Fracture: Poems for My Mother About the Vietnam War

Monday, April 17, 2017
Poems for My Mother About the Vietnam War

     My mother has always been rather quiet. Not the kind of quiet like the heavy lull after an exhale, but the kind of quiet where all of her truth is inaudible. It's like there's a screen between her and her surroundings muffling the volume. Like she is always remembering. 
     As a kid, I would smooth over a piece of skin on her arm with my fingertips where the texture was different. It was a slight indent by her shoulder with serrated edges, little lines carefully arranged in a circular pattern like a child's crude cut-out. It was soft, glossy. I often asked where she got it, because my own arm was unblemished. She would turn to me each time I asked and say matter-of-factly that she had gotten a shot.  I would continue to trace it with my hand and wish I could wear the same scar on my arm.
     I've always admired the way her hands don't tremble, the way her eyes never travel, like everything she says is with the utmost conviction. She's quiet, but her smile is resounding and draws everything into focus. Light is charmed by my mother's silhouette. She is magnetic, powerful, and divine. 
     When my mother came to America on a plane from Vietnam as an orphan, I like to think I know how she might of felt because of how I know her now, but I don't, and when it comes to these kinds of stories, the ones that require more detail, she is quiet. Sometimes remembering must be deafening. All I know for certain is that she is the strongest person I have ever known and that and her story, whatever she wants to tell of it, need to be honored. Forty two years ago this month, my mother became a survivor. These are the poems I wrote for her to be her voice. 

In My Dreams I Am There
by Ariel Sullivan

A U.S. government plan to transport Vietnamese orphans out
of their war-torn country began in disaster. On April 4, 1975,
the first flight to leave Saigon crashed several minutes after takeoff
killing 138 people, most of whom were Vietnamese Children.

I hear the crippling sound of airplane
eruption of fuselage, of heartbreak.
I like to think that each child felt weightless
like they could be jet-streamed into sleep
and they could sing anything they wanted.
Inside the plane, I see everything suspended
in radical slow-motion. Children drift through
the air like dust particles only visible when sun
streams through glass, everything eerily stagnant.
Their faces are expressionless, arms cradle their
dolls and little possessions. I like to think they
thought of nothing, as they fell through the air.
Instead, they became bright shades of crimson,
cries submerged into the ground, creating so many
clouds of earth, billowing downward the way
water does around a rock thrown into a lake.

Backyard Stories
by Ariel Sullivan

The grass was always at it’s highest in my mother’s
backyard. A wooden bench-swing undulated in windgusts,
guided softly by our bare toes moving dirt as we swayed.
Our bench overlooked the sky orchestra tucked behind the
fence, brilliant tinges of light like conducted flames almost
danced in the stillness of the evening. It was as if the sky were
one layer, us another opacity. We were doll pieces under the house
shadow, miniscule forms of ourselves beneath the nightfall. She spoke
softly of polio, of wreckage, of a country she only knew through fragments.

How to Write an Autobiography in Two Languages
by Ariel Sullivan

1. Write it small, so they can’t hear you.

2. Remember, stories can be carved out of any raw material
(monochromatic, grayed photographs with corners turned, silica and soda ash).

3. Admit, I want to remember it with fireflies, is as good as an excuse for revisions as any.

4. Include layers of the woods whose roots are weaved like patchwork underneath your
childhood home.

5. Include portraits of cathedrals entombed by soil and penned by wounded hands.

6. Use verses from Vietnamese folk songs so they can be recycled and filtered into

7. Research all the words you’d like to include, but have no idea how much weight they
actually carry. How ngày is day and đêm is night.

8. It won’t be necessary to mention your role in any of this.

9. When you forget what words mean, let them braid into their own form. Let bóng ti
take shape as sun silhouettes, even though darkness can’t be reformed.

10. Forget how hand games sound like hand grenades, crafting ripples in the sound.

Syncopate, Saigon
by Ariel Sullivan

i. Twin Dolls

Most of what I own is splintered
by the streets, but I have two dolls
whose eyes bead, their linen dresses
cross-stitched with identical stars.
Their faces are patched with so many
bruises, their porcelain cracks
in different patterns.

ii. Bombs Are Maternal

And gunshots are fireworks in people’s bodies.

iii. War Games

I play jacks on broken earth,
tiny fractures are an injury from the mortar,
but their size, an apology.
I imagine the ground taking a mouthful of jacks
and swallowing them whole.

iv. My Soldier’s Promise

I’ll come back for you is like an ornament
I cannot touch.

v. Treasures

Snails hide underneath the rocks when
the air gets too loud. I pick them out and
turn them over in my hands. Snails are made
of rocks
I tell the nuns. But they throw them
back over the fence.

vi. Ghosts

Sometimes I hear their voices outside through the explosions.
A thousand howls in my head. I won’t leave my room.
I call out to them, my tongue thick with vowels.

vii. “Goodnight, Good Luck”

There are no orphans, only fog.

Moon Children
by Ariel Sullivan

In an orphanage, my mother wrote mt trăng on
firecracker paper and then wrote it into the flames,

their letters burned and crumpled, vanishing in the
smoke. She remembers stories of children who carried

lanterns to the moon. How the light acted as their guide
to somewhere safe. How they were always moving.

How the sun spat kerosene and then stitched together
the stars. A statue of a man in front of the cathedral

was swallowed by the earth. Her friend went with it,
a piece of lunar core slumping into the ground.

They used to sing Vietnamese proverbs, played hand games
on the street. The songs, now splinters of muddled syllables

in her throat. She left her language on a plane, when she saw
the one behind her disappear into the cloud-rubble.

In her new country, a woman with long brown hair changed her
name, dressed her American, gave her new moons. She held them

like trinkets in her palms. Her new mother pocketed her stories
of a place only recognized through black and white photographs

and distant echoes. Now, when she dreams, there’s no dialogue.
There is only earth, swallowing voices and screams.

A Foreign Tongue
by Ariel Sullivan

When she speaks, her words carry a stereo delay,
disable salivary glands, pool sound underneath

the frenulum, bend vowels in her mouth. Her lips
configure into knots, then wrinkles of words like raw

silk from the back of the throat. Letters form in circular
contours, shape her mouth pattern into templates,

and create an arrangement of speech-strings. As they
unravel, she finds them distant and strange, yet familiar,

knowing language never leaves. Pressure-sensitive, muffled
beneath years passed, it festers underneath the tongue.

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