THE SISTER’S ESSAY, by Sophia Terazawa

Sophia Terazawa is the author of I AM NOT A WAR (Essay Press).

photo credit: Dylan Lowry


The Sister’s Essay

Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”

My chin is resting
on the edge of Kristy’s
bed in Brooklyn.

We’ve been watching
Ali Wong on Netflix
for an hour.

Perhaps the hardest
thing about living
under capitalism

is the way we sit
cross-legged on
a hard wood floor

as if there’s nothing
left to protest,
though it feels

so nice to laugh
over the fantasy
of skull-crushing

the white man’s
head between
our thighs, oh, Ali.

 

DRIVE FAST

When stopping for a piss
an hour from Hanoi,
my sister holds the Kodak

as I squat beside the road
taking a closer look
at gravel near my feet.

Our mother locks herself
inside the yellow
rental van, insisting on

heroics like the strength
it takes to hold
a liter of the lychee water

clenched between
one’s teeth.
My sister rolls her eyes,

and we trade places
in the ditch
beside a sleeping cow.

She says, “Don’t leave
me now, ok?” I won’t.
My sister nods, retreats

into the edges of her toes.
I think about
a photo of the summer

wind around my lungs,
red hogs passing
gas along the hem

of farmlands owned
by no one but
girls shin deep in mud.

Sun-burnt, they plant
another row
of water from their backs.

Our mother asks, “Are you
my sister, too?”
Each girl shakes her head,

and I will know Vietnam
as one long stretch
of ghosts along a highway.

Closer to Hanoi, our mother
stops the van.
She tells us to stay seated

as she leaves. We watch her
shrink into a bullfrog
then a child stepping barefoot

off the road, toward a blasted
concrete wall. We watch
her lean into it, open-palmed.

She begins to cry. Oh, sister,
for without you
I am lost. The setting sun.

Tombstone without a name.
Overgrowth
of jungle standing thick

behind it like a village.
Rise from ash
to silhouettes of people

left behind, who never had
a chance to say
“I love you and good bye.”

 

SWEET

is the smell of sandalwood
and jasmine, burning incense
on a moonlit terrace in
Kolkata.

I am tuning my viola
to the mockingbird
inside my head.

The neighbors one by one
emerge and lean over their railings.
My landlord lights his lamp.
A wounded

street dog in the distance
howls before he meets
his maker.

Dylan sits nearby and holds
the TASCAM sound recorder pointed
toward the sky. He is waiting
for my music

to ignite our rooftop
with some truth
to heal us.

Lately, we’ve been fighting
about another woman. I hate her
name. I hate the way her eyes
shine blue like his.

In quarrelling I shoot
questions lacking
answers:

Does she know my yellow
skin? The darkness of my dirt black
hair. How long it takes
to learn “no, thank

you” in two more tongues.
No, thank you, for
your freedom,

for your creams bleaching
my sisters’ hands and feet. Take
it back, your comments on
how possible it is

to love someone
like me. The
fuck?!

My jealousy erupts to bottle rockets
on Diwali when the city bursts with joy.
Each crack opens a bomb
within my throat.

Each flare of light is followed
by a snare drum or
a whistle blowing

in that ink dark wound above us.
Maybe what is said about the sound
of a viola registering closest
to the human

voice is true. When
Pavitra visits us,
she asks only

for me to play. She starts to run
from one end of our terrace to the next,
stretching out her legs the length
to match a subway car.

A fire sweeps into
my lungs. We do
not speak

except to move like doves
from jungle to its borders. Here we
stamp dried marigolds
beneath our feet.

Orange smoke
will paint
the air,

for no one ever showed us
how to use our hands except
to be each other’s
keepers.

 

I RECALL THE

only time my
mother slapped
my face.

Right after that,
she snatched
her wrist

and held it limp
against her chest
just like

a beaten dog
and whimpered.
Before our

point of contact,
I was only nine
and angry

she was yelling
in a language
I could

never understand,
so when I spat—
“Learn

English!”—
my mother’s
palm

flattened into
the weapon of
her grief.

 

SWEET

is the smell of rosewood

carved into a lullaby. I dance through
my viola in Kolkata. I am only twenty-

six, and Dylan stands at arm’s length
away. The space between us closes

when he listens. I begin to cry.
Oh, weeping women, are we made

from mere salt or text repeated back
upon us from the bottom of an ocean?

Are we made from grainy photos
of a woman holding hands with just

another woman? They clutch their necks
before they dive into a killing field.

“If anything, let it be the quiet ones
who exit first,” my mother used to say

in so few words, and three years ago,
I would hold Dylan between my legs

and rock us both into a fog of tangerines.
In Ithaca the lights around Cayuga Lake

would make a swan-shaped halo.
Our tongues would glow. We opened

all our windows to a symphony of owls.
A northern autumn breeze would woo

the apple trees. But soon
I will be still inside myself.

How the water lily closes up at night
to be her own cradle. At this age,

I am my mother’s age when she escaped
Vietnam. My body folds into a shell

like petals seeking rest if only for
the solitude it takes to come back home.

 

COLOSSAL

In the subway
next to Kristy,
a man slouches
over his phone.

He is watching
something funny
Live on Facebook.

I ask Kristy
if patience
could ever push
a city toward

the precipice
of love, which is just
a fancy way of saying:

no one fought
for us like
most men fight
for freedom

through their
movies and their
books. To stay alive

would mean
the chance
of work and
steady pay

among such men,
pretending that their
goodness never hurt

a people conquered.
To be the only
body in a company
of text and

wine, always
lying down. Our eyes
becoming markers of

the place from
which we came
before it buried
all our magic.

 

LOSING

you is like missing
the sense of touch,
or how a spirit
trapped in refuge
turns into a child
breaking dishes
in the night. I dream
of hands twisted
like mangrove roots.

They reach into
each corner of
the cupboards in
my kitchen filled
with talismans:
the kanji script
for wind inking
a note card, small
statues of deer.

Another memory:
my father makes
a shrine out of
his father’s bones.
My father takes
a sword and
contemplates
the war inside
his father’s name.

My father gives
his father’s sword
back to the emperor.
My father never learned
to use his father’s sword.
How many sisters
did the old blade cut
in colonizing girls
who looked like me?

My father loves to stare
into a setting sun.
My father is forgetful.
Father, why must you
defend the weight
of our last name against
the ghosts asking for
reparations? Why must
you make them speak

 

IN JAPANESE

The comfort of not knowing or the comfort of modernity
the comfort of the comfort in learning how to live alone
in cities, not so lonely /

In April I walk around Kyoto undisturbed. Purple wisteria
perfumes the avenues. I find the shrine. Inside, I find a fox.
I stop to dip my head inside a holy cloud of smoke, just as
my father and his father taught. I greet the spirit / pray.

A sister knits a hat before the consulate. The guards may
forcefully suggest that if she does not leave, there could
be legal consequence. She does not leave. My father
cannot comprehend her anger. During World War II,
the military of Japan would capture girls and women
all through South Korea, China and the Philippines.
Thousands of them were forced into sex slavery. /

Hundreds upon thousands. Thousands. / Thousands.
/ leave you come back / Into the mouth the wound the
entry is reverse /
Atone.

In Vietnamese there is a saying that in times of war,
women should wear black and bind their chests: the
likelihood of bodies being mistaken as some women
with some bodies for the Yankees marching through
/ I start to bind my chest in seventh grade.

I start to cut my hair. I start to recognize my dreams
as vessels for the spirits of my sisters. / To resurrect.
/ Why resurrect it all.

I start to read the book Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung
Cha. I start to carve out effigies of women from their
words. A statue made of bronze. Around it burns the
fire. Around it burns a ring of dolls made out of straw.
Each one is dressed in jade and linen. Each one may
have a name. Each one will have a legend to believe.

Ox blood in a bowl. / My mother cuts the ox tongue
with a paring knife and gives me half of it. She says
that I must eat this muscle without hesitation. I am
ten and know by now to trust my mother’s history
as much as I can trust her hands.

Wild orchids in a bowl. / I slowly place the muscle
in my mouth. The ox tongue rests against my taste
buds like an anvil. It feels me just as much as I am
able to identify the texture of my molars, breath,
and palate with my tongue, warming the tongue
upon my tongue. I cannot force myself to chew it.

Blue herons in a bowl. / I dread in biting through
the tongue, I may devour both our voices.

 

WINTER

Fatima locks
her keys
inside her car
again.

We wait outside
the psychic’s
house.

The psychic’s
husband
asks if we
prefer

to wait inside
the house
after

he makes a call
to road-
side assistance.
“They

should be here
in an hour,”
says

the psychic’s
husband,
and we thank
him for

his help. Fatima
folds into the
paisley

foyer chair
inside
the psychic’s
house. I

sit, too, and say,
“Don’t worry.
Everything

will be okay.”
Fatima nods.
A waterfall
threatens to break

beneath her eyes.
We see such
falsehood

in the future of
our nation
that continues to
annihilate

brown people who
should look
like her.

We write about
our mothers
often. We wish
to find

a safe place for
our poems,
but

for now we wait
in Dallas,
planning our
escape.

 

LEMONGRASS

The Tankō Bushi, also known as the Coal Mine Song
during the summer Bon, is sung up to the moon god.

    “I wonder: does he choke upon the smoke
    that rises from the city of Tagawa?”

When my father tries to show me how to dance to it,
I mistake the Tankō Bushi with a passage into death.

    「月が出た出た月が出た、ヨイヨイ」
    “Tsuki ga deta deta Tsuki ga deta, yoi yoi”

A rabbit’s foot tied to a pole. A ship brimming with
Tanuki, the laughing raccoon dogs. A Taiko beating.

“If you leave me, I will learn to cut
the image of you from my mind.”

Within my mind, there is a place to carve the lyrics.
A place to set the lanterns into rivers. A song fading
to moonlight.

Within my mind, there is a place to name all of the
gods I worship—one for harvest, one for rain, one
for taking pain away,

one to gift us mountain air, to hold our sadness in
her arms, one for when we fall apart. Somewhere
within my mind, there is a quiet place to heal after
the age of gods.

Somewhere within my shoulders, I am swaying to
the rhythm of my people. Somewhere in my heart,
I know precisely who they are. Somewhere inside
my voice, I have forgotten who they are.

My teeth have closed around an ox tongue claiming
space within my month. The ox tongue bleeds into
a bowl.

Inside the bowl, a wild flower blooms. Somewhere
inside the flower’s palm will lay a hand grenade.