“Look” by Yi Wei is the 3rd place winner for the 2021 Sappho Prize, selected by guest judge Maggie Smith.
“I admire the way this poem explores multiple iterations of experience—like turning something in one’s hands, looking carefully at its many facets. There is comfort in this line: “In every version of this story, I am alive.” But no, wait, that comfort is rescinded here: “In every version of the story but this one, I am alive.” I finished this poem and wanted to read more by this writer.” —Maggie Smith
I am walking down the street and no one wants to kill me. I am walking down the street and no one kills me. In the grocery store, the first melon I pat is ripe. The security guard is white and nothing else. In the building, there is less room for being turned on and no room for grief. My fingers are spindly against the door. I am anon. The guard does not nod. The guard cannot linger. The camera does not pick up the guard and the couches and the visitors and the top of my head with it, does not document the last living video of me entering before I am found. The camera does not fling my body across the room like I am meant to float the way ghosts do. I walk. I walk into my apartment and think I am alive. At home, I unpack my melon and what I eat goes into my mouth and I eat it with my mouth like a sermon. The rind of the melon does not fall to the ground. I am alive. In every version of this story, I am alive. The melon is rotten. I am alive. The security guard does a jig as I enter. I am alive. The couch is being dry cleaned. I am alive. I hug the bellhop. I am alive. I smash ten melons against the glass coffee tables. I am alive. The walls of the apartment melt into the bedsheets. I am alive. I am alive. In fifty years, the security guard is in the same bar as me and we do not make eye contact. In every version of the story but this one, I am alive. I think I would like to join the others. I think I would like to have another melon. Give me another melon. Let me swallow it whole.
Sweet melon, husk. The women
in my family are wildly heaving
what they carry. The seeds still flower
in their chests, and I wonder how sharp
the ends, the rot from within.
My aunt, too ripe and burning. Like her father,
she plucks the rot from the body, tells my mother
the news when it spreads. I spoon half a grapefruit
with the news. We are always cutting
what we cannot save.
It’s not the ripeness of the melon that is urgent—
to eat, to eat now. There is a nectarine I bought
on the first warm day, one month ago. It is soft
and ready and brown. My friend tells me
about a frozen turkey left on top of her freezer,
decomposed over a year. It lay there, spread
too thin, too ripe. Four years late my grandfather
tells us about his liver. One year late my aunt
tells us about her breasts. We are always
the last to the table.
The ripening of our women is a legacy
of burning. We leave behind nothing
but seeds. My aunt, a sweet life, a sweet
son. She sleeps alone,
soft and ready and saved.
Look at me with your melon ball eyes. Beady
round things look me in the eye deep
scoop me out with your melon ball eyes. Scoop
the meat with the handle tug
me loose let me fill
I nightmare again tonight about the Chinese women
who tuck my hair between my fingers and pull.
Faceless women who become angry women who
become dead women who are left in the sheets
when I wake. I am always left in the wake,
smelling their perfume and unstuck in their sweat,
my fists clench their hands as I walk
slowly. Slower, still. I comfort
them with my knowing—one of us
is dead and the other lives in the dead
lands, in the knowing that we are not
supposed to go soft, and do.
When my women are mistaken for spoil
by soldiers, by you, I comfort them.
After all, what is comfort but two women
holding hands? Who are we but two soft things
made softer by embrace—defiant and ripe
in our clasping. So chase us. Look.