Poetry Second Place Winner: “how to learn a language” by Kaylee Chen

how to learn a language

Kaylee Chen

lesson 1: fly to a country you do not dare to call your own. taste the words that flow off the tongues of your relatives, and when you spit them out, a jam of syllables and accents, watch for the lemon-sour purse of their lips.
quick–laugh too loud, smile too wide when your grandmother buys you a stuffed panda, let your parents handle the thanks. let the fur muffle your misshapen gratitude instead.

lesson 2: tolerate a thousand stilted video call conversations
with your grandmother, realize you are looking for an escape
between every sentence, hiss when your mother grips you tighter.
you will ask her how do you say this in chinese?
and her phone will say connectivity issues
and while she answers your grandmother’s face will be frozen in a smile.

lesson 3: hear the arguments flare when they think you’re asleep
and let them fester in your memory when you lie awake.
remember, cancer is equally devastating in all languages.
remember, hospital bills are expensive in every country.
remember, your grandmother has curly hair, soft between your fingertips. remember, you must pronounce her name correctly when you start praying.

lesson 4: do not learn, and do not be surprised
when it kills you from the inside out.
your grandmother will die the way the syllables on your tongue always did– slow, painful, withering away into empty air.
so bite down, let the blood rise sharp and hot in your mouth,
feel a fraction of the pain she must have,
count how many times you told her i love you
and know that no matter how much you practice saying it now
it will never be enough.

lesson 5: listen to the things your mother whispers on her knees, the musk of incense seeping into the floorboards.
there is something familiar between the slats of her sentences,
the crevices of her cries, the way every word is soured with regret. speak in those lagging video calls with a grandfather

you are determined to call your own, let the words fall flat
and pick up their remnants, because at least you are trying, and maybe this time it is enough to say
wo ai ni.
i love you.
know that this is worth all the misshapen words in the world.