‘Three Poems’, Third Place in Poetry

Three Poems 

by Annie Cao 



The first time I drowned, I was a child — 

 my head a wreath of daylilies swallowing the saltwater,

              as if it were a richness to be glorified. 

Within my throat, the cherub of an appetite

              splinters into existence. 

I start running; the water unsheathes its tongue

              & cries out. 


(Cordelia, you know I only love you for

the gossamer of your hair, 

              the softness your lungs make 

              when the brine fragments flesh. 


Don’t you remember how it felt to be untouchable, 

seawater puckering the slivers in your palms &

bubbles cradling your face like a vessel, 

              prettier than forgotten lethargies?) 


Three years ago I wore a coral garland & mercury 

rings on my fingers, listened to the sound of the

undercurrent flinching            blithe & 


              as I offered the tendons in my wrists. 

 I savored the heat off the sand & pretended it was

something unseen, the gulping of angelfish stealing

the storm from me, 

              the same sweetness the colorless foam breathes

              when my bones thaw & disperse. 


(Here lays a motherland for your obsessions, 

              the things you bleed over & worship unrevealed. 

 Cordelia, the voice of the coastline has

plagued you since the day you were


              tell me you haven’t dreamt away your slumber

with oyster pearls & abyssal naiads, tell me 

you’ll weep quietly when the tides butcher you

              like a creature of their own.) 


I unfold:

              the greatest thing I’ve ever done

was scrub the salt from my jaws 

& ask that it remain a magnetism

              to be pacified.


This time, the ocean closes me into a quiet emptiness.

I let myself drift to the sea floor, 

              scales & skin surrounding me in a milky veil,

              my hands a present uncovered.




Every version of prelude in resonance:  

When I was a child, the infection unfurled 


rampant, scarlet-bodied. Milked gardenia,

gouged alabaster, turgid hands combing


the swimming pool floor. From gossamer to

skin, compulsion worn soft pearl, my skull 


bridled in concrete — the lessons all forgotten.

I never spoke of bloodless mornings 


or copper-mouthed boys. I let tomorrow

hemorrhage itself to relic, electrifying in every iteration, 


my mother’s tears silvering the backs of my hands. 

In the epilogue, I’ll resurface prophetic: 


blind and sunswept, molten to crimson, 

the membrane of every undressed obsession 


swaying corpse-like from my jaws.



The Saltwater Theory


Languid, the remnants 

of paroxysmal obsession. 


Here is what I remember: rusted

palms shoved through rivulets of 


sand, the color pink — fingertips,

tender and weepy against foam, 


knees scrubbed unripe. Saltwater,

the cruel sting of it. I drift further 


into pomegranate currents, Neptune’s

mouth settling plaintively over my



Something rising. Fluttering, feverish

murmur. Saltwater, the cruel sting of 


it. A single crack is all it takes, the

carnivore sinking to its knees before me. 


Petrified — I am fertile with so much

ruination, my mind swaying against 


every iteration of hysteria that mortality

has driven through this flesh.



rising. I have already walked too far into 

the hurricane. I am girl turned acolyte 


before terror. I surrender, too late: this

will be my worst undoing. I am scared. 


I am begging now. Saltwater, the cruel

sting of it. I resurface, sobbing, my face 


scathing and slicked.