reality being that as I write this, I am burying myself in words again. I’ve been trying to remember if the Buddha was anything more than its arms, or if the artist carved details only into its limbs, the way it exists in my head. If there was nothing there but empty space I have to fill it in somehow. Maybe in my memory over time some pattern will become etched into its chest or on its face, as if it were there all along.
In this way, I can’t promise that everything’s going to be true. I’m always writing for someone else—for you—for a future version of myself, or a dream iteration. But this multiplicity also means I can find shadows of my selves in the things other people write. I’m not the only one who’s had these dreams and haunts and weights, self-imposed or otherwise. Only recently have I learned that I don’t have to be in control all the time. I’ve begun looking outwards and the world beyond my dream journal is light, and brimming, and full of people. In this bigness, I remember not all of my stories are mine to tell. I extend my own two hands and they do not tangle; I take as I receive; I crack my knuckles; I acclimate slowly to this body and everything it contains.
Self-Portrait Through Phone Screen
My phone has seen much sadness.
It curates an album for me
labeled crying. It contains all this grief
and does not collapse.
It has witnessed me scouring
the smudges on the screen
looking for my face, ascertaining
I have left nothing unfixed.
My phone has been unlocked
thrice before by my sister’s face.
Sometimes I text you to remind me
to take out my contacts.
Look—my phone takes my face,
tumbles it, flips it, lets it hang
in space, timed, suspended.
Before, I sat under the mirror
real close so I could see,
hands reaching towards glass,
twisting my features into procedure.
Sharded, left sitting with its remains.
When I wish I could be somebody
else my phone reminds me I am
everyone I have ever known.
You don’t understand this
plastic hurt. How it pockmarks my face.
Causes it to dimple sharply.
You remind me, always.
You blur with gentle unseeing
into everyone else.
The year I started keeping track of consumption:
counting white teeth on white bread, cataloging the contents of my mouth.
In it rests the definition of migration, swallowed from family dinners, and other
incomplete stories. It hinges on familiar things
—a suitcase into which a language was packed once.
Left gaping now, American tongue big and far away, pruning in the ocean of my mouth, tiding against my teeth.
The year my dentist prescribed concern to my underbite:
What we will do, he says, is drill a hole in the gum, carve out a tunnel—to China
and other far places—moor it to a mold,
shift the teeth with seismic intervention.
I tell him no, practicing defiance in
stifling my tongue against crooked teeth.
Inside my mouth I suspend towns over sea.
Each with gated homes, teeth of fences pried straight.
The year I washed it all down:
to make room for new things.
The greenhouse is full of dead things:
absence draped over its rafters,
ceiling fan turning on itself.
On the wall someone has written How long
do you think this will last? 50 yrs?
as if this is not decay. As if
to say I told you so. So
if someone put me in a box
and mostly cared for me I wonder
if I would grow this well,
and persistently. If I could grow
in the cold and among the dying.
You can plant absence in this greenhouse:
trust that it will grow, keep it
from wind and bird and hurt.
Then, let it yellow, let it be inhabited.