2020 Pushcart Prize
From Full-Length Poetry Collections
Wider than the Sky
Nancy Chen Long
$18 / March 2020 / 978-1939728364
The universality and specificity of human experience is profoundly felt in these metaphysical poems, interrogating and celebrating how being persists, “forever/home, forever foreign,” despite subjective and collective erasure –its aberrations, its genetic inheritances, its “scorched language,”— “creating/ourselves as we go.”
— Rebecca Seiferle
In her second book Wider Than the Sky, Nancy Chen Long grapples with the porous and slippery nature of memory and mind. Through form and content, the poems in the book mimic memory, its recursive and sometimes surreal qualities—how recalling one memory resurrects a different memory, which then jumps to another memory, and then another, each memory connected by the thinnest of wisps—as well as memory’s mutability—conflicting memories among family members, changes in the collective memory of a society, a buried memory that is resurrected when one catches the scent of a forgotten perfume. Wider Than the Sky explores the role of memory in identity, how the physical aspects of the brain impact who we are, and how who we are—both individually and as a society—is, in one sense, a narrative. These poems delve into the mind’s need for narrative in order to make sense of the world and how a society uses stories and myth to help its members remember a lesson, a preferred behavior, or their position in the social scale.
from Wider than the Sky
A stranger once told me
a story: In the beginning
was the Word,
and when Word was born,
the first words Word said
formed the first story.
I can find no people who have no creation
myth. Ex nihilo, big bang, chaos,
earth-diver. We are a race bound by wordlust and scattered
by wanderlust. We tarry
in the House of Babel.
Raconteur, remind me again of the tale
in which the spring sun is a cherry chandelier
clinging low on the branch,
touching the understory of morning sky.
If your body were a tree that reached the heavens,
a tree overflowing with crystals and notched,
I would perch at the very top of you
and keep watch. No babble would dare enter
our emptiness. No storm cloud
would muffle our morning psalm.
And Winter would be more
than syllabary and cuneiform,
more that just a squinting,
a scant incision of light.
Who does not have a tale
of hubris…building a tower to the heavens
to find a home among the stars—
their place in that mansion
of many rooms, daring to think
they can circumvent the inevitable
flood-to-come, only to be smacked down
and sent reeling, cast into the sea,
nothing but stars
and a smattering of words to guide them.
The parable that leads out of my small
imprisonment is penned in a book I cannot read,
and the world is a dwelling place
of myths lost. Looking at the winter
constellations, I want to exchange the sky
for a tent, be ever wordless, unrooted.
A tent cannot contain the scope of heaven
any more than Earth can be the consort of God.
The world is filled
with words. We are a seaward-bound people,
chasing a flood
of sorrows our stories cannot explain.
"Wordlust" previously appeared in Smartish Pace and was republished in Diode Poetry Journal 13.1
The Ministry of Disturbances
Zeeshan Khan Pathan
$18 / 104pp / March 2020 / 978-1939728357
"This is a book written from unquenchable longing with a full awareness of the lateness of the hour 'as the world folds over like a paper plane.' They are the poems my soul needs."
— Diane Seuss
In his startling debut, The Minister of Disturbances, Zeeshan Pathan interrogates and subverts the calcified notions of identity (whether Islamic or American or human), the rules of citizenship, & the idea of the nation state. Unafraid of blending the lyrical and the political, he dramatizes the inner journey of the poet as his speakers confront world events including global climate change, the Afghan and Iraq wars, political conflicts from Egypt to India, American imperialism, the idea of the surveillance state, the aftermath of global terrorism, medical illness, displacement and exile. In love with Lorca and Thomas James, his poems seamlessly move from the romantic to the devastating. The weather of these poems is bleak and ridden with the pain of expulsion & dislocation. Language, for Pathan, is a means to restoration and reclamation but the speakers never fully arrive at complete healing and perhaps, that is the power of the collection. There is beauty and truth here, as Keats had once famously intimated, all great poetry should have. And not simply pearls of beautiful lies.
The Minister of Disturbances confronts the reader with poems that are both tender and terrifying. Though the poet is interested in beauty and in love with poets like Shelley and Hannah Weiner, “with [his] own rampant mouth”, he tells the story of exile, alienation, and hauntingly describes the innumerable moments of a life lived in the shadows of faraway American wars and the resulting global tumult from the eyes of an American Muslim. Zeeshan Pathan was born in Memphis, Tennessee & he has lived in several major American cities including New York City. In 2016, he moved to Istanbul several months before the advent of the Trump Presidency—having completed his graduate studies at Columbia University. In poem after poem, he seeks a language which can capture the horror of our times but never once forgets that his tongue “is stained by the carnivorous ink of history.” This necessary collection is at once lyrical as much as it is rampant with ravishment and mournful of irrefutable ruptures.
from The Minister of Disturbances
To A Mother Tongue I Can No Longer Pronounce
Protolanguage and despair
You are the da odils given to me —
That I never plucked
From the elds of in nite pain and dire milkweed —
I hold you in my blighted palm
Sometimes at night when the horses
Feral through the pastures
When the archaeologists are sleeping amiably
Inside their tents, dreaming (with their microscopes) —
And the earthquakes, the earthquakes
Have ceased for a moment
You are the little seed I ponder, the fragment
Of a papyrus scroll, pistachio
Rust in a barrel
A bone of a ziggurat monster, with inscrutable fractures —
The broken tablet of Nimrud, a lamasu’s wings of lapis lazuli
Wedded to Shiva’s seventy-seven imperishable hands —
I cannot decipher you,
Not now, not ever,
No matter how many times
My tongue clenches you like Death Between my two large teeth —
Like an earthen jug in a peasant’s spent
And prostrating arm, you slip away incessantly.
"To A Mother Tongue I Can No Longer Pronounce " first appeared in Poetry Northwest
From Diode Poetry Journal 13.2
"Invention of the Color Yellow"
Diode Poetry Journal 13.2
Invention of the Color Yellow
a girl is given a bullet and told to throw it / up when she’s ready // a girl is given a season &
nowhere / to empty it into // i can say whatever i want & this is somebody’s greatest fear // a girl is
given a lightbulb and told / her secrets one by one // she holds them / like toy knives // she puts
them away / in my gut // if they come out (and they will come out) / it’s me who’ll bleed to death
// my voice breaking / over diamonds // my voice / like water in a tiny waterfall // cities drowned
in paint / but only when the sun is down // a girl is given / back to her gods when they’ve run out
of worlds to end // i tell her what / -ever can be imagined can be killed // which is why you are
unimaginable // which is why i sit here holding your skin / so you can’t put it on // a girl is given a
reason / not to run // a girl is given feathers & hot glue // the girl is very smart (we were counting
on that) & the only thing she hates / more than her hands / is putting them where no one can see
// i tell her pick them up / make them useful / make them pretty enough to eat / put them in my
mouth so i can starve // looking more like me
Diode Poetry Journal 13.2
After the quake I gather my remains:
bloody pulp, girl-child, torn Sunday dress
gathered at the knees. I am again
floated white belly-up in the creak
of a bed, its low moans like humming flies,
the warm dark pulpit of another man’s breath.
Yours so familiar in its caress. Not everyone
is that man, you say. Or that. Or those, which,
as boys, pressed their palms to my pink skin
as I learned to accept every hunger
but my own. But your hands, their hardness,
collapses me in prayer, accordion-folds
my spine. If God exists, may He allow me
to yearn this once. Inside your mouth,
let me not think of my breasts rounding to glass
or stone. Let me believe in my skin & its softness,
sharpened to light. Let me believe, this once,
in the warm lurch of your body into mine.
From Diode Poetry Journal 13.1
Diode Poetry Journal 13.1, first published in The Last Human Heart (Diode Editions, 2020).
In my dreams I am always drowning,
always that scared girl, toes curled over
the edge of a public pool, suit straps
sliding off my shoulders, fearful
all the boys will see her flat chest,
ruffled two-piece suit soggy, sweaty.
Always the water churns an ugly
blue, chlorine gagging my breathing,
making me turn my head and cough
like at the doctor’s, except no kindly
nurse hands me a sucker here.
Instead, I’m the sucker—so afraid
of sinking that I’m ripe for any
troublemaking boy to trip and push
me into that city pool where the signs
above say NO RUNNING
NO HORSEPLAY NO SPITTING
Swim At Your Own Risk
And before I can say no,
I’m a sunken stone, heavy
but flailing, a skinny bag
of bones, terribly uncute.
Is it any wonder now, adult,
I cannot even float,
that the swim instructor, baffled,
wonders aloud how can you run
and bike but not swim?
I laugh, tell her I don’t trust water,
and really, I don’t—it lies about
how deep it is, comes crashing
uninvited into basements,
aids and abets hurricanes.
No one should trust anything
that beautiful that causes
that much damage, anything
capable of bloating you up,
soaking you dead, leaving
you wasted on the shore.
"Poem Without Myself In It"
Diode Poetry Journal 13.1
Poem Without Myself In It
To say these words without breathing on them,
to give them to the page unbranded by the hand—
how can such a thing be done? Think of the widow
who covers her face with a man’s winter coat.
Think of the phantom whose shape will fill
that jacket for years and years, even after the scent
pulls loose from its quilting. How quickly a man
can clone his ghost just by being missed. How dutifully
absence can ransack a closet of disused clothes,
putting every outfit on. To invent and smite a man,
to push his widow’s nose into the smell of loss—
how can there be a poem without someone to blame?