by Jewel Cao

after Doris Salcedo’s photograph ‘Shibboleth I’

Tell me, do I pass this test? All day
I have studied the ways things break
apart – the shapes of the spaces they leave
behind. It is not unusual, to want to know
how two halves of a peach pull away
from pit, how scalpels propagate
brief stories of flesh. Not unusual,
to want some new hollowness, virgin
language, a bone or two sucked clean
of marrow. Easier to fracture, yes, but
what I wouldn’t give for the power of flight.
In the abandoned village of my forefathers,
the wild dogs howl. Only the sparrows
play the power lines stretched across the sky
like guzheng strings, a disused railway – clawed feet
plucking out notes their throats
could never reach.
I am trying to learn the silent
arrhythmia of wings, the way absence
echoes in the pockmarks of mountains, the empty
columns between teeth. All this work I have done –
this poem, this language –
and all I wanted was to cobble together
the words I never learned to say.