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by Sophia Peng

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When I was eight years old, my dad moved back overseas to China, his home country, in pursuit of a better job opportunity. Too young to think much of it, I tumbled through my elementary and middle school years in apathy, accepting of my dad’s absence, curt with him on phone calls, agreeable during his visits home. Not questioning the distance between us until it came to my attention in early adulthood that our lives had become islands, only hazily cognizant of the roads, rivers, and contours of the other. When a global pandemic rendered international travel – particularly to and from China – all but impossible, I felt, over the course of the last two years, that stretch of blue, blue sea expanding, all the faults and misunderstandings between us sedimenting without fresh discoveries to wash them anew.


More pressingly, in the span of my dad’s physical absence I have been metamorphosing. I started college, I acted on ambitions, I reckoned with failure and mental health, I learned intentionality, I broke into a self separate from my twin sister and the expectations of an insular Chinese American hometown community. In this blur of change, one dormant thread: who I am on the phone with my dad. The wire connecting us rewinding time until I am eight years old again, a broken record reciting my grades, my leadership roles, and my plans for the future before a reproving coach, whistle around his neck, stopwatch perpetually running. The cognitive dissonance is sharp and often overwhelming, a hole that only seems to widen the more I try to fill it in, to fill him in on my life as it inconsiderately races ahead, unaware of who is left behind.


One relief, though: Late night walks, the ability to dissect our conversations, to contextualize. In the span of my dad’s physical absence I have been carving. Soft clay peeling until the outline of a man, his childhood on a farm in the rurals of Hunan Province, fingers stained with ink, throat clutching songs of grasslands and gods he’s never seen. A snake forced to shed and shed until only one stick-straight spine, one linear lifeline, remained. Clay hardening.

The following pieces are an attempt to impede latency. To keep the stories that form my conscience, the Daoist philosophies and the displaced laborers and most importantly, the tangibility of a father, from fraying with the passage of time. With the eclipsing of Chinese and American cultures. They are a healing that starts not with the body, but with the world entering the body. An odyssey that, like Homer’s, seeks for its protagonists not an end but a beginning. How the way he started led to the way I am now. Biding identity, searching back and back and back for reconciliation, while the path forward – reuniting with my dad – remains suspended.


body as passing ground


your nose; 


the moment your mouth




the pouring in.



the lost Shen; Holy Spirit



down the womb of your throat


to your rooted



for an instant you are



every blood vessel blitzed

with birth energy


gold veins of fat and

flesh depositing


DNA striated

a thousand years


water pressing at skin

to be freed–


then the diastole passes.


passengers disembark at fingertips

the opening of your wrists


the jut of your pelvis

your closing lips


until the station is 



so it is

to be the misty middle


of breath

and more than you can hold.


pinch your nose; 

the moment your mouth



Rocky River _edited.jpg

mining like the ancient floods

california 1852










a century.


ashscraped skin.



youth washed gray in mirage.



at least it is not the gray of opium.



the first time we were drowning,


our lungs like silvers peddled out to sea.



veins in our fingertips dragged in axeblows toward the dark,


water rising and each past life smelt down to a horizonless mythology,




and it is at once an avalanche of earth and 

awakening behind our knees our blistered palms 

freed in the 

torrent of collapsing;

how once Great Yu broke rock into canals 

with the precise strokes of an inkbrush to 

rescue drowning villages 

so we here now can seek the sky heaven, 

seek to hollow this ancientless land like husks of rice,

gravel dripping like grain off our backs; 


and we are not home not heroic not lost ingénues leaked out of a miscreant war– 




until rust. 


shavings of bitterness 

down the river of time.

yìyáng, húnán


and from the river

luscious, bitten were spirits born

       my hands       swirled in

Greek paintings

your voice      preaching

shoals of Buddhist sayings–

what are gods but      followed?

what is belief       but ebbing and flowing

       home to home?

in xiāngxià       you take me to the water

weaving through the radiant rice fields.

I blink       and there–

       the myth of you       

       morpheus       rising from the Yangtze

cradled in his arms       the body

of a snake.


to survive, you said

we stood for years 

in the water

weeding and weaving grains       into gravitures

the seedy rice a rope 

around our livers

while the       leeches

learned reverence by our muddy knees

and the bleeding

sold hunger to the river

of our dreams.


in the fields it is all       bitterness,

each blade of blemish

burning       with green.

in the jiàoshì it is       salted pages,

ink and stuckthroating

and lead      breaking open equations.

such is growing up

on nóngmín shore.

running and running      until your legs

       turn into waves

       your arms       

wings       prickling for updrafts

at a foreign god’s feet.



when you told me there were Shen in the mountain caves

in my mind       I saw apollo’s cows

getting snatched by hermes.

how you pulled on my sister and I       silently then–

liǎng pí xiǎo mǎ tuō zhe yì tiáo lǎo shé

(two young horses dragging one old snake!)

yoked to your arms

sinew of your sinew       as the sun set

at the zoo

and the animals       if not but 

gods        cloaked in zodiac menus 

melted into red–

sacred before my eyes

then ebbed blueblack out of view.


your dreams come on a current

against which you must pull pull pull.

your dreams silt with the soil

sleep down for you to fertilize whole.

your dreams grow leaves and legs

shoulders broad–       a god to beseech.

your dreams walk stoically towards the west

a pretty blonde town

a civilization dawning      anew.


you arrived with fifty dollars,       you said

and the first thing you saw

was the ocean.

you bought the cheapest supermarket rice

brown and       broken–

the fruit of what would have been       

your worst labors

and stood there       out over the water


how unrunning, how unlike       the reddened 

rivers of home.

how untight,       snakeskin peeling away

in the reflected sun.

shed from yourself       the leeches and the old scales–

shed ten years later

a family.

these countries, this deity       fade

scars healing scars

blood licking blood off your feet.

a new religion cleansing

rivers               converging.



it is cháoshī summer.

mosquitoes       string the rooftop

of your childhood home.

you are teaching me to throw fireworks

into the night like 

nocking arrows, and

your hands       

calloused      –like how I want mine

are a ropebraid,

ariadne’s string       guiding       

through the smoke.

together we dip the sparkers in       the rivers

of our hearts

and watch them rise      out to sea.

Poem I would not show my mother

Ah but–

she has already seen it.

I gave it

for her to see.


She read it–

slight wind.


A lapse of understanding,



At all the floral.

At the salt.


But with the guilelessness of an egret

pecking apart a mouse–


she presses ‘Send.’ 

And I get a text


from my father. 

Now the subject of the poem


has seen it too.

Suddenly it is a funeral


in early January,

fists closing over


the rest of the year.

My words swirl to gray


in the graveyard,

white petals



It is quick,


so quick this loss–

a nimble beak


snapping the olive branch

before warring sides


meet. My father

out at sea. And I–



My mother,


phone in one hand

and truce,



at her feet.

after 3am on girls' night out

four of us darkening in the car after a night

at a nightclub 

bluelight weeping its way in.


a world rolling off her tongue

time stretched

long as skin.


press of the pedal and we are off,

tearing open the city’s womb as water breaks

a woman.


the first heartbeat is how silent.

the second 

Fireball whiskey sloshing.


how this too is thoracic:


syllables like veins threaded between us;

lungs purging breath as flesh into the sectioned air;

shine gilding the oil of our skin like a sunrise.


the night

lived and living

swallowed down the throat of a road.


how when we arrive


there is just 

the tremble of water 

above reaching fingers


the skinniest impression 


by the drowned.

City of Yiyang 2.JPG


Truth is, Dad


I’d be the exact same way.

Fingers fused to a hilt,





Maybe if that bull

hadn’t bucked you near breaking when you were

a boy


the sky never would have tilted 

as you fell

and slammed itself into your shoulders like 


the yoke

you lost control of.


See Dad, 


I understand you like I understand 

a romance novel


and the hero is tall dark and brooding, 

his saving emotion the trauma

that bore him.


Pain is not a good mother,



No matter how successful

you turned out.


And I am not a dashing heroine

who would startle your armor with

a single glance–


just scales you’ve shed in your wake.


And you are past the lure

of kindheartedness.


So really, Dad


what is this story?

Are you still a hero if I cannot

admire you


or because you think yourself one?


Maybe I am the hero,



and you never should have crossed the ocean

to steal a plot

for yourself.


My selfish glory didn’t mind,

but the artist–


the artist who knows and knows and

knows you

would imagine 


you browned in the sun


pacing the vegetable garden that we’ve since 

abandoned to weeds,





three kids reading around the dinner table,

lost in tales of romance


and redemption.


advised by Samuel Lê, Summer Nguyen, Brandon Ba, and Dr. Lan Li

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