Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season

Motorbikes darting. Nattering horns leave an aftertaste.

I mark the distance on a map: this city a wrist-width away from the last.

Come sunrise, street dogs will turn their thoughts to wet foods.

It’s not easy to measure your life in debts.


For years now, I’ve been using the wrong palette.
Each year with its itchy blue, as the bruise of solitude reaches its expiration date.

Planes and buses, guesthouse to guesthouse.

I’ve gotten to where I am by dint of my poor eyesight,
my overreactive motion sickness.

9 p.m., Hanoi’s Old Quarter: duck porridge and plum wine.

Voices outside the door come to a soft boil.


I sweat over plates of pork dumplings and watery beer.

Can you fix this English?
the Chinese restaurant owner asks, pushing a menu toward me.

The men here chew toothpicks like uncles on both sides of my family.
They talk with their mouths full.

I translate what little I can, it’s embarrassing.

Just passing through?
asks his eldest daughter, as she turns away to the fan.


My guilt goes off,
then returns, wilder.

For whom does it return?

All I do is recede from the view
of those at my back.

Heeding only the tug of the interior.


It’s not about the snare of need, though I forget why I came.

Perhaps it’s shallow sleep in the subtropics,
my youthful ambitions wet and slack.

I wring them out.

I want to remember this, though not with wistfulness.
I hang my expectations out on a string.

The city warms its tongue by not saying anything.


Wooden spirit houses on the road to Kampot spray-painted gold, capacious
enough for a pot of incense, a rice bowl, and one can of Fanta.

Noon, white hour.

The outlines of bungalows in the distance—impossible to part the seen
and unseen. What’s here and what isn’t.

The language behind this language cracks open, and my questions follow suit.


Months of medium-rare insomnia.

Wine makes me confuse
elation with clarity, and so I traverse
the night market, my purse empty.

There goes the moon, hardening on a hot skillet.

All that is untouchable as far as the eye can reach.


I thought I owned my worries, but here I was only pulled along by the needle
of genetics, by my mother’s tendency to pry at openings in her life.

Calls made from a booth where one pays by the minute.

I fail to mention the bite of my mistakes,
furnish stories with movement
and no shades of despair.

No, I didn’t travel here for the lawlessness.

I developed an appetite for elsewhere—


Beauty, too, can become oppressive if you let it,
but that’s only if you stay long enough.

If you stay long enough,
the heat’s fingers will touch everything
and the imprint will sting.


I kept twisting my face in bar bathrooms,
in wet markets, in strangers’ arms.

And the years here—
they broke through barriers
one by one, in a kind of line.


Men and women came and went.
The city was dry, and then it wasn’t.


I knelt to the passing time.  

From Eye Level by Jenny Xie. Reprinted with permissions from Graywolf Press.

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