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A New Colossus

A Celebration of Our America

Document

There’s a dark so deep we get lost in it. Such is the mind, born
and reborn from a single cell in the womb or wounds of mothers
ready or not to be mothers. I see mine on the shore of Pulau Bidong,

her hair salted by wind thrown in from an ocean she can’t uncross.
She decides not to enter, not to turn back and fill her lungs with green
water where, it seems, her past and future drowned. How much

past is too much? How do we document what has no document?
In the country that divided my country, that stripped my mother
and I of our names, I turn the page of a book with photographs

of Vietnamese refugees resettled at Camp Pendleton, thirty five miles
north from where I grew up. My fingers on their faces, a stranger’s eye,
frozen in time, as though a lover stroking or slapping their cheeks.

Women in áo bà ba thin as infant skin. Women decorated with all
their wealth, fat with gold and jade and emerald. Diamond rings
sported brilliantly in death, which I’m sure they know will undress them

until they’re humble and bare as we began. I look for my mother,
though I know she won’t be there, though I know, at that time, a year
dark as bomb smoke, bright as bomb fire, my mother sat beside

my grandfather in a hospital he’ll never leave alive. It’s important
for me to say I look for her still because someone has to. Someone
has to imagine her there: counting each grain of rice rationed to her

for the week or practicing the word Stop for when American soldiers,
young and driven by want, throbbing and hot for a self they traded in
to be killing machines, knock on her door at night to take attendance,

to take what they can from prisoners who they think have more to give.
I look for her until I can look no more, until photographs bleed together—
the membrane between then and now ripped away—and every face is me.

    • Listen: Paul Tran reciting Document

Paul Tran

Paul Tran is Poetry Editor at The Offing Magazine and Chancellor's Graduate Fellow in the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis ...