January 20, 2014

Mai Der Vang: “Light From a Burning Citadel”

Mai Der Vang

This week we’re delighted to offer up a new poem by Mai Der Vang. Vang’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Weave Magazine, Red Branch, The Boiler, the Lantern Review, and Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora, among others. As an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, Mai Der served as co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Columbia University, a Kundiman fellow, and has completed residencies at Hedgebrook.

Author’s note:

This poem gestures at the notion of displacement and ultimately at the sense of an entire landscape in exile. As a Hmong American, I am drawn to poetry that attempts to recreate the experience of loss, in this case, the futility brought on by war. Though I was born (and raised) in Fresno, CA, just after my parents resettled as refugees from Laos, I am constantly haunted by their experience of war. It is my inheritance, this gift of exile, a reminder that should I lose these notions, no matter how traumatic they may be, I might lose a part of my cultural and personal history. So I retain them in writing.
 
The Hmong text in this poem operates as a sort of refrain, illuminating the collective voice against the individual. The phrases translate as:
Peb yog: “We are.”
Peb yog hmoob: “We are Hmong.”
Peb yeej ib txwm yog hmoob: “We have always been Hmong.”

 

Light From a Burning Citadel

Once this highland was our birthplace. Once
we were children of kings.

 

Now I am a Siamese rosewood on fire.
I am a skin of sagging curtain.
I am a bone of bullet hole.
I am locked in the ash oven of a forest.

 

Peb yog and we will be.

 

The sky sleeps quilted in a militia of stars.
 

Someone has folded
gold and silver spirit
money into a thousand tiny boats.

 

Peb yog
hmoob and we will be.

 

I am hungry as the beggar who cracked
open a coconut to find
the heart of a wild gaur.

 

Hmoob and we
will be.

 

The tree is more ancient
than its homeland,
shedding its annual citrine
as hourglass dripping honey.

 

Peb yeej ib txwm yog
hmoob.

 

I dig and dig for no more roots to dig.
I soldier with my severed
legs, my fallen ear.

 

I’ve become the shrill
air in a bamboo pipe—the breath
of an army of bells.

 

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