The Burden of Translation

poetry 0
Alixen Pham


My mother carried an old man
on her back after she fled Vietnam.
He was small and shriveled, like a mummy,
limbs broken and reassembled
into a folded child.
He had a musky smell to him,
like river mud encrusted with broken houses.
She cried when she thought of him,
longed to see his black-framed glasses,
feel his nimble fingers whittle wood
into trees again.
But the authorities denied his visa, leaving
him to drown like a flooded ship, alone.
My mother built an altar to honor his bones,
the wisps of his hair, the psalms he used to sing to her.
She chewed bitterroot, ate dark shade
that had accumulated from centuries of oppression.
The Chinese, the French, the Americans, the Communists.
I don’t recall if she passed him onto me, or
if I took him on my back, or when it happened.
Only that I stitched a jacket for him
from the soft skin of my belly, cobbled his soles
on top of my feet, kept him red as I turned blue. Because
the river was where I’d come from. Because
the river curved wounds on my wrists.
I brought him to college, on first dates, draped
his sheets over them. I slaved my world for him,
wrote love poems, cried his name into the abyss.
But I nearly died beneath his weight. Left him
in the wilderness along with my thymus. After
my mother died, I realized I’d been carrying
the wrong person, calling him by the wrong name.

Alixen Pham is an emerging poet with work published or forthcoming in New York Quarterly, Gyroscope Review, Lily Poetry Journal, DiaCRITICS, and Brooklyn Poets as the Poet of the Week. She leads the Westside Los Angeles chapter of Women Who Submit, a volunteer-run literary organization supporting and nurturing women and non-binary writers. She is the recipient of a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program, and a PEN Center/City of West Hollywood Writing Craft Scholarship in Fiction and Nonfiction.